Written by Christina Kurian Aug 29, 2016
We had the pleasure to sit down with the owner of Zombie Coffee and Donuts, Tony Raffa, as he discusses his experience with launching his own company. Zombie Coffee and Donuts is a self-serving coffee and donut service where coatings and toppings of the donuts are chosen by the customers themselves and made directly in front of the them.
Raffa’s goal as a child was similar to an engineer, due to his drive to build things. As he grew up, he gained experience, from helping his dad fix cars to breaking apart and fixing the only computer in his house.
“I used to love to tear things apart and rebuilt them and that sorts of stuff. I would drive my parents crazy,” Raffa said.
Now an adult, Raffa is not an engineer, but he was able to incorporate his childhood dreams through a different form.
Starting young, during his sophomore year of high school, Raffa hired two friends to be involved with Raffa Editing, where they designed websites, repaired computers, and worked on basic tech work. Raffa always had a pure interest in technology.
Zombie Coffee and Donuts is not just established in Athens, but also in Washington D.C., where it originally began. But before Zombie Coffee and Donuts, Raffa, as a freshman at the University of Georgia, was involved with the UGA Accelerator Program, an 8-week "business boot camp"that prepares students for the next step in their business development. He then co-founded DSY, a company where they built software for people.
“I love to get people involved in entrepreneurship because even though… most likely, companies are going to fail, it puts that bug into you and even if you don’t go to create another company, it changes your perspective and changes what your sense of achievement is,” Raffa said. “Your definition of success changes completely.”
Through the program with UGA, he also founded Bumpin’, a social networking app. He and his partner entered Bumpin’ into the UGA Entrepreneur Competition and advanced to the the semi-finals.
Raffa worked upon the idea of Bumpin’ and sold it to an associate building a frozen yogurt franchise, where they discussed their approach with self serving yogurt and coffee, which is how Zombie Coffee came about. He was interested in self-serve because it immerses customers from all ranges and various tastes.
While working on both his Tech Company and Zombie Coffee during his sophomore year of college, Raffa realized the rising potential of Zombie Coffee and decided to center his focus towards that. Using his associate’s frozen yogurt pop up carts, he ran pop up coffee shops all around D.C., which is how both the name and brand got marketized. From there, it took two years to open up about an 800 square feet store in D.C. with his investors. Zombie Coffee then was remodeled to be Zombie Coffee and Donuts with the addition of freshly fried dough.
Since Raffa is a current college student, he faced obstacles such as bootstrapping it in the beginning and raising the money to fund his programs. Raffa is a Business Management major and is finishing up his last semester here at UGA.
When people say that Raffa must be insane for starting companies while being in school, he tells them it’s a part of who he’s become--he feels empty without it. He would sometimes work for 18 hours each day without even realizing it because he was running off so much adrenaline from his passion for the business.
Zombie Coffee and Donuts’ being located in a college town has helped tremendously to bring success. Raffa hasn’t spend any money on marketing since the opening of the business this summer. It’s all been Athens, social media, and being socially impactful. People have come from all around Georgia to patron Zombie Donuts and Coffee, all because of a 10 second or less snapchat that encourages people to come visit.
“Zombie Coffee and Donuts does not want to simply be the Best Coffee and Donut Company IN the world, we want to be the Best Coffee and Donut Company FOR the world.”
The biggest lesson Raffa learned was from his software tech company. They were trying to expand their app, Bumpin’ by trying to add multiple different features, that eventually they had to scrap and start from the beginning, resulting in the waste of a lot of money.
“The biggest lesson I learned was that when you’re building any company at all, pick maximum of three things that define you and do nothing else if that makes any sense,” Raffa said. “The three I chose were is that I want to do self-service coffee well, I want to do donuts well, and then I want to be socially impactful to the community. Those were my three things. Those were what defined my company, and I’m not doing anything else until then. I have stuff where I want to do mini-donuts, I want to change a lot of things, but I’m not touching any of that until I feel like everything is perfected. That’s the biggest lesson I learned, perfect it and then add on more stuff.”
Raffa has always had the desire to run business that will impact society and believes that is what brings the success as well. It helps with not only marketing, but also donations and having people talk about it. With every purchase at Zombie Donuts and Coffee, the customer receives a wooden nickel, which can be placed in one of the three local charity boxes at the restaurant. At the end of the month, the charity box with the most receives 5% of the overall sales.
“The reason I do it that way is because it works on two fronts besides the fact that giving the money is great, but also especially in a student environment, it teaches everyone about the local charities,” Raffa said.
Chestnut Community was the first charity winner. People having been asking about it daily ever since. For Raffa, the store is a way to give back to the city that has given him so much, Athens.