Carolyn Frey on Expanding Philz Coffee Culture in Chicago

As chief people officer, Carolyn Frey cascades the mission of “Better People’s Day” from the C-suite to the baristas

Photo: Gillian Fry

On one of the first warm days in June, a line of people wrapped around a building in Chicago’s Wicker Park. Customers chatted patiently as someone walked by offering complimentary coffee and delicious food samples. The day was finally here: the soft launch of Philz Coffee’s first store in Chicago.

“The reception we received was just phenomenal,” says Carolyn Frey, chief people officer for San Francisco-based coffee chain. “The biggest surprise to us was how many transplants from the Bay Area came by. There were so many customers who had their first Philz experience in San Francisco or had a friend who knew of Philz and told them to go; or were so excited to have a little piece of home in Chicago.”

As Philz Coffee expands across America, Frey ensures that the culture cascades from the C-suite to the retail baristas in new Chicago locations.

Carolyn Frey Philz
Carolyn Frey, Philz CoffeePhoto: Gillian Fry

The most important thing to know is Frey is a die-hard Philz customer. When she first moved to the Bay Area, she went to the Philz closest to where she lived and loved the experience. Frey had been at her previous company for fifteen years when a friend told her about the chief people officer role that he had been contacted for at Philz Coffee—it wasn’t a good fit for him, and he had referred her.

“He said, ‘While you’re not the most traditional candidate, I think you’re exactly what they’re looking for.’ And as a loyal customer, and with an insatiable desire to learn, I had to meet with them,” she explains. “I never in a million years thought I would either get the job or be interested in leaving my former company.”

The company culture and mission of “Better People’s Day” drew her in. What made a difference was the work chemistry she has with CEO Jacob Jaber, son of founder Phil Jaber. It’s very important, Frey says, that you have chemistry with the person you are going to work for and that your values align with theirs.

Leaving the company that she had been with for fifteen years was a scary prospect. “But I knew all the right elements were there to make it a very worthwhile journey,” she says. “Philz places such an emphasis on people, so it’s not a traditional, behind-the-scenes HR role. It really is one of the most important functions in a company because we’re in the people business, not the coffee business.”

Photo: Gillian Fry

Philz Coffee has three core values: put the customer experience first, be quality driven and process focused, and be kind and keep it real.

Philz Coffee Core Values

Put the Customer Experience First

Employees put people first through personalizing every drink to the customer’s taste, one cup at a time, and treating all experiences as opportunities to positively impact someone’s day.

Be Quality Driven and Progress Focused

With respect to history and traditions, Philz always looks for ways to improve the customer’s experience.

Be Kind and Keep It Real

Employees are encouraged to bring their full selves to work and build connections with customers.

Every employee, from CEO Jacob Jaber to the barista, cares deeply about the mission—that’s about 1,200 team members across all locations. We all have different jobs, but everyone shares that and that’s a pretty special thing.

As a chief people officer, it could be a daunting task to help the culture permeate across roles. For Frey, it comes down to one thing: obsession on leading through our values.

Positive behaviors are called out, and everyone recognizes those behaviors and achievements. “It’s about talking about them, embodying them, and leading by example,” Frey says.


Retail workers judge a culture by its scheduling process. When you’re earning minimum wage and living paycheck to paycheck, it’s important to know that you’re going to be scheduled for the hours you need. And a business needs a certain number of hours covered.

In the industry, the scheduling focus is on the business. At Philz, employee preferences matter. When Philz wasn’t happy with any of the scheduling options available, it partnered with Legion Technologies to build a system that would provide a great team member experience.

At the time, Philz was Legion’s first customer. Philz invited Legion into the offices to work side-by-side to build a system that worked best for the Philz. For the next year, the Philz team worked alongside the Legion team—“literally sitting next to them and going back and forth all day, testing it with our team members.”

A team member puts in the number of hours they have to work as well as their preferred days and times. The system then generates a schedule that honors the needs of both the business and the employee.

“Legion not only enhances labor efficiency by automating areas that were formerly labor-intensive such as scheduling, but it also enables companies like Philz to better accommodate today’s workers, including their needs for flexible scheduling and location sharing,” says Sanish Mondkar, CEO and founder of Legion Technologies.

Frey and the Philz team love the final product created alongside Legion. “We felt like it puts more control on our team members versus a top-down scheduling system that you may or may not like,” she explains. “So many of our teams are going to have other jobs or other interests. It’s important to know that you can work and that the hours allow you to do the things you need to do outside of Philz.”

Carolyn Frey Philz
Photo: Gillian Fry

Philz Coffee is in fifty-two communities in five markets: San Francisco; San Diego; Los Angeles; Washington, DC; and now Chicago. Four locations—Wicker Park, Hyde Park, Lincoln Park, and Evanston—will open in 2019, and the market is perfect.

“There’s a pretty significant coffee culture in Chicago,” she says. “What we’re excited about is there’s nothing like a Philz, so there’s no kind of experience in the coffee that is similar to what we offer.”

With a successful launch in Wicker Park, Philz Coffee is on its way to making a mark in the Windy City.