Olam Coffee customers are welcome to submit first-person accounts of life in the coffee industry for consideration as “guest posts.” Opinions expressed in guest posts are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Olam Coffee or The Olam Group. Our thanks to Xavier Alexander, Co-Founder and Owner at Metric Coffee for today’s guest post. 

Last week, as I was sifting through work emails, I noticed a message from Olam that caught my eye with an article titled “So, I’m thinking about Starting a Roasting Business.” I was prompted to shoot a text over to Brandon Thiessen (without reading the article at that point) and told him, “I sure hope you guys have a follow-up article that will be called ‘Why You Shouldn’t Think About Opening Your Own Roaster’” to which he said, “I’ll put you in touch with our marketing department so that you can write a blog post about it.” Of course, after realizing that it sounded like kind of a jerky response from someone like me who did, in fact, open a roasting works in Chicago, I took it upon myself to actually read the article and found it to be both informative and very matter of fact.

The bottom line remained: do I really feel that people shouldn’t start their own roasting companies? Absolutely not! The thing that is often missing from these articles are the very real pitfalls that come from starting a roasting company, and that is what I’d like to discuss while offering solutions that worked for my company, Metric Coffee, early on. Below are some general thoughts on opening a roaster, and 10 key points I consider vital if you are actively launching your brand.

The Age of Nano

It’s no news to you that our industry is growing very fast. It seems like every other week you see a new roaster popping up across the street from you or in your neighborhood. A Serious Eats article written by Nicholas Cho, “New Trends in Coffee: The Age of the Nano-Roaster,” discusses the genesis of the third wave, multi-roaster programs, and new models in coffee importing. In the article, Cho highlights the advent of the nano-roasters and the little secrets that come with many of these newly established companies. A lot of folks, while well-intended, haven’t spent much time behind a roaster, much less at a cupping table, and that can make the journey a little rocky. Understanding proper roast development or identifying cup defects are things that should concern all of us dealing in the specialty market. Without these systems, it becomes much harder to share a unified industry vision of what a clean, well-processed, great tasting coffee should taste like to your average coffee drinker.

Education is King

I encourage each and everyone of you who are considering taking the plunge to consider education first. Great chefs often start as dishwashers and then spend years training before moving up to the big seat. For me, I spent my early years schlepping and clamping bags, and flavoring okay coffee in syrups before I got serious enough to want to learn what good coffee is. Paying my dues early on allowed me to get acquainted with the true expectations of running my own company while receiving on the job training, which is paramount. For some professionals in our industry, hoarding knowledge is their modus operandi. But for others, teaching folks the art of development and cupping are the ideals we want to journeyman under. Finding a mentor, especially one that is open to sharing their approach, will help you develop your own style and more importantly, teach you how to quantify making changes to your coffees for the better.

Year Zero

Hopefully you’re going in to it with some prior knowledge of this industry and your place in it. In my experience, the first year is a lot of trial and error and doing your best to compel your circle of friends and peers to support your brand. What’s in store for you in the first year is figuring out how to feed your new baby, knowing exactly how you want to dress it, and sleeping in fear that it might get sick and die. I know that sounds morbid but the reality is, if you are not prepared to experience a full range of emotions from high highs to low lows, then this might not be the business for you. For me, even though I thought I had a good grasp of our local and national market and connections, on day one (before the first roast, before the first account was landed), nobody really seemed to care. What we learned is that every successful company has staying power, much like Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers or Bruce Springsteen have in their respective field.  It involves tenacity and underlying passion to make a roasting works a reality.

What to Expect

If your goal is to establish a roasting operation to roast for your own café and you have no aspirations to share your coffee all across North America, having a solid, in-house program is easier to attain. For those of us who want to give it a go at competing with the bigger local guys, expect lots of “Who are you again?” and “Do you have anything cheaper?” The truth is, if you aspire to establish a reputable wholesale operation with hundreds of clients, price matters. Period. So if you’re buying spot coffees from anywhere in the two to four dollar price range, and say your total cost of goods and labor means your bag costs you five dollars a pound to produce, wholesaling for a competitive seven or eight dollars per pound doesn’t leave too much meat on the bone. Set realistic expectations.

Before You Fire Up the Roaster

If I have strung you along until now it may be because you are hoping, or perhaps expecting, I have a point to all of this, and I promise you I do. While I do not pride myself in writing much in general, I am definitely passionate about our industry and wanted to offer a few words of wisdom or foolery, which ever way you see it. Here are a few of my recommendations before you get ready to launch your brand.

  • Prove your concept alone or with the right partner. Before taking grandma’s cash to open your own brand, channel your energy and money to building a good presence from day one. Having a solid mission statement that defines you and your business, quality marketing materials, and clean packaging will help you stand apart from the competition and also anchor your business as it grows.
  • Don’t cut corners. Focus on hiring the best designer possible to make your brand shine. It doesn’t matter how much you know excel, or if you have a Masters in Business Administration, if your logo and branding suck, you’re going to have a tougher time in the market.
  • Buy good coffee. To your benefit, many importers, including my friends at Olam, have made great spot lots accessible to smaller roasters. Connecting with a trader that understands your vision for your coffee program can help in steering you in the right direction.
  • Considering toll roasting. Nowadays, there are places like the Pulley Collective in New York that let you time-share a roaster. This will allow you to slowly build your brand without taking a huge risk on a ten-year lease and roaster you’ve bought on a credit card.
  • Cup everyday. You should always know what your coffees are tasting like. Also, being calibrated with your trader will always help you know which coffees you’d like to buy.
  • Share the swag. Once you have a solid brand to present, merchandise to go along with it, and preferably well designed custom bags (because people like that). Become your own minister of propaganda. Sharing what you love will undoubtedly attract the right people but do not lose heart when you hear “no,” and you WILL hear it a lot.
  • Like the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” This applies to wholesale accounts serving your coffee. If you equip each account with the knowledge to make better coffee, you will likely have a solid account (that represents your brand well) for years to come.
  • Make friends in the industry. Everyone has a friend that cooks, runs a catering service, has a plug at a local shop. Before you shove samples in to people’s hands, develop a human connection with these people because you ARE your own brand, they are investing in you.
  • Build a website portal. I still hear about medium to larger sized roasters taking orders by phone or email. This is the 21st century and if you don’t get with it and figure out how to make ordering simple, it will mean the difference between orders lost or no orders at all.
  • It’s not you, it’s your coffee: Don’t be offended by people’s potentially bad perception of your coffee. While you may cup your coffee and notice positive characteristics, someone will always find a flaw in it. The beautiful thing about coffee is, if it’s well-sourced, properly roasted, and presented humbly, most people will love it.

With all of this said, my intentions with this follow-up was to add to what Zach had stated in his article, which were all valid points to heed, and also add a few key factors that helped my business grow from 300 lbs. a week to 5,000. The numbers obviously change (i.e. more people, more marketing dollars, more equipment etc.) but the initial intentions are all the same and that is: We wanted to make good coffee in Chicago and are managing to achieve that due to a shared vision among the people involved, time and experience in the market, and most importantly, patience. If you think you’re ready for the long and hard journey ahead, I think you’re ready to fire up that roaster.