People often say the holidays “sneak up” on them. What they usually mean by this is they’ve kept telling themselves they had more time to get everything done until they didn’t have enough time to get everything done. For most people, holidays and “hectic” are synonymous. For most coffee roasters, hectic is an understatement.

Because coffee makes a great gift, can help us get through both busy days and cold days, and is always welcomed after a meal, it is naturally associated with the end of year holiday season; and also because countless children over the years have had to sit, quietly drooling over the presents under the tree because the adults had to brew a pot of coffee first. After Halloween, retail stores of almost every kind become increasingly busy. This includes, of course, those that sell coffee, brewed and/or otherwise.

For coffee roasters, this all translates into your busiest days of the year and some extra-long days of roasting, packing, and shipping. Not all of the holiday storm surge can be anticipated. Perhaps the best advice for surviving the holiday season is to remain flexible and ready to adapt to circumstances. In fact, that’s our first tip.

Expect the Unexpected

Whenever someone tells you to expect the unexpected, you might want to slap them. It doesn’t seem like very helpful advice. It sounds like the whole “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” thing. There might be some reasoning behind it but it still sounds like doublespeak. So, before you take a swipe at us, we’ll tell you what we mean by this in preparing for the holiday season.

Expect the unexpected is just a clever (and more memorable) way of identifying the need for contingency planning, which is a less poetic phrase. Contingency planning is always a good idea, but when you expect your resources to be stretched thin and your decision making windows to narrow, contingency planning is critical.

Formal contingency planning for large corporations can be a complicated affair that seeks to address as many variables as possible if something goes wrong. For a coffee roaster approaching the holidays, it can be a simple list of things that could go wrong during your highest volume months of the year and how you might address those problems.  Generally speaking, these are things that have gone wrong before rather than catastrophes or unlikely events you’ve never experienced. For example:

  • Your roaster breaks down the week before Thanksgiving (or bag sealer or weigh and fill).
  • That bag order doesn’t show up (or label order, tin tie order, or boxes).
  • Your delivery driver or other key staff quits or gets really sick.
  • Computer system or accounting systems or internet service goes down hard.

If your answer to any of these potential problems is, “We’re screwed,” you probably have not been roasting coffee for a very long time. But that’s not the case, of course. You know the closest coffee roaster willing to give or sell you time on their machine (even if it’s the 12 am – 5 am shift), right?

All Hands On Deck

If you’re a small roasting operation, every day is probably all hands on deck. Nobody really has a job descriptions because everybody “flows to the work” and does what needs to be done. If you’re a slightly larger than small roaster, large enough that job titles actually reflect what people do most of the time, now is the time to remind everyone that after Halloween, job descriptions and vacations go on ice. Maybe you’re large enough that people can take vacations in November, but if you’ve ever worked a 14 hour day roasting, bagging, and boxing coffee, as soon as you have “people,” holidays are time to return to a flow-to-the-work approach. Everyone, from sales people to accounting staff, should be prepared to bag and box coffee if needed.

Gots to Have The Coffee

We’re going to make a huge assumption here. You keep an eye on your volume trends. You know how much coffee you roasted in August of 2017 compared to August 2016 and the year over year numbers before that. Better yet, you know volume trends down to the week year over year. You know your Year-To-Date volume on roast days (not just dates) for 2017 compared to 2016. You’ve used these numbers to anticipate the volume increase (or not) for the last two months of 2017, and you have ordered green coffee appropriately and it is in the house or on the way (i.e. on the road, not on the water), adjusting for significant accounts in number or size lost or gained. If this is not true, stop reading this blog post after this paragraph and compare last year’s numbers to this year’s numbers and the percentage increase to anticipated inventory for, say, November 13th through the end of the year. If you discover a shortfall, look at the Olam spot coffees for the warehouse nearest you and cover the gap. Do it now.

Over Communicate to Wholesale Accounts*

The only coffee people more hectic during the holidays than coffee roasters are coffee retailers. You need to remind them as many times and in as many ways as possible that they not only need to order up for the holidays, but order in anticipation of the days you will not be roasting.

Hopefully, you have at your fingertips the volume of coffee they ordered last year and, in the notes, details about desperate calls they may have made when they were running out of coffee. When a coffeehouse opens without coffee they are not a coffeehouse, they are a teahouse, a traumatic experience that should be flagged throughout your CRM system, or whatever method you use for recording customer interactions. Customers with specific histories that leave you concerned should receive direct, one-on-one communication about their orders. All customers, beginning the day after Halloween, should receive reminders about anticipated volume increases and days closed for roasting at every touch point you have. If you take their orders over the phone, remind them. If they order online, remind them online. Remind them on their invoices and in email newsletters.

*This is also true, though to a lesser extent, of your direct sales to consumers online.

Even when we try to prepare for the holidays as coffee sellers and buyers at any point in the coffee chain, we cannot be prepared for everything. That would be really boring anyway. But if we minimize the chaos by preparing for the things we can anticipate, we will have more time and energy to respond to the things we cannot anticipate. But, you know, don’t quote us on that.