Do-Overs in Coffee: How to Get a Fresh Start

By Trish Rothgeb

Recently, I was asked to sit on a panel with a handful of other industry people to discuss, “How we got here.” Which apparently meant, as one of my colleagues so insightfully and somewhat facetiously observed, “We must have arrived!”

My response was: “Really? Hey, that’s great!”

The reality was more like this: We five panelists squirmed in our seats, hemmed, hawed, and generally tried to sound wise as we answered questions from a room full of baristas at the Mid-Atlantic/Northeast Artisan Coffee Conference in Rhode Island. I don’t know about the others, but it became increasingly apparent to me during the course of this discussion that perhaps I wasn’t the best person to ask about careers—you know, about making A Plan and working The Plan. My career plan has been revised countless times; I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve thought, “Ok, time to start fresh! I’ll do it my way this time!” So, how did I advise the audience when the final question was asked, “Can you tell us what you’re planning to do next?”

To tell you the truth, I botched the answer to that question. As is typical, I thought of a way better answer later that day. So, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to ask for do-overs on the question posed that day.

So, what are you planning to do next?

Well, funny you should ask. My answer is that I AM starting fresh and doing it my way. Along with co-conspirator, Nicholas Cho, I am attempting to create the kind of coffee company I always wished I could work for, a concept that I have unwittingly been formulating for almost 20 years now.

Just a few years ago, we may have been a bit apprehensive about launching a specialty coffee enterprise, but because of what we know today we can be a lot more confident. I’m not just talking about the seemingly recession-proof, ironic nature of the specialty coffee (and food) market. Through this downturned economy, our coffee friends and colleagues have seen their businesses grow as specialty finds an increasing audience. From more and more restaurants brewing better coffee, to Cup of Excellence selections showing up on the shelves at Target stores, the market is clearly a long way from hitting its peak. So, interestingly, we can say that now is the time to begin a new coffee venture. And from the looks of things, we won’t need to dumb it down either.

We’re going up-market and just focusing on the tip-top (85+ on your SCAA cupping forms) coffees, with stories of source and intricate descriptions and anything else that might peg us as fancy-pants. This is not a new idea by any means, but it does deserve a mention, if only to bolster the concept that quality drives business.

I know enough now to know that turning customers to quality is not the stretch we once thought it was. Our case needs to be made to one consumer at a time, in a thoughtful and earnest manner, and I want to do that close up and personal.

This company will be based on local sales, within a set and limited radius. Yes, I’ve heard how much money I’m leaving on the table by eliminating web sales and mail order. This company is about building a community as much as anything else. Local support is what sustains a small coffee company and it’s what builds a long-lasting brand. I want the neighborhood to see the coffee company as theirs just as I want them to be my customers. Freshly roasted coffee delivered without delay is another great argument for a local focus. Time will tell if we see a “greener” or more efficient operation as a result, but there is a good chance our carbon footprint might look pretty good. Being local also means we can train better and educate our customers more comprehensively.

Training is a cornerstone of this company. Over the years, my almost ridiculous fixation on baristas and tending coffeebar has not waned. Although I am basically a roaster, I’ve always been clear about how the message is told. It is not impossible to get restaurants and wholesale customers to understand coffee and to embrace preparation as a craft. Years ago, I might have expected that corners would be cut, or that my lofty rhetoric would be humored and politely ignored. Now I know that this is sound business practice. If the training is bland, the coffee will be too.

It is clear to me that doing it all over again means understanding where I have fallen short in the past. If there have been mistakes, they can all be traced to second-guessing my instincts. Doing it my way will be a test, in some ways, to see if I can bring my pie-in-the-sky visions into reality. With everything I know now after twenty-ish years—good solid coffee knowledge, seeing trends become tradition, watching the public clamoring for more, not less—I’m confident.

For anyone starting their first coffee business, I’m right there with you, standing on the shoulders of those who paved the way in this industry while buying a fresh copy of QuickBooks and wondering how much my gas bill is going to be. But the thing is, I’ve been through this sort of thing before, and I’m right back doing it again because specialty coffee is rewarding and fulfilling in a really special way. So whether you’re an old dog like me or like one of those fresh-faced folks in the audience in Rhode Island about to embark on your first coffee venture, know that this industry can support you when you do it your way!

Trish Rothgeb is the owner, green coffee buyer, and roastmaster at Wrecking Ball Coffee. Her experience in the industry spans more than 20 years as a coffee roaster, green coffee buyer, and teacher of all things coffee. She is a licensed Q-Grader and credentialed Q Trainer by the Coffee Quality Institute, has served on the SCAA’s Roasters Guild Executive Council, was a charter member of the World Barista Championship Board of Directors and is a founding member of the Barista Guild of America.