Thirty six years ago I had my first cup of coffee. I was on a plane, traveling from NY to California, alone. I was 7. My mother boarded me at LaGuardia, and my grandparents would pick me up in San Fransisco. I had only smelled coffee previously, and I liked what I knew of it. So here was my chance, alone, unsupervised, and with a full beverage cart at my disposal. The flight attendant (ahem, stewardess, it was 1984) asked what I wanted to drink. “I’ll have a coffee,” I said, in my usual Joe Basilone “I know what I’m talking about, don’t you dare question me” tone of voice that has somehow kept me alive for 43 years. She responded “how do you take it?” I was stumped. I knew my grandparents drank black coffee, and they were cool. And I wanted to be cool, so I said, “black.” I’ve only seen this look one other time in my life, when I ordered the soup “Thai spicy,” and that is a story for another time. I never looked back, though I had an affair with half and half that lasted the better part of the 1990’s.
Twenty nine years ago I would take the bus to the mall after school a few times a week, just to have a $1 espresso at the pizza shop on the upper level. Back then it was more sugar for me than espresso, and it came served in a styrofoam cup. That Christmas I saved up enough money to buy my first espresso machine, a $50 Krups on sale at the mall. I figured at $1 a shot, the machine would pay for itself in no time. I hooked it up in my room, right next to the blender I won as a church door prize. My parents must have thought I was crazy.
Twenty three years ago I made the decision to leave college and join the circus. The year was 1998 and *the only* coffeehouse in Gainesville, FL was for sale. I was in college and supposedly studying Religion and Philosophy at the time when I got the word from my former boss that he was thinking of packing it up and leaving town. He asked if I knew anyone that might have ten grand, and I was like, “Yeah, sure.” A couple months later, two defaulted students loans (and a relative who believed in me more than she should have) and there I was, 50% owner of what would be in so many ways a life-changing place.
Twenty years ago this August, Melissa and I left everything behind, moved to Chicago, and made it our home. I went to work almost right away for what is now a legendary Chicago coffee company (but don’t tell them that, their heads are already big enough.) I worked with and befriended some of the most amazing people, many of whom went on to be the people who are still driving the very industry I consider myself lucky to be a small part of. And I learned, most importantly, that the deeper your connection to the coffee is, the more impact you can have on all of the lives you touch. For something that so long was defined only as a commodity, now it became this amazing cup of incredibleness that had the power to bring the entire world together. I was hooked, line and sinker, and like Jack I traded everything for the promise of these magical beans.
Eighteen years ago I took a position with the biggest coffee company (no, not that one) I could never have imagined working for. It was a place that felt immediately like home, and honestly, was probably the most impactful and influential. It was there I learned the art of being a coffee retailer. They took care of the hard part, which was supplying an amazing core product. We just created the experience that made people’s day better. I had the good fortune of growing from a single unit manager to running a fifteen million dollar book of business, over 20 stores. As a perk, myself and a small group of other folks were chosen to travel to the La Minita coffee farm in Costa Rica to spend a week during harvest season, immersing ourselves in the only part of the process that I had never fully been exposed to: from seed to sack, the journey of our coffee from when it’s planted through when it’s processed and shipped from origin. You thought I was hooked before? Not one single day goes by where I don’t think about that place, and how lucky I was to experience it first hand.
Thirteen years ago I went to work for the biggest coffee company you’ve never heard of. You know why? Because their entire business is private label. You’ve never heard of them, but I can almost guarantee you’ve drank their coffee. How do I know? Well, they roast some of ours, for starters. But they also roast for a list of customers that you’d never believe! And if I learned anything from them (and I learned so much!) it is the power of building your own brand. And I am here to tell you that if we wouldn’t have taken that philosophy out of the gates with Perkolator, we likely would not have survived this pandemic.
Ten years ago, we decided to open a resale shop. Two years later we made headlines across the globe with our New Years resolution to “buy nothing new for an entire year.” The next year we bought the coffeehouse across the street (see...those lattes *do* add up!) The winter after that we took the lease on the adjacent space with the intent of roasting our own coffee, but after finding out how much it would cost to make that space actually accommodate a roaster, we quickly changed course. Until this past January, that space was “Sputnik,” our little satellite bookstore and record shop. It wasn’t the Roastery we dreamed of, but it filled a need in the community and allowed us to make that space viable. As a stand-alone business, it would have never worked. But as an accompaniment to an already great cafe, it was a knock-out.
Enter 2020. This was going to be the year everything came together! And in a way, it was. January of last year we sold off the remaining record inventory to actually increase our dine-in seating capacity, which (while painfully funny in retrospect) was completely on-brand with our family luck o’ meter. Remarkably, we were lucky enough to embark on a dream vacation with the folks in February, right before the world as we knew it came crashing down around us all.
March 17th 2020 we ceased all retail operations at both locations and furloughed our entire team, some of whom had been with us since the beginning. We knew things were getting bad really quickly, and instead of playing defense, we wanted to take a proactive stance and protect as best we could the health of our employees, ourselves, our community and our businesses. We quickly came up with this “temporary” idea of delivering fresh roasted coffee to peoples doorsteps! If they couldn’t come into our coffeehouse, how could we bring our coffeehouse into their home? What started as a temporary business plan with a goal of 100 families has turned into several hundred families and is now 60% of what we do as a company. Due to the nature of business in the era of covid, we were forced to make a tough decision and part ways with our thrift shop. But that pivot has allowed us to have laser-like precision with our focus on our remaining business.
Previously we were unable to roast because of infrastructure issues. Over the last couple of years, a company on the west coast has developed what I would call the “Tesla of coffee roasters” (which for a stick-shift Jeep guy like me, seems like a non-starter.) This machine is 100% self-contained and requires no venting. Which means that while it has a higher upfront cost than most traditional roasters, it does not require an expensive build out in someone else’s building. It’s also cheaper to run, more environmentally friendly, and designed to make roasting more accessible. Where one year ago today this machine would have been an impossibility for us, because of how our business has changed due to covid, it’s become a necessity!
Less than a year ago, Melissa and I thought we were done. We had started to sell off inventory and equipment and fixtures, made deals with vendors and landlords, pooled together what remaining cash we could find all in an attempt to batten down the hatches and weather the storm. But once again, our community came to the rescue, and when we said we thought we’d be able to survive if they would each buy a bag of coffee a week, you know what they did? They bought a bag of coffee for themselves, and a bag for their neighbors. Friends from out of town, and from our childhood, did the same! Even a state senator bought a few hundred pounds and gave it to those with food insecurities. Hundreds of pounds were bought and distributed to first responders and covid testing sites. Hundreds more sent worldwide as holiday gifts. We said we could do it with your help, and you helped us, and here we are doing it. And we’re not going to stop! While our cafe is partially reopened, it’s still the subscription and internet business that is keeping us alive. And this machine allows us to make it even better. With total control of what we source, what we roast, when we roast, and everything in between, our business is now positioned to be even stronger when finally we can fully re-emerge from the damage that covid has done. We are so proud of this milestone, but even more proud to now be counted among the manufacturers of America. It’s an exciting day for our family, and an exciting day for our neighbors. Our coffee is now roasted in Portage Park, Chicago, USA!
Today, on the same day we took delivery of our roaster, NASA landed the Perseverance on the surface of Mars. They’re almost cousins, that rover and our roaster. And if the last twenty years has taught us anything, it is that just when you are ready to give up, the most exciting things are about to happen. It’s no coincidence that what took me twenty plus years to figure out materialized in just a year of Melissa being fully on board in this side of the business. She’s a machine. She takes my crazy, and harnesses it into success. One more overnight success that took twenty years, a community full of people, a global pandemic, and lots and lots of stumbles and failures in between.
So who wants coffee?