Balancing Roasting and the Café


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[W]e’re almost out of milk. It’s Monday morning at 11:00, and I’m staring at a line to the door with a dozen customers who hopefully want drip coffee because we only have enough milk for about five lattes. I have a meeting in thirty minutes, fifteen minutes away, with a developer who wants Summit Coffee to sign a lease for our fourth location. Meanwhile, I was planning to use this time to call back a potential wholesale customer who’s interested in our new geisha release but needs it mailed tomorrow.

It’s 11:05, and now we’re really almost out of milk. I send Slack messages around to a few staff members not currently dealing with this line, asking if anyone can grab some milk. The problem is, not just any milk will do because we source all of our milk from a local farm, and that quality is really important to us. So the milk needs to come from another one of our cafes, where there’s also a line and also a handful of staff not checking their phones (thankfully).

So I’m going to get milk, and on the way I’m calling the developer to tell him I’m running just a few minutes behind schedule. And never mind the wholesale customer who’s waiting to hear if we can send him coffee—I can get to him later, I’m sure. Sometime.

The roaster-retail paradigm for a coffee business makes so much sense, a terrific synergy of production and consumption. As a roasting business, we already have a built-in account that needs hundreds of pounds each week. We can roast to order, deliver whenever it’s necessary, and post on Instagram a fun video of the coffee’s transformation from green, to roasted, to packed, to delivered, to brewed, and enjoyed.

The roaster-retail paradigm for a coffee business makes so much sense, a terrific synergy of production and consumption.

Yet how do you grow into one business and still care enough for the other? Because when it comes down to it, the cafés are the breadwinner in this family. The success of the cafés allowed us to make the six-figure cash investment needed to build out a roasting business. So running out of milk is a bad idea.

All the while, this wholesale business is so new that it needs the TLC we’ve shown the retail operations for eighteen years.

Welcome to the greatest stress in our business, one that we share with so many other coffee shops that take the leap into roasting and wholesale. How in the world do you find the appropriate balance?

When we elected in 2015 to dive into roasting, it was part of a conscious movement of growth in that direction. A financial analysis helped determine that it was the most appropriate way to scale Summit Coffee, and so we sunk our profits into a pair of beautiful San Franciscan roasters, a training lab, and a whole lot of green coffee. It is, to this day, definitively our planned focus.

When the cafés run low on milk, however, it’s pretty loud in our lives. We’re still a relatively small operation, and I’m wearing hats of all shapes and sizes. We depend on success, and learned over nearly two decades how to achieve that success, so it’s hard to suddenly decide that milk is no longer my responsibility. I can’t just say that the small fires popping up every few hours aren’t worth my time or energy. Because they are.

I can’t just say that the small fires popping up every few hours aren’t worth my time or energy. Because they are.

What I keep reminding myself is to take a step back, delegate, and stay focused. If I keep schlepping goods from one café to the next, or filling in bar shifts when a barista calls out sick, the business will stall. The investment into the roasting business already happened, both emotionally and practically (our Wells Fargo bank account would agree with me). I’m not helping myself, my partners, or our staff if I let milk deliveries and washing dishes and grocery store trips take me from Monday to Friday and summer to fall.

Each business is structured differently, but the future of ours depends on my ability to grow it outside of the cafés. We’ve stretched beyond our current revenue means to hire and retain great people, because once we do grow we are going to need them. Put people in positions where we need them, give them the skills and tools to succeed, then get the hell out of the way. Chances are if I let the café run out of milk even one time, the manager would make it a point to never let it happen again.

It’s hard to see the forest through the trees. It’s hard to spend time pursuing the unknown wholesale clients that may bring unknown revenue streams when lattes and scones are making daily deposits in your bank account.

But what I keep coming back to is the need to trust the process. We didn’t jump into roasting without understanding how it would challenge our retail business. We did so knowing it would challenge us, and accepting that responsibility. Remembering to let the cafés wiggle from my grip, and in turn to wiggle from theirs, is not just a healthy exercise, it’s a requirement.

So run out of milk, make sure it never happens again, and go grow the business like you said you would.

Brian Helfrich is co-owner of Summit Coffee in Davidson, North Carolina.

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