Have you ever thought about what it would be like to try to introduce cat as a food in the US? How about cow manure as an energy source? No? How hard do you think it would be to open a fork store – nothing but forks – get your forks here! Well, that is what it is like to open a specialty coffee business in the Southeastern United States.
I’m not talking about what passes for urban in the southeast – I mean the majority of towns and cities in the southeast: semi-rural at best. I’m talking about the towns that have their own twenty-car parades on national holidays and a hometown paper that goes to print once a week. Are we not able to appreciate fine coffee? Are we not privy to the sacred hush-hush secrets of a true macchiato? When we wake in the morning, do we not desire a rich flavorful cup in addition to our caffeine? I say yes! Then why is it so hard to open a quality coffee business in this part of the country?
I fell in love with the dark mysterious brew as a teenager. Filled with musical and literary aspirations and riddled with hormones, I would sit at the Waffle House night after night, pouring out page after page of material, fueled by the fires of a bottomless cup of hot coffee. It was then, at age sixteen, that I began laying the foundation of a coffee empire – coffeehouse layout designs, marketing plans, capital proposals – I started doing my coffee business homework and I took it seriously. Fast forward ten years. Googling around the internet one day, I came across an odd site that talked about roasting your own coffee at home. At first, I thought it meant grinding your own coffee and I haughtily snuffled as I thought, “Humph, I’ve been doing that for years.”
But as I read on, I came upon what I can only call a moment of clarity. “Coffee loses 70% of its flavor and aroma within a month of roasting,” it said. My ears rang harshly in the silence as reality set in: I’VE BEEN HAD!!! I had never had a truly fresh cup of coffee in my life! Well there was that one time that the coffee was so good that in retrospect it must have come from the roasters that week, but at the time, I thought it was just being magnified by some recreationals I was partaking in. It was that day on the internet that I started down the rabbit hole of true coffee knowledge. I started roasting as a hobby (read as obsession), and before long, I was giving fresh roasted beans as gifts and even selling a little to some coworkers – you know, the first one’s free, but then it’s gonna cost you.
Suffice it to say that my entire view of coffee had a paradigm shift. I soon got into studying the world impact of the coffee trade and the plight of the farmers. That just made me want to support good coffee even more. So here it is, fifteen years after starting down this crazy coffee road and the time has come.
This month I am opening my first commercial coffee venture and believe me, as hard as I have studied, as much as I have learned, as many hours as I have strained to learn to taste the blueberry in a Harrar and the nuttiness in a Oaxaca, now that the time has come, I am scared to death. How do you sell a luxury specialty food item that a person doesn’t need to a populace whose most exorbitant weekly purchases include the good dog food and extra Freon in the car’s air conditioning? Well, you start with believing that there are other people in the community like yourself; those who can’t afford a luxury car, but can afford the best coffee money can buy to put in their morning cup or to keep them going at work or to wind down with at the end of the day. You start with them. You find them and you give them coffee. Yeah, you just give it to them.
You learn how to recognize them in the course of normal conversation and you offer them something they can’t get anywhere around these parts. Word of mouth has been my best friend these last few years of hobby roasting, and it has paid off in spades. It costs money to educate your customer, but in the end, it proves to be an investment. Sure, there are those that take a free bag of coffee because it’s free and never give it a second thought, but they weren’t going to be your customer anyway and now you know, so that’s good too. You can’t sell a specialty product to everyone – it’s not like light bulbs or washing detergent – you have a customer and you have to learn to recognize them so that when you start to advertise, you can point straight at them and not just blast away wildly.
Finally, you have to surmise the pace at which you can move your coffee business along. What I mean is, if you try to open a traditional Italian cafe out of the blue in the downtown district of Smalltownsville, Georgia, you are likely to earn yourself a nice bankruptcy. But if you start out being a roaster that sells online so you can keep yourself cash flow positive as well as selling to the community as you raise the level of coffee education, you will eventually hit a spot where you can open a coffee bar, maybe a coffee drive-thru, which eventually will slingshot you into a local market situation that will support a full service coffeehouse in addition to these other coffee businesses.
The coffee culture of the Southeast is not dismal nor is it non-existent; it is merely waiting to be released by the right entrepreneurs. So get in while the market is yours to create as you see fit. Focus on personal and community coffee education, and be willing to stair-step your way up to your ultimate coffee business plans. Your business will be more stable for it and you will reap the benefits of going where no one (or at least only a few) has gone before in your town.