March 17, 2016

Are You Becoming a Specialty Coffee Roaster in a Non-Specialty Area?


Becoming a roaster can seem difficult; becoming a roaster in a rural area can seem impossible. Yet as a rural specialty coffee roaster in an area where I alone am responsible for pushing Third Wave coffee culture, I’m here to tell you that that’s not true.

Lee este artículo en español ¿Te Estás Convirtiendo en Tostador de Café de Especialidad en una Zona No Especializada?

Why Roast in a Rural Area?

I moved to a rural community in the Midwest where, even in the neighboring metropolitan areas an hour away, the Third Wave hadn’t yet reached. Having come from places where amazing specialty coffee was abundant, I knew I couldn’t cope without it. And as they say, necessity is the mother of all invention.

If you happen to live in a rural (or even urban) area which specialty hasn’t yet reached, there is no reason why you shouldn’t take responsibility for driving the Third Wave there – even if you’re not a roasting expert!

Two years ago, I bought a popcorn popper from our local department store, ordered some beans from Sweet Maria’s, and took my chances. And I was immediately hooked.

I loved, not only the roasting, but everything else I was learning about coffee: the tree varieties, the unique characteristics of the coffee-growing regions, the different processing methods, and so much more. A thrilling new world was opening before me.

roasting coffee in a popcorn machine

You’ve gotta start somewhere…

Bringing Third Wave to the Countryside

At first, I was just roasting for myself. However, within just a month, I was selling fresh-roasted coffee to friends, neighbors, and family.

I soon discovered a rewarding part of this business: coffee drinkers who have never tasted freshly-roasted specialty coffee are blown away by how good it is. They’re easily ruined to normal coffee forever, becoming instant coffee snobs (and customers).

SEE ALSO: The S-Curve Roast Profile: Exploring Roasting Basics

Just because the Third Wave hasn’t yet reached where you live, that doesn’t mean there’s not a market for it.

it started in the garage

The proverbial US American “It started in a garage” story…

Becoming a Business

So now that we’ve looked at why you should become a specialty coffee roaster in a rural area, and why you can succeed, it’s time to look at how.

A lot of the information online may be intended for urban entrepreneurs, but that doesn’t mean you can’t extract something useful from it. Last September 4th, Australian roaster D. Smith wrote here on PDG about making a career out of coffee roasting. It couldn’t have been a more timely article for me. That very same day, on the other side of the globe, I received authorization from the (U.S.) State of Iowa to legally operate as an inspected and licensed “food processing plant.” It was one important step on my path from a hobbyist home roaster to a coffee roasting professional and small business owner.

While you could argue that the authorization was the most important of the two events (seriously, don’t forget to check all the legal aspects of opening your own business), Smith’s article was invaluable for me. Sure, I couldn’t borrow someone’s roaster, like he suggested – but from my experience so far, I fully affirm his first two pieces of advice for what it takes to make a career out of roasting coffee: passion and people skills.

  • Passion and People Skills

You’ll need the passion to carry you through the incredible amount of work – on many different fronts – that it takes to start a business and learn to roast like a pro. And you’ll need the people skills to network like crazy.

Coffee and business alike are all about relationships. Your relationships with importers, direct trade partners, accountants, business partners, wholesale partners, online store customers, social media fans, your family (when you’re working your tail off and not home), and on and on. Remember when I talked about bringing the Third Wave to the countryside through my friends, family, and neighbours?

  • Your Business Plan

I’m of the “coffee is a craft first, a business second” mindset, but it’s still business. You have to be financially sustainable or you’re not going to be able to do what you love.

When I began to realize that I might be onto a legitimate business opportunity, I started doing a lot of research on starting new small businesses, entrepreneurship, startup financing, and so on.

I also drafted a rough 3-year business plan with financial projections that showed possible profitability by the end of year three. While I eventually secured business startup financing and hired an accountant, going through the exercise of making financial projections myself – to the best of my limited ability – was a crucial step. Even if you won’t be the one keeping books and paying taxes, you need to understand it and have realistic growth projections.

  • Local Initiatives

Along with all my research and planning, I entered a “Pitch & Build” contest through our area’s Economic Development agency – and won! Unfortunately, there weren’t any cash prizes, yet it was a good affirmation that I was on the right track.

Competitions like this can function as tests for your business plan, and they may also offer financial support and publicity. Look into local contests and initiatives.

roasting on a fluid-bed roasterMonitoring a roast on a commercial fluid-bed roaster.

A Roastery Isn’t Built in a Day

Remember when I said about my business plan possibly projecting profit by the end of year three? This isn’t a quick profit-making scheme; it’s going to take time.

I spent my first full year as a hobby roaster growing a loyal group of local customers in my small town. That was invaluable experience, as it gave me a chance to hone my craft as a roaster (even with my rudimentary home-roasting tools) as well as practice at making new customers and keeping them happy over the long-term.

And, while I wait for that magic profit-making moment, I run this business on the side of a normal day job that pays the bills.

Plan for the long-term – and make sure you can support yourself in the short-term. In this way, you’ll be around long enough for your business to grow.

small red brick houseComing soon…

There are so many aspects of starting a business as a micro-roaster, from sourcing coffee to facilities and beyond. And there are a million little details that you can’t ever fully anticipate. But if you’ve got a passion for coffee, good people skills, and a good people network, you just might have what it takes to start something great.

Feature Photo Credit: Shea Hennessy

Perfect Daily Grind.