October 9, 2017

Selling Specialty Coffee in a 2nd Wave Market? Read These Tips


So you want to open up a specialty roastery or coffee shop. Well, I’ve got good news and bad news for you: you can do it, but you may have to rethink your approach.

When I first opened as Anchor Coffee Co., a roaster/retailer in the rural south of the US, I thought that I could change everyone’s ideas about coffee. But in the process of starting and growing my business, I learned some hard lessons about engaging your market by offering what people really want.

Let me share with you these lessons – and how you can use them to succeed.

Spanish Version: ¿Vendiendo Café de Especialidad en Mercados de Segunda Ola? Lee Estos Consejos


The Anchor Coffee Co. roastery. Credit: Gregory Brady

Understand Your Market

The coffee scene in North Carolina is full of great specialty roasters and third wave coffee shops. Companies like Counter Culture and Carrboro Coffee are nationally recognized brands that have been making waves in the coffee world for years. With that in mind, I thought I could take specialty coffee to my hometown of North Wilkesboro, NC.

What I didn’t understand is that the market in North Wilkesboro is different from that of Durham, where Counter Culture is based. I was facing a market for whom coffee is a tool to be used to get through the day – and most people had minimal interest in specialty. Even now, people in North Wilkesboro tend to drink things that are comfortable rather than new and exciting.

Sometimes we, as coffee folks, think that winning a market means forcing our ideas on others. And to begin with, that is exactly what I tried to do. But I soon realized that I needed to listen to what my market was saying, find ways to communicate specialty to them, and ultimately produce products that our customers will enjoy.

Key tips: Listen to what your customers are saying, pay attention to the other shops in the area, and understand that coffee markets can change dramatically over just a short distance.

coffee cupping

Ready to begin cupping coffee. Credit: Gregory Brady

Be Flexible

When I first started, we would try to sell high-quality washed Ethiopian coffees to small family-owned coffee shops – and then wonder why they wouldn’t pick us up as their provider. So not only did we have to understand our market, but we also needed to set aside our egos and change direction.

SEE ALSO: Marketing Specialty: Why Is Coffee Education Boring?

Instead of focusing on wholesale, we decided to start a retail space for our community. What’s more, we remained open-minded and ready to listen. Ego will turn off any potential customers, so the whole “my coffee is better” attitude can destroy a business’ reputation.

This became one of the most enlightening moments in my life as a coffee professional. Having that relationship between the roaster and consumer cemented the importance of practicality – after all, it’s only coffee.

And changing our operations opened up the doors for conversation with our customers and allowed us to do what we love: provide good-quality coffee to a new and developing market.

Key tips: Be flexible with your plans. Leave behind your egos and preconceived notions.

coffee roaster

The Easyster coffee roaster. Credit: EASYSTER Coffee

Seek Out Customer Feedback

Sometimes we forget that not every customer is the same. Some don’t want the brightest or most flavorful coffee, while others are looking for complexities beyond the average person’s palate. This means that maintaining a variety of quality coffees is an advantage from a business standpoint.

By having a variety of coffees, you can meet customers where they are in their coffee journey, creating positive engagement that will lead them to return for more. This also creates opportunities for them to explore different coffees and develop their palate. Customers tend to stick to what they know but may step out of their comfort zone when they develop trust with a brand.

So how did we create a varied menu that will resonate with our customers, no matter their stage on the journey? By listening to them.

Rather than purchasing coffees based only on the cupping scores and flavor notes, we started sampling out coffees that importers had sent us and asking for feedback. Anyone in specialty coffee knows that feedback from consumers can be scary, especially as a roaster/retailer. Yet once we began sourcing coffees that cater to our customer base’s palate, we saw a change in attitude towards what they thought was pretentious.

This isn’t to say that customer feedback can entirely replace cupping coffee, but it did help us when making our purchasing decisions. Approachable coffee will easily translate into sales, which in turn allow for expansion into new markets.

Key tips: Listen to feedback and create a varied menu.

coffee cupping

Barry leads a public cupping with students from Wilkes Central High School. Credit: Gregory Brady

Create Value

When trying to convert consumers to specialty – because this is, after all, your ultimate goal – you need to create meaning for them. Give specialty coffee value so that they want to try it.

In our case, we did this through stories. Regardless of where a customer is from, they are likely to be motivated more by experience than just flavor. So ask yourself: what is the story behind your coffees? What makes them special?

For example, coffees that are ethically sourced and produced will elicit a positive response. In today’s market, terms like “organic” and “fair trade” make sales. Many times the first question people ask when they come to my shop is whether a coffee is ethically sourced. For me, this was astounding! Even in small communities, people care about the story behind a coffee. People truly do want to be apart of something greater.

Take advantage of this. Understand what your community will value – in my case, ethical drinks – and show them how they can achieve that through consuming your specialty coffee.

Key tips: Understand your audience’s values and use that to create additional value for your offerings.

coffee cherries

Coffee ripens on the branch in Cauca, Colombia. Credit: Neil Palmer (CIAT) via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Stay Focused on Quality

While storytelling and sourcing are both important, the actual coffee experience is what will keep people coming back for more. Serving perfectly crafted beverages or expertly roasted coffee beans will win the hearts of consumers. Maintaining consistency and quality are absolute musts, and should never be sacrificed.

Serving excellence every time translates to a positive experience that your customers will talk about for months. This will eventually lead to new customers.

Even if you meet your consumers in the middle with more approachable coffees, you can still roast them well, brew them well, and serve them well. And in doing so, you help your customer to appreciate quality.

Key tips: Quality and consistency are key; changing your menu doesn’t mean neglecting these core principles.

green coffee bags

Green coffee, ready for roasting. Credit: Gregory Brady

Getting to know your market isn’t easy, but finding out how to engage with your customers is the key to success in the coffee industry.

So go forth and explore your market.

Find out who they are and where they are – and meet them there. Serve them with the best coffees that fit into their coffee journey!

Perfect Daily Grind

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