20 years ago I discovered the world of specialty coffee.
My friend Paul had just returned from a trip to Puerto Rico. Back then people still used actual photographs. His father-in-law, Israel had just bought the property that would become Sandra Farms, and there was this photograph of him standing in the Puerto Rican rainforest roasting coffee over an open fire. It really spoke to me. How could I do that?
Soon I was ordering green coffee over the internet and reading every book or blog or website I could find about coffee.The first batch I roasted I was hooked. It was an utter shock how different, how delicious, how unusual these hand picked, high quality coffees, roasted in small batches, could taste.
Why isn’t this a business? Why doesn’t coffee taste like this from the grocery store? How can I bring this kind of product to the people. Day and night, these questions haunted me.
Maybe everyone felt the way I did about my job--trapped. A growing family meant more demands to earn a living and provide. Yet I felt like I was dying. I was popping antacids like they were candy. If I can just get a few more years of this, I can pay off my bills and quit, I reassured myself.But I knew our days were numbered.
Loans were created out of thin air to fund mortgages and were so nominally funded by the lender, perhaps they had 1% into every loan, yet they collected a spread on interest for the entire loan amount. Banks made loans to lenders who made loans to brokers who made loans to consumers and the whole thing was sold to some retirement fund in Iceland. When the jig was up, everyone was underwater.
That was in 2007. I found myself with four kids, two homes that were both upside down, car payments that, looking back were foolish. My Yukon payment was $666 a month. Never shoulda signed the papers with THAT number on it. But even though I knew we were living on borrowed time, I still didn’t see the danger I was in.
When it collapsed, I was relieved. Until the savings ran out and there were no jobs and the economy, that was supposed to be just on a short hiatus, and was coming back, never materialized.
So my dream of offering this new type of coffee. Spectacularly flavorful, interesting, with a back story of how it was grown and harvested and who picked it and how it was processed and when it was picked and then how freshly I got it in my little warehouse and roasted and packaged it up for someone to taste. It was truly coffee that really didn’t exist in Grand Rapids.
Its actually hysterical how good that early stuff was. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, where nobody even could comprehend it, we were sourcing and roasting the best coffees in the world on my back porch, then the back of an art gallery. Even when I opened up on Wealthy Street in 2010 it was still like you were talking to a wall. People came in, looked right through your like you were crazy, and walked out shaking their heads.
The whole time we were thinking, what are we doing? Should I be the roaster or should I sell green coffee to home roasters or should it be about how roasting is the key and how to roast and when to enjoy it?These were the questions that flooded my mind and crowded out any rational thoughts of how am I going to get back to work to provide for my family.
The math looked incredible. If we can buy a raw material for $1 a pound and sell it for $10 we'll make a fortune. Little did I know then that the coffees we were chasing and ultimately bought cost as much as $6.00 per pound, unroasted. Add an other $1.20 to the price for the loss in weight due to moisture and volatile organic matter during roasting, and you just couldn't make any money.
It was probably very similar to the early days of craft beer. People's palate couldn't yet differentiate between Budweiser and Red Hook or Sam Adams, let alone Founders. And their pocketbooks just didn’t allow them to change lanes on a regular basis.
Wholesale accounts were impossible. They all were old school legacy businesses with longstanding relationships with legacy, low quality roasters who dominated the industry and were so cheap that they saw my price as laughable.
But I forged ahead, determined to fulfill my dream and vision. The name Rowster, a mashup of roasting and rowing seemed perfect for a business that I didn’t even know what it was going to be. And was a contrast to the Starbucks carved ship bowsprit. Michigan was a land of small watercraft, and was borne of manual rowing and paddling.Despite limited success we plied onward.
During those first several years, the biggest success was the sale of our logo to Starbucks for their Reserve line. I’m not supposed to talk about it now. But suffice it to say that is really the only decent paycheck I got and I put most of it back into the business.
Sure, we made money. But not much. And many years went by where I paid myself a few thousand dollars. My staff made more than I did. Maybe I pocketed some tips to pay for gas. But even back then I was riding my bike, not out of pleasure, but out of necessity.
Everything I did was colored by my lack of income. I coached club soccer for 12 years! Never in my wildest imagination would I have dreamed myself a soccer coach. But I wanted the best for my kids and did what I had to do.
It was a humbling time. But also a time of great joys. And no longer did I sleep with a loaded gun next to my bed. And I’ve never slept so well.
But here we are on the precipice of another 2007. The coronavirus has forced us to close our shops to protect our workers. 80% of our business comes from restaurant accounts who have also shut down after the Governor decreed all bars and restaurants must close to protect us from this pandemic. It's surreal to be watching many of our staff react with such bewilderment to what is happening. Many others in jobs that seem unaffected yet seem utterly unaware of what we are going through or what they soon will be experiencing themselves.
We’ll get through this. We’ve done it before.
Our mission is the same as it always has been--to provide that aha coffee moment that makes you question everything. To create memorable experiences through coffee. To create connections and stimulate conversation and creativity and to imagine, if coffee can be this good, what else can be better? To be inspired by dedication to a cause and the satisfaction of doing real work that makes a difference in your life, your family, your community and your world.
We hope you continue to support us during this difficult time. We are Rowsting on!