“Cute” is incorrectly the word that comes to mind as one walks into Columbia Street Roastery. The nearly claustrophobic retail space is reminiscent of a remote country wine shop designed for tourists as the green paint, gobs of metallic red bags and bright tea room welcome visitors to examine the roastery’s wares. Having been edified in my amateur coffee snobbery and specialty roasting philosophy in queues at some of the country’s most revered (and arguably trendy) coffeehouses such as Blue Bottle (NYC, SFO), Stumptown (SEA, PDX, NYC), Intelligentsia (CHI, LAX) and Ritual Roasters (SFO), one feels that possibly this is just some small city diversion. My inside coffee aficionado wannabe can’t help but scoff further at the vast selection of pre-ground and flavored coffees, which I’ve learned, at the altar of the aforementioned trendy coffee shops, aren’t “real” coffee.
Thanks to the MBAA’s Operations and Technology Management Association, I had the chance to tour Columbia Street Roastery (CSR), meet its proprietor Mark Harriott and learn that there is much more going than meets the eye. Despite appearances, CSR know their coffee. While they primarily serve wholesale and commercial customers and thus eschew the modernist storefronts in hipster neighborhoods typical of your average “specialty roaster”, Columbia Street is still mentioned in the same breath as those of specialty coffee fame while also growing their role in the industry. Harriott, besides being a loquacious storyteller and coffee fanatic is also a well versed and opinionated businessman with some potentially unintentional lessons for our class. In the MBAA tradition of providing outside-of-classroom education and enrichment, I will share three coffee myths debunked by Mr. Harriott, gleaned by me and directly related to three areas of business.
Lesson 1 – Technology – “There is no such thing as roasting” Harriott declares boldly. He goes on to describe the computer automated process of coffee roasting and the difference maker is in the quality of the actual coffee. He essentially says that anyone who claims to have some special technique or timing gimmick is probably lying to you. He goes on further and describes the process of coffee as it goes from tree to farm to the very building we are standing in right now. Despite the series of seemingly complex and technical processes, Harriott is able to make it all seem easy to understand, as if you could open your own place after his brief lecture.
Lesson 2 – Finance – “Fair trade isn’t really fair, you’ve gotta go direct” Harriott says. During a sobering conversation on the poverty of some of the regions he sources coffee from, Harriott sticks on this point. In a nutshell, “fair trade” may guarantee coffee farmers a certain price or volume but it’s usually lower. “Direct trade”, if not obvious, lets roasters cut out the middlemen and build relationships with farmers. Harriott tells a story of an Illinois grad who changed a village by getting them a higher price on their coffee. The lesson smacks of our negotiations class as essentially instead of one grower’s gain being another’s loss, the student found a way for the growers to work together, increase product quality and get an across the board higher price (creating value, anyone?). Direct trade let Harriott and company pay a (justified) 300% higher price instead of having growers locked into paltry per pound payments for lower quality material.
Lesson 3 – Marketing – The gold standard is only gold if marketed as such. That is the lesson that comes out of my inquiry about Kona and Jamaican Blue Mountain coffees. Though these always seem to be the zenith of premium coffee (search for either type, they’re the most expensive), Harriott explains that it’s all a PR campaign. Blue Mountain sales are maybe 20% of what is grown. Kona is actually grown at low elevation and not all it’s cracked up to be. As if the last two points weren’t convincing enough, he goes on to describe further optimal conditions for coffee growing and describes how neither quite fit the bill.
Though going into this visit with my preconceived ideas of what the coffee industry is or should be, it was refreshing to learn more about the substance that essentially helps me function every day and without which there might not exist graduate school.