Starting a coffee roasting business is both similar to starting any other kind of business and different. It’s similar in some of the basic needs and preparation you’ll have to fulfill, and it’s different for the very specific needs, qualifications, and skills that are necessary for commercial coffee roasting. I’m going to talk about business musts for the coffee roasting business specifically.
How To Roast
First, you need to know what the heck coffee roasting is. This sounds simple, but knowing what coffee roasting does not end at looking up the Wikipedia description of the process and skimming through the history of it. That’s not the worst place to start, but there is much more involved in actually learning about roasting coffee. Even roasters who have roasted coffee for years only to know that they could have been doing it so much easier or they could have been producing significantly better quality if they had only invested in some training and a better understanding. Get educated. I’m always a supporter of self-education; with a library card and Internet access, it’s free, you can do it on your own time, and it can be pretty extensive if you’re committed and look in the right places.
Eventually, with a process of coffee roasting, you’re going to need hands on experience. You can invest in some at-home equipment, but if your ultimate goal is to have a commercial business, you’re going to need experience with commercial-grade equipment. There are classes you can sign up for, usually through coffee roasting plants. It is also important to learn roasting theory at least to some degree. This is what is going to allow you to make a quality product and to be able to sell it intelligently. A lot of people will come to buy your product and just trust you when you say it’s good. Other people, like coffee shop owners, are going to want you to prove that it’s good by telling them the intricate details of your roasting process and how it elevates the natural flavors of the coffee. Knowing the theory will also help you develop your characters well and will give you the most control over your end product. If you have friends already in the business, squeeze all of the insider knowledge out of them that you can. If you already know how to roast, you shouldn’t have read this section at all, and I apologize for wasting your time.
Getting to know people in the business, whether by going to classes through roasting companies, sitting down with other owners, or going to coffee conventions and events, is going to be one of your best resources for successfully launching your roasting business. Just like any new business, you need to define your goals. One specific goal you need to be very clear about is the volume you want and are going to be able to produce. This needs to be as accurate as possible and will depend on, and dictate, many aspects of your business. Get everyone in the business to give you advice; you don’t have to take it all but having a good cross-section will give you a solid basis for your decision-making. You’re going to have to decide what amount of space you’ll need; you’ll need to know the size and shape of your equipment and what type of ventilation and power sourcing it requires. Knowing these things comes from knowing how much coffee you want to be roasting daily. If you’re only planning on having one-on-one relationships with independent shops or consumers, roasting small batches, you don’t need that much space, and you can get away with a small machine. Even the smallest coffee shops, however, need a decent sized volume of at least their house blend. Some of these numbers you may need to learn by trial and error, through experience; but, if you consult experts, you’ll have a better sense of the best place to start. You don’t want to invest a chunk of change in a machine that doesn’t produce enough volume in enough time to allow you to have reliable clients or to grow your client base. You don’t have to estimate gargantuan amounts of volume, but if you are too modest, you’ll have a much harder time returning on your investment, breaking even and starting to turn an actual profit.
As with any customer-dependent business, your business has to begin even before your physical business is open. Attending those classes, conventions, events or meetings with people in the coffee community is a good place to start. Some of these people could become your first customers, or they could introduce you to your first customers. You’re most likely going to be looking for contracts with coffee shops, and you’ll want to start mining for these as soon as possible. One thing you can do is a promotional effort; get into contact with shop owners or even other roasteries and see who may be willing to offer small batches of your products as for-sale samples in their own stores. A lot of independent and specialty coffee shops are on the small-batch bandwagon and would love to offer a new coffee product that can’t be found anywhere else to their customers. Budgeting for some free sample batches may also be a good strategy; that way, you don’t have to ask businesses to invest in an unknown product, and you prove that you believe in your product and trust them enough to let them sample it at no cost. Another strategy that many small/medium-sized roasters are opting for these days is opening their own coffee shop. This involves a more complex business strategy, but one of the best ways to sell your coffee beans is to get people drinking the coffee they make. You can do one small coffee shop with counter service offering the various roast batches you offer, and expand the roasting business as your profits grow. Or you can plan a coffee shop/roastery combination that grows in tandem. Find ways, and yes, more than one, to get your product known as soon as there is a product to know so that you can open your roastery with confidence and security.
My final tip goes along with networking for your business, something that is a fantastic and necessary skill to have as a roaster is how to cup. You need to be able to do this so that you can test your product and ensure it is of the best quality, as well as guaranteeing that you can describe your product with accurate specificity. Cupping also offers you the opportunity, once your roastery is open, to build a community with your customers and fellow coffee businesspeople, and to get people on board with your products. Hosting a cupping with your new roast or bean give coffee shops and individual consumers another opportunity to sample your product, to see how it brews, to see if it’s something they want to buy for themselves or to offer their customers. If you cannot offer this service, you’ll miss a great opportunity to network, build a community that garners loyalty and word-of-mouth marketing, and to get people on board with your product. There are classes for this, too; investing the time and money in learning how to cup is an investment in the quality of your product and the future of your company’s success.