How to Find the Right Coffee Roasters for Your Café

December 28, 2016 • 8 min read
Allison Vrbova

Allison Vrbova

Seattle Correspondent

Blonde roast, French roast, Italian roast, single origin, fair trade—this isn’t your father’s cup of Folgers. Whether you are just beginning to consider opening your own coffee shop, or you’re an established business looking for a new supplier, finding the right roaster for your coffee shop among so many coffee roasters can be daunting.

In Seattle alone, there are more than half a dozen local roasters from which to choose. So, where to begin? We talked to four of the Emerald City’s best roasters to get their advice on how to find the right coffee supplier.

Choosing a coffee

Naturally, a good roaster will offer potential wholesale customers the chance to taste their coffees. This might involve sending samples by mail to an out-of-town shop, but, ideally, a roaster offers customers the chance to taste the product on site, often at a “cupping bar” made specifically for this purpose.

courtesy Seven Coffee Roasters

When you do find yourself at a cupping bar, it may be tempting to rely heavily on the roaster’s advice when considering which of their varieties to serve. What would pair well with your food menu? What roasts would your particular clientele like most? After all, roasters know their own coffee best. While this advice can be helpful in narrowing down choices, at the end of the day, it really boils down to one simple thing: serve what you love to drink. Every roaster we talked to agrees on this point.

“I really feel like some coffee companies try to steer their customers in a certain style or roasting profile,” says Sean Lee of Seven Coffee Roasters, which supplies to eighty wholesale customers from their home base in White Center. “We try to take a more customer-centric approach.”

Greg Hjort of Stumptown Coffee agrees that personal choice is the most important factor in choosing the right coffee to serve. Hjort is the director of sales in the northwest region for Stumptown, a retailer and wholesaler with roasteries in Seattle and Portland. “Some people can get really caught up in brands and marketing material,” says Hjort. But in the end, “You’ve got to love the coffee. You’re making it for people every day.”

Coffee roasters: Your partner in coffee

Coffee is, of course, the most important factor in choosing a roaster. But roasters provide their wholesale customers with more than just a steady supply of beans. Those services can include everything from small business advice, to barista training, to menu development. As Greg Hjort puts it, “Wholesale done really well with folks [makes them] feel they have a really good advocate for their small business.”

Tucker McHugh is co-founder of Caffe Appassionato, a Seattle-based business that got its start 26 years ago, back when there was hardly any coffee in town other than Starbucks and Seattle’s Best. Of the time and effort the company puts into helping its wholesale customers, he says: “We’re investing in them before they’ve invested in us.”

courtesy Tin Umbrella Coffee

Each roaster offers a different menu of support services, and each coffee shop owner needs a different level of support. Regardless of what your business requires, it is important to consider what suppliers can provide above and beyond coffee. Some of support services offered by roasters include:

  • Cross promotion of events
  • Advice on fundraising for a startup shop
  • Barista training
  • Advice on shop location
  • Equipment supply and maintenance
  • Menu and drink development
  • After-hours and weekend supply orders (for unexpected shortages)
  • Training

It is in roasters’ best interest that their coffees are brewed to show off their quality and particular taste. That’s why many offer their wholesale customers at least some element of training. Large and mid-sized roasters generally have a training bar at their facility, where wholesale customers can come to learn best practices. Some, like Stumptown, take a very hands-on approach, offering training to all new baristas that serve their coffee.

Of course, many roasters don’t have the resources to employ full-time barista trainers like Stumptown. But even smaller operations have a lot to offer their wholesale customers in terms of training, both formal and informal. As you choose among roasters, take the time to talk to them about their coffees. Learn what they have to say about their roasting process and the origin of their beans. As a partner in coffee, a good roaster can help you be better prepared as you talk to your own customers about the coffee you are serving them.

The intangible element

Support services and coffee blend choices aside, a café owner’s relationship with a roastery is one that, hopefully, lasts for many years. Joya Iverson is owner and “chief coffee drinker” at Tin Umbrella Coffee Roasters, a café and roastery that is helping to revitalize southeast Seattle’s Hillman City. For Iverson, “Coffee is so much a relationship-driven product from start to finish. Especially really good coffee.” So finding the right roaster is “all about connecting people.” As such, she says, there is a less tangible element to finding the right fit.

She tells potential wholesale customers up front that their decision-making process should be about more than just tasting the coffee. She encourages them to stop by Tin Umbrella’s café and stay awhile. “See what you notice about this coffee shop. What do you like about it? What’s different? If nothing strikes you as different, you might not be for us.”

Sean Lee of Seven Coffee Roasters agrees. “Of course you want to like their product, you want to be able to stand by their product,” says Lee. But in his opinion, this isn’t the only determining factor.
His number one piece of advice to a coffee shop owner looking for the right supplier: “Find the roaster that fits you,” he says, “Whether that be the style of business they have…or their culture, or how they treat their employees.”

Found a roaster? Check out our post on finding a location for your coffee shop!

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