Winter is Coming - Thoughts on Holidays for Coffee Roasters
People will often say the holidays “sneak up” on them. What they mean by this is they’ve kept telling themselves they had more time to get everything done until they didn’t have enough time to get everything done. For most people, holidays and “hectic” are synonymous. For most coffee roasters, hectic is an understatement.
Because coffee is a surefire gift, can help us get through the combination of busy and cold days, and is always welcomed after a meal, it is naturally a ubiquitous part of the year-end holiday season. This is a happy thing for everyone except the children who drool over unopened gifts while the grown-ups must, for psychobiological reasons, brew their first morning cup. After Halloween, retail stores of every kind—those made of brick and mortar and those made of digital bits—become increasingly busy. This includes, of course, those that sell coffee, brewed and/or otherwise.
For coffee roasters, this all translates into the busiest days of the year and some extra-long days of roasting, packing, and shipping. Not all of the holiday storm surge can be anticipated even in the best of times, so perhaps the best advice for surviving the holiday season is to remain flexible and ready to adapt to circumstances. In fact, that’s my first tip.
Expect the Unexpected
Whenever someone tells you to expect the unexpected, you might want to slap them. It doesn’t seem like very helpful advice. It sounds like the whole “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” thing. There might be some reasoning behind it but it still sounds like doublespeak. So, before you take a swipe at me, I’ll tell you what I mean by this in preparing for the holiday season.
Expect the unexpected is just a poetic way of identifying the need for contingency planning, which is not poetic at all. Contingency planning is always a good idea, but when you expect your resources to be stretched thin and your decision making windows to narrow, contingency planning is critical.
Formal contingency planning for large corporations can be a complicated affair that seeks to address as many variables as possible if something goes wrong, or even just differently than expected. For a coffee roaster approaching the holidays, it can be a simple list of things that might not go according to plan during your highest volume months of the year and how you might tackle a change in circumstances. Generally speaking, these are things that have gone wrong before rather than catastrophes or unlikely events you’ve never experienced. For example:
- Your roaster breaks down the week before Thanksgiving (or bag sealer or weigh and fill machine or grinder).
- That bag order doesn’t show up (or label order, tin tie order, or boxes).
- Your delivery driver or other key staff quits or gets really sick.
- Computer systems or accounting systems or internet service goes down hard.
If your answer to any of these potential problems is, “We’re screwed,” you probably have not been roasting coffee for a very long time. But that’s not the case, of course. You know the closest coffee roaster willing to give you or rent you time on their machine (even if it’s the 12 am – 5 am shift), right? As far as supplies go, order early and order extra.
All Hands On Deck
If you’re a small roasting operation, every day is probably all hands on deck. Nobody really has a job descriptions because everybody “flows-to-the-work” and does what needs to be done. If you’re a slightly larger than small roaster, large enough that job titles actually reflect what people do most of the time, now is the time to remind everyone that after Halloween, job descriptions and vacations go on ice. Maybe you’re large enough that people can take vacations in November, but if you’ve ever worked a 14 hour day roasting, bagging, and boxing coffee, as soon as you have a team holidays are time to return to a flow-to-the-work approach. Everyone, from salespeople to accounting staff, should be prepared to bag and box coffee if needed.
Gotta Have Green
I’m going to make a huge assumption here. You keep an eye on your volume trends. You know how much coffee you roasted in August of 2021 compared to August 2020 and the year-over-year numbers before that. Better yet, you know volume trends down to the week year-over-year. You know your year-to-date volume against the number of roasting days (the number of days you actually roast coffee is more important than calendar days) for 2021 compared to 2020. You’ve used these numbers to anticipate the volume increase or loss for the last three months of 2021, and you have ordered green coffee appropriately and it is in the house or on the way (i.e. on the road, not on the water), adjusting for significant wholesale accounts in number or size lost or gained.
Of course, of course, of course it goes without saying, we live in interesting times and we all suffer from caveat fatigue when looking at any numbers from the last 20 months but starting with the actual numbers and adjusting based on experience and observations is better than cold guessing.
Currently, interesting times are stacked on top of interesting times as the shipping industry is experiencing shortages of containers and truck drivers. Planning is a challenge for everyone in the supply chain. Suffice to say, whatever your timelines for ordering have been in the past, back them up to … well, to now. In addition to some challenging uncertainty in road shipping, all green coffee suppliers are experiencing low spot inventories compared to “normal” years, which means coffee that is here today might not be here tomorrow.
Over Communicate with Customers
The only coffee people more hectic during the holidays than coffee roasters are those who sell coffee directly to coffee drinkers. If you’re a coffee roaster with wholesale accounts, remind them as many times and in as many ways as possible that they not only need to order up for the holidays, but order in anticipation of the days you will not be roasting. You probably won’t be roasting on Thanksgiving Day or the day after. Make sure your wholesale customer receive reminders. Also let them know to back up their timelines compared to previous years.
Even when we try to prepare for the holidays as coffee sellers and buyers at any point in the coffee chain, we cannot be prepared for everything. That would be really boring anyway. But if we minimize the chaos by preparing for the things we can anticipate; we will have more time and energy to respond to the things we cannot anticipate. But, you know, don’t quote me on that.