So, You Want to Be a Wholesale Coffee Roaster

So, You Want to Be a Wholesale Coffee Roaster
Posted in: Strategy
By Mike Ferguson
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So, You Want to Be a Wholesale Coffee Roaster

You roast a little coffee. You sell a little coffee online and drop some off with family and friends who’ve purchased subscriptions. Maybe you even deliver coffee once a week to that restaurant owned by a family friend. They do a brisk brunch business every Sunday. And then there is that gifts and antiques store in old downtown where your sister worked in high school. They have a “local products” shelf and sell a few bags a week.  People seem to like your coffee. You’re not making a lot of money, but you’re not really losing money either (most months) and you’re having fun, even when you have to roast coffee late into the evening.

Lately, you’ve been thinking about the coffeehouses, diners, bakeries, and gourmet “doughnut’ shops around town. Would any of them buy your coffee?  You’re thinking it might be time to put more effort into truly growing your business and expand into selling coffee beans wholesale.

Even if your company doesn’t look anything like the one described above, it likely has some things in common with our imaginary roaster if you're just starting out. In any case, if you are a roasters who wants to begin selling coffee wholesale, I’m assuming a few things. These are things—but not all the things, it should be noted—that should be true if you’re thinking about moving into wholesale coffee as a roaster, selling more coffee business to business rather than just to consumers. None of these are deal breakers, necessarily. Exceptions abound. But selling coffee beans wholesale is a challenge under any circumstances and the more of these milestones you’ve achieved, the easier it will be to meet the challenge.

You Buy Green Coffee Beans Wholesale

I assume you’re purchasing full size bags (60-70 kilos) of green coffee for at least a portion of your inventory and are ready to expand that portion. This is important because the volume means you’re ready to expand your wholesale coffee business; but also, when you’re paying actual wholesale prices for “full sacks” it means you’ve moved into better per pound pricing. And that’s important because your wholesale coffee customers are not going to pay the retail prices you might be used to getting from selling coffee online or out of your own shop or to friends and family.

You are Sample Roasting and Cupping Coffee

Getting to a place where you’re sample roasting and cupping is the first tall hurdle on the path to growing a wholesale coffee roasting business. The conundrum is, if your production roaster is small enough to roast samples, it’s not big enough to help you expand your wholesale business in a meaningful and practical way. If your production roaster is large enough to help you grow a wholesales coffee business, it’s too big to roast samples. We have some advice about this on our podcast. In any case, you have to be sample roasting because you must be cupping. You’re cupping not only to evaluate samples for purchase but as a quality control measure and, to the next point, to build blends.

You Are Creating Coffee Blends

In my opinion, if you’re not creating blends or ready to start creating blends, you’re not ready to grow a wholesale coffee business. At an absolute minimum, you need one blend created around a taste profile rather than a specific set of origins, a profile you can hit consistently all year-round and that works as both espresso and drip coffee. If your blend is highly dependent on any one component, it should be a coffee that is always available and consistent. This is one of the reasons Brazilian coffees like Olam’s Mogiana so often serve as a blending base. While it might be going too far to say your blending base should be neutral, the priorities with your base are different from the things you might look for in other components within a blend. You want your blend base to be clean and smooth, without spikes in the flavors notes. Chocolate notes are a common foundational flavor when building a blend. Where you go from there and the portion you assign each blend component is up to you, which is why you should be cupping regularly, but shoot for at least three coffees in your blend. From a production stand-point, several components can be better. A very traditional blend would balance a brightly floral and citrusy East African coffee with a heavy bodied and savory sweet Indonesian coffee on top of your base, which should constitute the majority of the blend.

You Have the Space You Need

In any manufacturing business, the balance between space and growth seems endlessly precarious and nearly impossible to maintain. One day you’re paying for more space than you need and the next day you don’t have the space you need to incorporate the packaging machinery your volume demands. In the early days of starting your wholesale coffee operations, you’re space challenges will be where to put the green coffee beans before you roast and the post-roast “flow” through packaging and shipping.  You have to look at your current set-up in your garage or in a shared incubator space or in your coffeehouse not in terms of how it looks today but in terms of how it will look if (when!) your roast volume doubles or triples. Imagine storing twice as much green coffee. If you’ve been buying green coffee in boxes, keep in mind that bags are not as easy to store. They not only take up more room, they do it awkwardly. Fortunately, solving for the space taken up by green coffee beans can be as simple as a nearby storage unit. The priority is space you need to move coffee from the roaster to bagging and then boxing for shipment. Problem solve and plan now for space utilization when your volume has increased by three or even four times.

As I say, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but these are often pain points for roasters looking to expand into the wholesale coffee business. Likewise, the following advice is not comprehensive. It is, however, advice that is commonly needed.

The Friends and Family Plan - Your Primary Network

There is a reason our imaginary roaster in the first paragraph of this blog was all about connections through friends and family. This is your primary network. Remember how ubiquitous coffee is as a product. In normal times,* how many places do you go over the course of a week where coffee is being brewed or sold or brewed and sold? Chances are better than good that some people in your primary network know someone who is involved in selling or providing coffee in one form or another to coffee drinkers. This is not to suggest you pressure friends and family to be your sales force or that you should even hint around that they help spread the word. Just remember to tell your story and let them know what you’re doing and hope to do and don’t forget to make sure everyone gets a free bag of coffee now and then.

Warm Calls Not Cold Calls – Your Secondary Network

If you want to decrease your chances of selling coffee to a coffeehouse or any retailer to almost nothing, walk in and ask to speak to the owner or ask a busy barista who their coffee roaster is or ask anyone if you can leave some coffee for them to try out. Bad. Don’t even make a brief and simple request to leave a business card with the cashier as you pay for your coffee.  

Instead of pounding the pavement cold calling, get active in your community and remember, local is as local does. Be a familiar face at neighborhood association meetings. Give them coffee to brew or, better yet, show up and serve it yourself. If community groups, the chamber, and your city planning commission are doing virtual meetings, still show up, camera on, and learn what is important to the people you would like to see drinking your coffee. When an opportunity to be someone’s coffee provider comes around (and it will, assuming you’ve represented yourself and your company well) you’ve dramatically increased your chances of being in the mix and getting to make a “warm call” on a potential customer.

You might not have the budget for a cash sponsorships to have your logo splashed on the finish-line banner at the local 5k, but in-kind donations of coffee are almost always welcomed, like offering to brew coffee for the volunteers who arrive at zero-dark-thirty to set up. People walking around drinking coffee from your coffee cups, even if the name of your company is just rubber stamped on a white cup at this point, is better than a logo on a banner.

A note of caution here. Don’t over commit to brewing coffee for throngs of people. This is really really really hard to do without the right equipment and/or right resources on-site. Focus on brewing for smaller groups within an event, like judges, performers, support crew, etc.

Bottom line, be everywhere you can be. Having warned you about how hard it can be to brew and serve for large groups of people, you should make having the right equipment for working, say, a farmer's market, a priority. Being able to brew coffee for 100 people is more important than having an espresso machine in the roastery.  You can always borrow time on an espresso machine to dial-in blends. The best marketing plan for a coffee roaster is "taste our coffee and meet our people." Making those two things happen is your number one priority.

Don't Forget Your Integrity

There are many different roads to roasting coffee and these days it’s not unusual for someone to start roasting who has no previous experience with coffee beyond their morning cup. This can be good news and bad news. The potential good news is increasing availability of fresh roasted coffee. Local becomes ever more … uh, local, and there are more choices. The bad news: as the traditional, if informal, apprenticeships that were once the norm in coffee roasting become the road less travelled, we see more roasters who are “practicing in public” and putting less than stellar coffee out into the world as they do and calling it specialty.

Not all coffee has to be specialty coffee and you may choose to play at several different intersections on the coffee quality continuum. Everyone can use a great cup of coffee, however they experience or even desire "greatness." Pick and own your spots, but don't pretend your coffee is something that it isn't. 


*This topic in the time of Covid, a personal reflection.

My thoughts on this topic—as general as they are because there are so many ways to succeed as a coffee roaster—are based on two decades of conversations with roasters of all sizes, including six years working for a long established and successful roaster-retailer. That said, nothing in my 22 years in coffee has prepared me for a pandemic. I gave a lot of thought to whether or not I should adjust my generalized advice, reframed to consider our current circumstances, and I decided against it, not only because I don’t think anyone can offer meaningful and specific advice amongst so many unknowns, but because I think the ideas underlying what I have to say remain valid despite circumstances. More importantly, and no doubt more selfishly, I wanted to write, in a sense, from the future and a place of hope.




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