The Winding Road to Coffee and TeaPrevious lives of professionals
By Julie Beals
As the specialty coffee and tea industries mature, professionals are growing up within them, going from barista to shop owner or roaster, and from tea blender to buyer. But other, even wildly divergent career paths can also give people who want to get into coffee or tea a leg up. Those who come at it sideways, having spent time as engineers, loss-prevention experts and even jockeys, have brought skills with them that set them apart.
Current Business: Owner, The House of Tea, Philadelphia
Previous Profession: Professional jockey
Litt began her career as a horse jockey in 1984 when she was 21 years old. For 13 years she raced on major tracks, including Atlantic City’s Race Course and New Jersey’s Meadowlands. Over her career she broke more than 30 bones, including an arm shattered in 14 places and a foot that was crushed as she rode out of the starting gate. “Getting stepped on, breaking fingers and toes, getting thrown off—that’s all just part of it,” she laughs. “Horses go down with you too, break their legs, ankles.”
She kept at it until 1997, when her father suddenly passed away. In the meantime, two major tracks had closed and horse racing had become “more for money and less about the horses,” she says. “I’m fortunate and thankful that my father had this great business and that my mother asked me to run it.”
Nathaniel Litt—a former architect, circus clown, magician and chef himself—opened The House of Tea in 1993. The no-nonsense supplier of whole-leaf teas and teaware—no tea bags or sit-down teahouse service—stocks nearly 300 varieties, rotating in about 10 new teas each year. Retail mail-order makes up much of the business, as does wholesale to hotels, casinos and restaurants.
Jessica had a lot to learn in taking over her father’s business. But while the leap from horses to tea seems large, experience as a jockey came in handy. “I was in a male-dominated sport for so long—it made it easier to do business dealings and to be assertive,” she says. “You learn quite a bit on holding your own as a jockey. … It gave me the opportunity, the strength and the foundation to help me in my position as a business owner.”
Litt hasn’t stopped racing, either. In June she finished her 15th marathon, this time in Alaska. The course included numerous trails and 17 miles of gravel. “I didn’t run as fast as normal,” she says, “but I always finish.”
Primary Profession: Mechanical engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, Md.
Professional Hobby: Inventor of espresso brewing measurement tools
Scace is the unassuming inventor of the darling of espresso brewing temperature control, the Thermofilter. Used by geeked-out equipment techs and baristas to measure the brewing temperature on their espresso machines and thereby facilitate adjustments, it is often called the Scace Device, though the man himself is not so self-promoting.
Scace’s day job is at the NIST, which develops measurement methods and standards for everything from length to time to mass to temperature. He points to functions that are easily taken for granted, like computer clock speed, which has to be accurate for a machine to run properly, and temperature, where we casually assume a preheated oven is on the mark. “As technology progresses and we divide units of measurement into smaller and smaller pieces, we need to advance our measurement abilities.”
As a mechanical engineer, Scace works in humidity measurement—ironic for someone with such a dry sense of humor—a field of about 200 professionals worldwide. (In an e-mail response to my request for an interview, he quipped: “Dunno if I sent you these [phone] numbers before, but if I did you’ll find that they are remarkably consistent with the previous ones.”) The atmospheric applications for weather forecasting are obvious, but Scace’s work applies to the semiconductor industry, where minuscule amounts of water can contaminate the gasses used in manufacturing—so slight that it was immeasurable just 10 years ago. “We work at new ways of making those measurements, and you have to have confidence that what you’re measuring is what you’re actually measuring,” he says. “Temperature is a good one to get people’s heads turned around,” he says. “Say it’s 90 degrees outside, but what does that mean and how did you figure it out? You have a thermometer with red liquid that expands and is measured on a scale, but how do you know it’s accurate?”
Scace’s career experience spilled over into his love of coffee in the early-2000s, when he found himself in a movement of people who were very interested in coffee but weren’t professionals, many of whom tinkered with roasting their own and dinked around with brewing methods. “What we had were these really crappy
[espresso] machines,” says Scace. “Nobody had heard of a [La Marzocco] GB/5 back then. … People could make good coffee but it was hit or miss and everyone wondered why.”
Along with Scace, Andy Schecter (of PortaFilter.net and also a food technologist) was trying to find solutions to the problem. Scace credits David Schomer of Espresso Vivace in Seattle with hammering on the importance of temperature at a time when espresso machines had what Scace calls “idiotic thermostats.” Within a week, Scace and Schecter had put proportional temperature controllers on their machines—independent of each other. Schecter had used them in the food business, so the process was clear to him, too. “I don’t know if we or Schomer did it first, but it got done all of a sudden in 2001,” says Scace. “That was the basis for the original Thermofilter. It happened fairly quickly.”
Scace was soon approached by John Sanders, who chairs the WBC technical standards committee, about coming up with a measurement scheme for evaluating espresso machines. “I hadn’t considered marketing and selling what I had,” says Scace. “John gave me the impetus to take it further, and Terry Ziniewicz [of Espresso Parts Northwest] was encouraging, and Barry Jarrett [WBC judge and owner of Riley’s Coffee and Coffee Projects in St. Louis] helped get me a component for it.”
Scace calls himself a “one-third-time coffee guy,” working on other elements of technical standards and still tinkering with the Thermofilter. “We have temperature control down to an acceptable level, so we can start looking for the next big nails to beat down, the one that’s sticking up the highest, messing with cup quality.” And as he sees issues of use and abuse come up with the Thermofilter, he addresses those. “In the measurement world, we are more careful with measurement tools than most of the rest of the world. I’m always amazed at the abuse these things are subjected to.”
KEVIN AND ROB TUTTLE
Current Business: Co-owners, Everything Coffee & Tea, Atlanta area
Previous Professions: Loss prevention and logistics at major retailers including Home Depot, Neiman Marcus and Ralph Lauren, and a retail coffee operation
Since 2004, Everything Coffee & Tea has distributed allied products to cafés and restaurants throughout Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama. Kevin and Rob Tuttle and their partners—Bob Markham and Cindy and Beth Tuttle (Kevin and Rob’s wives)—have grown their business rapidly with a commitment to customer service and high-quality products.
But before all this, Kevin spent eight years in loss prevention at Marshall’s and another eight at Home Depot while Rob was doing the same at Neiman Marcus, Home Depot and finally at Ralph Lauren. “We put a lot of people in jail, that’s for sure. Mostly employees,” says Kevin. One was a multimillion-dollar theft case. “You can always catch shoplifters if you want an adrenaline rush, but most loss is from employees, whether it’s buyers, VPs, district managers, cashiers or stock guys.”
You’d think the guys who showed up at stores to figure out if anyone was stealing would have an ominous air. But anyone who has met Kevin and Rob knows they are entirely good-natured guys. “We built good relationships with people and made sure they knew that we were there to help,” says Kevin.
Still, other interests eventually arose. In 1992, when Rob was working for Ralph Lauren, he and his boss would frequently meet at Starbucks before visiting stores. “We had met there three or four days in a row, and every day I got a lukewarm latte,” he says. “Jokingly, I told my boss that I could do better, and he told me to put a business plan together and that he’d back me. Thirty days later, he became my first partner for my coffee shop, and 11 months later we were open.”
Kevin says Rob’s shop was the most high-end coffee establishment in the Atlanta area at the time. Says Rob: “It went very well, but I had so many vendors—17 different ones—and their customer service was underwhelming.” And again, he thought, “There has to be a better way—a one-stop shop for coffeehouses.”
At about the same time, Kevin saw that the end of his career at Home Depot was near when he was tasked with massively downsizing his department while the company closed more than 50 stores. He was offered another position that would put him on the road 28 days each month, but the idea of starting a coffee-and-tea distribution company with his brother was obviously more appealing.
“Six months later, we gave it a whirl,” says Kevin. They went to Coffee Fest in Washington, D.C., in early-2004. “We made a list of vendors, and thought that if we could get half of them to give us a shot, we’d move forward.”
By spring, things began to happen fast. “I was in Boston the week before the  SCAA conference, interviewing with a company, sitting and listing to them talk about their entrepreneurial spirit, meeting with VPs, and I called my wife and said, ‘If we’re going to be entrepreneurial, let’s do it for ourselves.’ I flew back and met with the landlord [for the new Everything Coffee & Tea warehouse], picked up my business cards and went to SCAA  in Atlanta that weekend.”
Kevin, Rob and their partners grew the business quickly thanks in part to the brothers’ experience in loss-prevention. “To conduct investigations you’ve got to be great at operations,” says Kevin. “Most of what you deal with is paperwork, going through receiving, inventory, cash register docs, orders, POs. All of the paperwork of running a business—you’ve got to know it better than anyone.”
The customer-service side of retail also carries over. “Neiman Marcus, Ralph Lauren and Home Depot all pride themselves on customer service, and we brought that level and mindset into allied coffee,” says Rob. “One of our major reasons for success is our level of customer service.”
“This venture has made it incredibly clear how much I learned over the previous 18 years,” says Kevin. “It is every bit applicable here.” And the bonus is the industry itself. “Coming into the coffee industry, where people are actually nice to each other—even competitors—that was the biggest shock,” says Kevin. “And I get to visit coffee shops for a living.” Adds Rob: “The coffee industry is so cool; we’re enjoying the heck out of life.”