Most roasters start out with humble beginnings, whether they’re roasting in their garage, their parents’ basement or another locale. Many roasting companies start out with limited means but high hopes, and few imagine expanding outside of their own town or city.
But what happens when your wildest dreams come true and you’re a stunning success? Suddenly, interested parties from across the country are making wholesale inquiries to get your coffee on their counter. Now you’ve got problems. How on earth can you support wholesale customers on the other side of the country and expect to keep them for more than three months? Local roasters will inevitably see your bag in the window and know you’re not around to provide the service they can.
Whatever you do, do not panic, as this is a great problem to have: You’re growing and getting real traction if you’re in this position. You should strive to make an athletic effort to nurture this healthy growth. However, this does not mean you should take every account that knocks on your door.
Here are the basic steps and considerations to make when evaluating whether to enter a market: First, consider where the customer is located. If you are roasting in San Francisco and are getting inquiries from Fargo, you may want to pause. You can always just provide coffee and offer no service or training, but an unsupported account will only last so long. Instead, you may want to invest in markets that will show continuous return.
To identify those markets, look for these factors:
Population density. People create the demand for coffee. Cities where thousands of people live in each vertical building drive consumption. Starbucks’ best-performing store in the United States is at Astor Place in downtown New York City.
Niche placement. There are all kinds of people, so there must be all kinds of coffee. There is plenty of room for more roasters—you just have to find your audience. Explore a market where you might stand out.
Growth opportunity. Don’t chase small towns or declining cities. Investigate cities on the rise with new construction, growth in employment and an expanding cultural scene.
New York City is one of the fastest-growing markets for specialty coffee in the Unites States. With a huge population and endless restaurants and cafés opening and expanding, there is tremendous opportunity there for many roasters. It also means there is a tremendous amount of competition. New York is the market I call home, and I have developed and nurtured relationships here for years. New roasters are planting a stake in this city every day. With companies like Stumptown, Blue Bottle and Toby’s Estate setting up local roasting operations to support their New York clients, how can you remain competitive and offer something more?
Some roasters say taste is the main differentiator, but I think it’s clear that wholesale customers are shopping for much more than taste. They need a proper core-value proposition. They need barista training, technical service solutions, equipment resources, delivery options and more. All of these components need to be sorted out before you fully commit to a market.
And as you move into new markets, here are five key ways to keep customers happy:
Stay in touch. Communication is a must. Sitting around your roasting facility consumed with daily operations will not inspire loyalty and show support. When customers are not close enough for you to hand deliver orders or visit, find other ways to build a relationship and offer that personal touch. This means providing points of contact that you don’t give to your local clients. Whenever you contact a client it should be with something that adds value to your relationship. Developing a regular e-blast newsletter with stories from origin, new coffees or links to articles of interest is one efficient way to connect. Call them to take orders or discuss billing—let them hear your voice, and that will go along way toward establishing a personal connection. Send e-mail updates on when their coffee was roasted and shipped (include the tracking number). Give more updates and information than most need—this will help them forget that you’re so far away.
Johnny on the Spot. Take a proactive approach to service. Help manage their inventory and keep their product fresh by tracking their usage and calling them before they call you to see if they need to place an order. Send samples of new coffees with an updated coffee menu to stay top-of-mind. Send training manuals, videos and new recipes for brew settings.
Drop ins. Personal visits are expensive but will be necessary. Customers need to connect with a face and know that they are a priority. Quarterly visits are a huge help and will always reinvigorate the relationship. Be careful not to spread them out too far—if the visits are once or twice a year, you are putting that account at risk.
Show off. Cafés and restaurants always need more publicity and exposure, though most don’t have an advertising budget. If your company has a blog or members of your team get interviewed often, then use those platforms to promote your customers. Post pictures on Facebook and Instagram, or scan your customers’ social-media feeds and repost events they’re having. Send e-blasts to your customer list alerting them to what others are doing. These are great ways to build a community within your customer base and increase loyalty.
Go local. It’s a proven method that hiring local residents to help establish a market works. Tom Mitchell of Strategic Coffee Concepts used this approach while running wholesale for Seattle’s Best Coffee and conquering the country in the ’90s. “In order to have credibility in a local market, you need to have people that understand the terrain, the language and the culture of the people there.” Seattle’s Best experienced wild success with this approach in 10 markets around the United States. The company was able to produce positive cash flow within a year of setting up an office with equipment inventory and local staff. “It sends a huge message that you are serious about that market to hire someone rooted in that community,” says Mitchell.
In the end, every roasting company strives for growth. Developing new markets is the ultimate way to continue expansion. The most important thing to consider is whether you are able to deliver on your customer promise and core-value proposition in these markets. If you cannot, then you are risking a loss of trust with your customers and deterioration of your brand. Great coffee companies have come into New York City and promptly left because they weren’t prepared for the investment necessary to remain competitive. I believe in customer service first, as it is always easier to nurture existing customers than find new ones. Remember, always grow within your reach.
—Jake Leonti is a writer and food and beverage advisor in New York City.