This is the first in a series of interviews where I speak with people who take green coffee with potential and turn it into something special.
The Lab Coffee Shop is crouched in the shadows of hundreds of shiny new apartments piled up like so many gifts on the dining room table at a kids birthday party. No doubt the new residents will soon be moving into The Lab as well as into their new apartments. The Lab Coffee shop is jointly owned by Peter Davidson and Jason Barnett.
The Lab Coffee Shop is also home to Zeal Coffee Roasters owned by Peter Davidson. Peter is the roast master at Zeal and Jason is his wholesale sales director. The fast growing Zeal is providing freshly roasted specialty coffee throughout the Tampa Bay area as well as shipping to customers outside of the Bay area.
I descended on the Lab Coffee Shop on a Monday afternoon as Peter was finishing up a long morning roasting coffee and I snapped some pictures and chatted with the guys about the coffee business in the Tampa Bay area as well as specialty coffee in general. Here is the interview:
Neal: How did you guys get into the coffee business?
Peter: I started up a company with two partners called “A Cup of Organic” that is still in existence. The original concept was bringing in single farm coffee from Honduras, fair trade, organic. . .and the concept was to have them roast, grind and bag the coffee and ship over large amounts to keep the shipping under control. Quality has changed quite a bit. The reason I got into roasting was that I was not satisfied with what we were serving and my business partners were satisfied with what we were serving. That was 2009 or 2010.
Jason: Starbucks. I started five years ago now.
Neal: Peter what was the first coffee you roasted?
Peter: Oh man, it was an African coffee. . . Tanzanian Peaberry. I actually bought a bag off of a customer who had visited Haiti and started buying plantations there and who started getting contacts on coffee buying and happened to have an extra bag.
Neal: Was that the full on 130 pound bag of coffee?
Peter: Yep. A 130 pound bag of coffee. I had a hottop three quarter pound roaster at the time. We were roasting probably five pounds a day on that and I was rotating employees on that so when everyone came in they had to do a batch and we used that coffee only for drip. Customers came in specifically for that. . .and at the time you think you are doing an amazing job. Then reality hits and you realize the coffee is not really to the level you need it to be, to be consistent but at the same time the enjoyment of doing it, of knowing that you are roasting your own drives past that.
Neal: How was that first batch?
Peter: No clue what I was doing but I think it was a success – it was probably a 20 minute roast so completely even, just had no flavor but I was putting cream and sugar in my coffee at the time so for me it was amazing. Now I did start out roasting light coffee because I preferred light coffee not because it was the way craft coffee was moving at the time. We were ordering in a lot of dark roasted coffee because our customers were coming in for that and it was organic and they wanted an alternative to Starbucks. So a lot of what we were buying was dark roasted coffee. But my preference was always light roasted. We were buying from a company called Larry’s Beans that was roasting out of North Carolina and I fell in love with their Yirgacheffe which was a light roasted coffee.
Neal: How did you guys meet?
Jason: I used to frequent his first shop. They made this, looking back at it, disgusting house latte – it was covered in vanilla and chocolate. . . and I had a terrible sales job back then and I used to go there on my lunch break. . . it was just down the road. So I would go there 3 or 4 times a week. Then I moved on to working at Starbucks and then a shop called The Grind. I was getting into the idea of coffee at the second shop I was working at so I went into Zeal and ordered a pour over of an Ethiopian Sidamo…and I didn’t want to put cream and sugar into it cause I didn’t want to look like a tool… and it was just mind blowing – it was like a light switch. I didn’t know it could taste like that.
Peter: We had two shops going at the same time with a five pound roaster and we couldn’t even keep up with what was going on – the roaster couldn’t keep up. I lost an employee at that time that moved and so it was perfect for Jason to come in because I wanted to get someone doing wholesale. I had him doing wholesale ten per cent of the time and working as a head barista 90 per cent of the time.
Neal: So we are sitting in The Coffee Lab. . . How does Zeal fit in?
Peter: So Zeal contracts roasting out of The Lab. The building is a partnership between the two. . . so the concept was to have several people roasting out of here and right now we have Blind Tiger Cafe, Zeal Coffee Roasters and a company called The Hemp Coffee Exchange that does their roasting out of here as well. We wanted to reach out to the community and provide a place people could roast coffee, bag coffee and we have gotten so busy we have had to put a halt on expanding that part of it because we are taking up almost all the time on roasting now. Until we get a larger roaster we won’t be able to get back into that.
Jason: We didn’t realize that just being in the right location can make a difference because Zeal was in Lutz, 35 or 40 miles north of here and moving into Tampa where people can have eyes on the product and well, our business just skyrocketed.
Neal: So how is the business structured between Zeal and The Lab?
Jason: The Lab is a sister company to Zeal. Zeal being the over all parent company and The Lab becoming its retail location. . . and probably its retail brand. The idea is to put this in other cities as well.
Peter: So the concept was to instead of opening up a Zeal Coffee Bar and to roast out of here was to open up a place called The Lab and we’ll roast out of here and distribute out of here with the concept of bringing other roasters in – so they don’t feel like they are under the umbrella of Zeal Coffee Roasters. . . So its The Lab, its a community place a collaborative roasting facility. We decided that we would keep them as two separate entities.
Peter: My favorite part of it now is that at least we aren’t putting light, medium or dark on the bags so customers aren’t coming in and asking where is your dark roast? For us its what has body, what has depth. Where tasting notes come into play, its like wine – the average person you could put a bunch of different wines in front of them and they can’t tell the difference unless someone can explain to them how to look through to the after taste or slight hints and so like some coffees have overwhelming notes and some are just hints – because coffee tastes like coffee which is a note in itself. I like the way its going. . .developing a palate is difficult and it takes time to notice a slight change in coffee.
Neal: So my question is if only a Q grader (certified coffee taster) can pick out a flavor like, say, apricot well then does it really apply to the customer?
Jason: Well you have to remember who is putting the tasting notes on the bag. No one has a Q grader on staff here. . . I don’t think we have one in Tampa so who is actually putting the tasting notes on there is either a barista or people working the production line. I think a lot of it is, well, I don’t want to say its lying but a lot of it is marketing. Like its a huge marketing tool. When someone says this tastes like powdered sugar and you go whats different from normal sugar?
Peter: I’ll be the first one to admit that I was guilty of that when, in the beginning we were trying to launch a brand, I got my training from from somebody who was from Kansas City and everything was about the next big thing and a lot of people were using these crazy cupping notes so we would say, taste a hint of orange in there but I don’t want to just put orange on my bag – lets go find the most unique orange that has a sweet taste to it – so I would Google search orange varieties and so I would find some crazy orange variety that nobody knows and it would make people say, wow, I have never had anything that had this in it.
Jason: I think that the thing that is missing is that the people who are cupping the coffees and creating the notes are they are not creating the notes for the consumer, they are creating the notes for other people in the industry. I would like to believe when they see Zeal tasting notes they are like, well. . . we have a Kenya that definitely has a yellow bell pepper taste to it and that is real. Its not normal but its real. A lot of our tasting notes are what we are tasting in every method – what are we tasting in espresso, what are we tasting in a pour over, what are we tasting in an aeropress and what are we tasting in a cupping because at the end of the day, 80 per cent of the people who buy our coffee are going to put it in a Mr. Coffee maker and they aren’t going to get any of that. They might get that first tasting note, the most primary note that you get which for a lot of more developed coffee is chocolate.
Peter: Our tasting notes I would say are pretty standard now so that we don’t go over peoples heads. I own a Ninja brewer at home and a Mr. Coffee grinder and I’ll go home and brew it that whole week when we get new coffees in and I’ll distinguish what the people will taste across the board there and then we’ll throw it on the espresso bar and take notes throughout the week and say what are the most predominant. If chocolate is tasted on every type of brewing method, then it obviously has to be a note in that coffee. If there is a lemon zing at the end, if there is a sweet lemon taste or a dry lemon taste then lets find something that makes sense to the consumer so if we are going to teach them and have their palates understand that, it’s being tasted on every type of brewing system not just oh yeah we cupped it and tasted it but you’ll never taste it when you do a pour over at home.
Neal: Where is Zeal and The Lab going to be in a year; in five years?
Jason: We’ll be in another city in Florida in a year, I know that.
Peter: Our goal is not to move necessarily to another city but to expand and one of the cool concepts that we have all stuck to is to have The Lab Tampa and The Lab other places – you know it can be something we can share with communities in other places.
Neal: So would your goal be to keep the roastery here?
Peter: Each location would be roasting and serving, that would be the concept. We have roasters in other cities that don’t want to rent a whole facility but would love to rent some time on a roaster and you know it could cover your rent – they don’t want the responsibility of signing a lease at a place they don’t want to be in but they would love to use your facility.
Jason: In Brooklyn everybody roasts at the same three facilities because there is no room, so in your big dense cities that’s just how it is.
Neal: How big can a small batch high quality specialty roaster get and still maintain the quality?
Jason: The way we want to grow this (company) is the remedy to that. The problem that comes up is how many people do Peter and I know that share our values and maybe that we trust enough to run a facility . . .
Peter: I have thought of this a lot and this is where we might have a different style of coffee coming out of each city but we would still meet the quality demands that we have . . . I can buy thousands of different coffees from many different importers so maybe each city is roasting five different coffees but each will need to meet the standards of our company.
Jason: That could mean many different things from Peter flying out to where ever it is or them coming to us to ensure that they are continuously educated and that goes for roasters and for baristas. . . you can bet your ass that when we put a shop in another city I’ll be driving out there pretty frequently to make sure that whoever is hired is consistently trained.
Peter: Back to your question, I think that roasting eight hours a day five days a week is where you can max out at and keep the quality. . . lets just say you can output 500 pounds of coffee a day at a small batch level and you could, so about 2500 pounds a week . . . and that’s a very profitable business if you do it right. Get the right people in place, people who care, you can have a very good roaster that works five days a week.
Neal: Can you sell to grocery stores and keep up the quality?
Peter: That may be where a different brand would come into play. . . can you maintain the quality? Yes, but can you keep the quality on the shelf? No. How can you give them a two week date to sell that coffee?
Jason: On a grocery chain level like a Publix or a Whole Foods you can’t control them, they are too big, but in a local store we can work out a deal where we come in and replace whats on your shelf and we will make use of that so it stays fresh and I don’t think that’s something that’s crazy.