On A Coffee Identity

On A Coffee Identity
July 23, 2019 Summit Coffee
In Blog

This just in: we are a coffee company.

As I write about all the time, we’re a company driven by its people, to provide remarkable experiences for people, building and enhancing communities. We sell pastries and beer and wine, shirts and mugs and hats. We host concerts and trivia, running races and charity events.

But at the end of the day, our core business is coffee. From discovery, to importing, to more discovery, to roasting, to post-roast discovery, to brewing, and then, ultimately, to the service of our customers.

So while it’s imperative that our core company values extend to everything that we do, and anyone who works for us or spends time in our cafés is far more important than the product we create, we also need to focus on coffee.

Multiple times in the past week, I’ve found myself in conversation with different groups of people about our coffee identity. It’s almost as if we’ve spent so much time on our company’s why, our macro focus, that it’s now time to identify how that spills down to our approach to coffee. Why do we source the coffee we do? Why do we travel around the world? Why are we organic? What do we look for in profiling each coffee that we sell? They’re all valid, and important, questions that I can answer on the fly but should probably, instead, spell it out for our staff and customers and partners to read.

So, here’s our coffee identity.

Alan Schaaf, the founder and CEO of Imgur, said in an interview to Inc magazine, “Injecting your company with energy every single day is a core responsibility of all founders. If we’re not excited about what we’re doing, then no one else will be either.”

We’re committed to only selling things that we’re excited about. It sounds obvious, perhaps, but we’ve tried to push through disinterest to produce things that we determined were best for our customers, and therefore best for Summit. That’s such a shortsighted approach, however, because if I’m not excited about the bag of beans your buying, or the drink I am making you, then why are we doing this? It feels fraudulent (and I don’t think that’s too strong) to sell you something that I wouldn’t enjoy myself. So, if you take away nothing else from this, please make note of that.

That being said, we are in the business of making people happy. I recognize my infatuation with Colombian coffees that taste like grapefruit or Ethiopian coffees that taste like strawberries might not be shared by the 1,000+ people drinking our coffee every day. So, the balance of this is imperative. That balance is why you’ll always find multiple coffee options at our cafes — so the barista can hear what you’re looking for, and help steer you toward the coffee experience you’re looking for. That balance is why we have 12 coffees in our portfolio, available online, in our stores, in grocery, and to our wholesale customers. We sell a whole lot of Basecamp, our most “traditional” coffee, and also a whole lot of Koke, our most “modern” take. It’s imperative that we offer both.

Furthermore, being aware of our impact is part of our identity. It’s why we spend thousands of dollars, weeks of time, days of upset stomachs, to travel the world and not only meet farms and discover coffee, but peek behind the curtains of what their world is like. It’s very easy to sit at my MacBook as I am right now and order coffee from a warehouse in New Jersey or Jacksonville or any other port city you prefer. That’s not our identity, though.

Maybe I am leaning too hard into this year of storytelling, but knowing we’re working with good people, making them a good wage, being responsible corporate citizens, is more or less a requirement of being in this business. Running a business is basically just a cluster of millions of decisions, and it’s the energy behind those that makes the difference between running a company I admire and one I abhor. It matters how we spend our money — who gets it, who gets a cut of it along the way — and every coffee we bring into our Cornelius warehouse has been vetted for not only quality, but also transparency.

To use a beer metaphor, we’re not going to be specialty house — we aren’t going to make a dozen sours, or saisons, or just a truck load of IPAs with every blend of hops imaginable. What we want is to provide a great sour, a great saison, a great IPA. Our breadth is one of our biggest strengths, we contend, because our coffee is approachable from so many angles. We want to provide a remarkable experience to a coffee professional, and compete with the best of the best in the geeky world of speciality coffee. Just as importantly, we’re committed to making craft coffee accessible to folks who can’t pick out dark from milk chocolate in their morning cup.

This all translates to the café experience as well. We provide coffee on batch brewers because a) it’s really good, and b) it’s not intimidating. While there are some awesome coffee shops that only brew via pour over, and we love visiting those, that’s not what Summit cafés are. If you’re traveling in Seattle or London or Tokyo and wondering why Summit doesn’t offer coffee that way, it isn’t because we’re ignorant. It’s quite the opposite. We’re very well studied in the world of coffee, and we’re also very well studied in the world of our company and our customers. So everything we sell, and everything we don’t sell, is for a good reason. This is also why our menus may change from time to time, so we can experiment and have fun and not be wedded to decisions made in the past but instead strike that balance between what customers want, and what they might want.

Excellence is the final word of our mission statement:“To approach coffee, community and collaboration with remarkable hospitality and a commitment to excellence.” Like so much of what we do, it’s there for a reason. At the end of the day, we have to be committed to excellence or else we’re doing everyone a disservice — our staff, our customers, our partners, the coffee community, ourselves.

But what does excellence mean? The definition that resonates with me most is “eminently good.” For Summit, it’s the totality of our approach coffee that is committed to excellence. It’s sourcing and roasting and quality control and the service of the cup or bag. I turn off the lights each day at the roastery (well, actually, I rarely am the one to flip the switch) knowing that we put so much into what we do. It’s why we cup every coffee, every day, to ensure that we’re doing our best.

Our coffee identity is pretty simple: we want to be great, we want to be thoughtful, and more than anything, we want us both to enjoy it every step of the way.

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