Interview with Coastal New England Rising Star Roaster Will Pratt of Tandem Coffee Roasters – Portland, ME
Antoinette Bruno: So let’s talk about how you both got into this business.
Will Pratt: I got a job at Seattle’s Best Coffee about 10 years ago in college and I’ve been working in cafés ever since, pretty much working in good ones and bad ones. And then got involved in roasting about three years ago and learned how to do it and we struck out on our own last year.
AB: So how did you go about going out on your own? Did you write a business plan? What were the steps? What did you do?
WP: We got halfway through a business plan when we got our building permit and then we just started building and then we kind of winged it from there.
AB: So, didn’t you have to raise any money?
AB: You funded it all yourselves?
WP: Yup, pretty much, very boot strappy.
AB: Just a ball park figure, what did it take you to get started, how much does somebody need to go into the coffee roasting business?
WP: I’d say to get your doors open we did it with about $60,000, but we did the build-out ourselves and used mostly free material.
AB: Where did the mostly free material come from?
WP: Friends who work in the business who had leftover stuff, so we kind of had many different kinds of wood around, things that we took off the building and then put back on the building. So, really we paid for very little as far as building materials go. The very big things were coffee equipment. But we bought those used.
AB: How did you go about researching coffee buying and equipment, like what to buy and where to buy it?
WP: We found our big roaster on Craigslist and it was the exact one I wanted, because I had the most experience on it and I knew we could start day one. I’d know how to use it and the coffee would be pretty good from the get go.
AB: Did you find the roaster somewhere else in the country?
WP: It was in Massachusetts.
AB: Oh, in Massachusetts wow!
WP: Yeah, it was two hours away and then we stored it in my uncle’s barn for a year and at that point we were married to the idea of opening a coffee roaster because we owned the most expensive part of it.
AB: So you have no investors, that’s pretty neat.
WP: Yeah, it’s sweet.
AB: So you have nobody to report to.
WP: Nope, it’s just us.
AB: But you have to do everything when something goes wrong.
WP: Yeah, it’s just us.
AB: Okay, so your love of coffee, where did it come from?
WP: I guess I always thought I liked coffee. I’d been drinking it for years and years. Then I had a cup of coffee in San Francisco one day. It was the first time I actually enjoyed it. It was eye-opening. I was like oh! you can enjoy the taste apart from just the ritual of it, so that kind of turned me around.
AB: Was it Blue Bottle? What kind of coffee was it?
WP: Yeah, and Kathleen was working there.
AB: Yeah, Blue Bottle was an experience for me too. I love Blue Bottle!
WP: It was a cup of three Africans.
AB: Oh, that’s very cool, you remembered!
WP: Yeah! I know, it’s a true story.
AB: Very cool, so, what have been some of the biggest challenges for you in opening this shop?
WP: I think learning how to buy green coffee was the hardest part because the coffee that you choose becomes your brand. And so, it’s just a lot of pressure. And then also, just figuring out how much to buy and all those things.
AB: Had you done any buying of coffee before?
AB: So, you just started?
WP: Yes, it would just show up in the warehouse where we worked and we would roast it.
AB: How did you teach yourself how to buy coffee?
WP: We asked a lot of questions. The importers we were using were very forthcoming. They taught us a lot and so we just worked really closely with them and the better we did, the better they do, so.
AB: Do you get to go to the source?
WP: We did right before we opened. We went down to Central America for about a month, and we hope to start going again this winter.
AB: What size roaster do you want to become?
WP: Not that big, I could see us being happy with between 50 to100 wholesale accounts—that would be the plan.
AB: In terms of volume, what’s that?
WP: Boy, you’d have to get like, I don’t know, 20,000 to 30,000 pounds a month probably, something like that, which sounds crazy, but we don’t want to be in every place, we want to be in places that we like, with people we want to work with. We want the business to grow slowly and deliberately, instead of just exploding.
AB: Do you plan on making more trips to the source to buy your beans?
WP: Oh yeah! That’s one of the most fun parts of the business. When we went, it was a part of the business we’d never really thought about enjoying so much, and then we realized how amazing this job is going to be. I think you just become much more passionate about your own product when you [visit the farms]. It’s definitely part of the plan, hopefully this winter.
AB: Buying green beans was one of your biggest challenges, what else has been interesting along the way?
WP: It’s been rather bump-free, it’s been weird so far.
Vien Dobui (business partner): We were worried about what the coffee-drinking clientele was going to be like here. I mean not only are we in a new city for us, but it was a new neighborhood in that city, so we just didn’t know what to expect.
AB: Why Portland?
WP: We just wanted to live here and retire here one day. So, being a wholesale roaster, we knew we could still succeed selling outside of Maine, but mostly we wanted to live here so, and we really love it, luckily