The Cafe as University: Blueprint Coffee is the Department of Craft Coffee

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I am happy that I was able to pursue and complete this little project this weekend. I should thank Roaster and Founder Andrew Timko and Founder/Retail General Manager Kevin Reddy for spending some time with me recording interviews last Friday afternoon when they had things to do.

I digitally recorded consecutive interviews with Mr. Timko and Mr. Reddy. I didn’t think the story would flow as well if I uploaded the raw audio without proper context, and there was no simple way (for me) to get the audio on the website. I apologize for being stymied by technology. I have transcribed the interviews and have set about putting the statements and viewpoints of the two principals in an order that, with hope, makes good sense to the reader.

This is another coffee story. Why should you care? Here’s why: Learning is rewarding both spiritually and intellectually. That came across in my talks with the two men. This project has been gratifying to me in that the more I learn about Blueprint the more impressed I am. I think about my own coffee journey, drinking French Roast from a coffee machine, not knowing brewing ratios, etc. to the knowledge I have built up over the past few years, and I realize how my sensibilities have changed, and been changed by my engagement with coffee. There’s so much one can learn, yet anyone can recreate daily a fantastic coffee experience.

Another reason: the founders of Blueprint Coffee didn’t start the business to be just a local iteration of the specialty coffee scene. To paraphrase Kevin, they just happen to be in St. Louis. They are interested in being a reciprocal resource in the community in which they live, but Kevin supported his argument that the market was primed to host such a business, and they see their mandate as a national one–they actively want to drive development in specialty coffee and through their efforts and strategies plan to be relevant in the field. If they aren’t a part of that discourse a few years from now, they would not consider the business a success. If you want to see ambition in action, get down there and talk to them.

Finally, there are problems in American retail businesses today. Most of us are aware of how jobs–work–has changed over the past few decades, to the detriment of those who must work for a living. One gets the sense that everyone at Blueprint wants to be there, feels appreciated, and that individually they are working hard to master their craft. Whether it’s a hardware store or a daycare center, that’s a good model for a business. Let’s get to it…

The best teachers are lifelong learners. They also regularly reflect on how things are going so that learning may improve. Prior learning comes into play, as it is one of the ways we assimilate new ideas, bringing what we already know to a new task or information. The metaphor of the mind as a sponge is incorrect. It’s now accepted that knowledge is constructed and meant to be shared.

Whether they are conscious of it or not, the founders of Blueprint Coffee on Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis are developing a new university department: the Department of Craft Coffee. This is their mandate, their ethos, and their model, I gathered in conversations with Andrew Timko and Kevin Reddy.

I was struck by their ambition and focus, but most of all by their self-avowed orientation towards collaboration among themselves and with the wider specialty coffee community and St. Louis itself to learn how to turn out a superior product and to grow the market for it. This is a dynamic group of learner-teachers, if you listen to the language they use about their roles in the coffee business.

I referenced prior learning. This is a seasoned group of retail coffee pros. All of the employees have years of experience at other companies. They understand the importance of sharing knowledge.

The area in which they are trying to get up to speed concerns the growing of coffee. I spoke to Andrew Timko, Roaster and manager of the green coffee program about this. He is leaning on the importers to help them develop relationships going forward. He is reaching back for better information.

Andrew: “My view of it is, importers are the ones who put all the work into origin. They’re the ones that have invested in the farmer, they’re the ones that have helped educate them, they’re the ones who have helped them make transitions to specialty coffee. So, we want to see how those relationships evolve.

“Importers are the experts. So, what are we tasting? We’ve put a lot of effort into tasting and exploring, so that as things progress these relationships naturally evolve.”

This is Blueprint’s mission statement: “Blueprint Coffee seeks a mutually beneficial relationship among our producers, vendors, wholesale partners, and customers. Good coffee must be good from the start, so we dedicate a tremendous amount of time selecting a few coffees that are fresh and exciting.

The beauty of these coffees is maintained through precise roasting, brewing, and training methods. Our company was born because a handful of baristas knew there was a need for a more transparent way to serve and present coffee…”

I asked Andrew to characterize how that works in the shop:

AT: “Having an understanding of all the facets that go into coffee…from farmers preparing seeds and maintaining plants, all the way up to how you evaluate brewed coffee and espresso, then bringing that together with customer service experience.

“We want to represent and respect every aspect of coffee. We want everyone to be comfortable here, in our space. We want all of our coffees to be approachable and accessible, but we want customer service to be exceptional.

“We’re trying to bring together all elements from origin to roasting to barista preparation to service–all those things that just really make the coffee experience, the café experience, the customer interaction–positive. So, “good from the start” really just is saying, we’re not holding back anything positive, anything that makes it great.”

Kevin Reddy is the Retail General Manager at Blueprint. He put what they do in the context of the community at large:

Kevin: “Ultimately, we hope that St. Louis is recognized nationally for being a place that you can trust the food scene, the coffee scene…We’re working alongside microbreweries and high-end restaurants and cocktail bars. We think we’re helping St. Louis through the people we support in the community in its craft scene, its craft market.”

The specialty coffee market here goes back decades but has only begun to effloresce in the last five years. Some roast coffee but don’t have a retail outlet. Some others only do blends. Another business attempts to be a local version of Starbucks. A few do roasts that start at medium-dark and go through French Roast. There are only a few doing what Blueprint is doing:

KR: “The retail model we’ve set up is really the best way to market what we are trying to do. We have total control over the environment, over the product and the craft, and while our margins might not be as high in the front, that attention to detail supports a positive brand recognition that will turn into a trusted company where other shops look for their coffee, grocery stores start calling us to get us in.”

Instead of florid descriptions of flavors and sensations–and since everyone’s palate is different–Blueprint has devised a concept of a triangle pointing to “bright-body-sweet” on each package of roasted coffee. Bright is yellow, body is in blue, and sweet is colored red. Depending on intensity, each third of the triangle is colored in. If a coffee is not very bright, not much yellow will be shown, for instance. It’s a more accessible representation of a coffee’s profile.

I asked Andrew what kind of feedback they had gotten on the “bright-body-sweet” triangle:

AT: “I ask customers about that all the time. We’re trying not to describe coffees with specific terms. if they like a coffee then they can identify coffee through that profile. People’s tastes are different.”

Kevin came at it from a different angle:

KR: “In my mind our ideal customer is somebody that’s engaged in the craft and is excited to learn what we’re doing, and we’ve tried to build a space that is conducive for that tutelage. They can come in and try something different and then get a bag of coffee and go home and brew that coffee.

“I think the manual brew methods are the best way for a customer to get a high quality coffee at home. Even our menu is designed to facilitate education. It’s a conversation.

“We are trying to eliminate the mystery. There’s a science to it…but you can learn (how to adjust things)…our model is to be a resource to the community.”

Blueprint Coffee is also reaching out to the wider specialty coffee community to help drive its direction in the future. Here’s Kevin:

KR: “I hope we never get to the point where we’re stagnant. I think we need to be a dynamic model. If we sit still the industry will just pass us right by. So it’s up to us to be engaged in the coffee professional community, in national events and competitions, and be a part of the conversation about where coffee’s going so we can help define what that is in St. Louis.”

I asked Kevin what benchmark he used personally to judge that he had a good day:

KR: “When you work for somebody else for a long time you’re a voice of their brand, of their product, of what they are trying to do. Oftentimes, there’s compromises made in the quality of certain ingredients, or certain things, and you’re often sort of in a difficult position in the retail world, ’cause you’re trying to sell something that you’d rather not be selling.

“So to me, to be proud of everything we sell is, in itself, to me, I feel good about my role in life…The coffee we bring in is of a quality that I would want to share with everyone in St. Louis. I feel like I can be passionate about it. The moment I sort of lose that enthusiasm, or that I don’t care anymore about the product, it’s really difficult to take care of the customer in an honest and truthful manner.

“I happen to work in coffee, and obviously passions have taken me to this place, but if I can really take care of my customers well, then that’s it, that’s all I need. And if that’s the case then you start to have customers come back and come back and come back; that’s how you build the business.

“I’m very fortunate. Obviously I had goals coming into opening a business, but I never expected it to be what it is right out of the gate. We’re delivering coffee to the community that is on par with some of the best in the country, in my mind, and I don’t suspect that will ever change because that is sort of the ‘elevator pitch’. That’s our business.

“We’re aware of the price points, we’re aware of the business, we’re aware of the demands of wholesale and retail, we’ve all worked in it; we understand the business but we came into it with no other goal than to be the best.”

He added they’ve had very little pushback on the prices for their coffee. He said people come in and understand right away that this is a different kind of coffee shop. Kevin believes in the value of their offerings.

Andrew defined success of the company:

AT: ” Success would be if five-ten years down the road all these little seeds, these beginnings–pun intended, coffee’s a seed–have started to grow and take root.

“Obviously if we’re around in five or ten years we’re paying the bills, but then if we’re not having solid relationships with farmers, and not doing something at origin, and we are not doing something in the roasting and barista community that has impact on the larger specialty coffee community, then I would not consider that success.

“Through the work…the desire to have a roaster community in St. Louis, the contributions I’ve made to education through SCAA, (Specialty Coffee Association of America) and also what I’ve received from SCAA, have given me a passion to build the community. There’s always been this amazing thing that has come out of people sharing their knowledge, people trying to improve specialty coffee in every way. From five years ago to today, the advances in specialty coffee have been enormous.”

See what I mean? And they’re a part of it. Blueprint and the university nearby, Washington University, are becoming mutually dependent on each other. Perhaps one day there will be an endowed chair in the Department of Craft Coffee, and his name will be Kevin or Andrew.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

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