Learn Coffee Business in Food Craft Institute's 'Coffee Bar 101' Program


Ritual Coffee Roasters' Eileen Hassi, an instructor for "Coffee Bar 101." [Photograph: Aaron Muszalski on Flickr]

So, you want to open a café? Sounds great—but where do you start? From writing a business plan to scraping up the dough, from deciding which espresso machine is best to learning how to use the darned thing, there's so much that goes into building a successful coffee business that it can seem nearly impossible to think of everything.

The Food Craft Institute, a nonprofit food-business think-share in Oakland, California, is trying to change that one espresso at a time, with its brand new program "Coffee Bar 101."

The Institute's director Marcy Coburn sounds like she's no stranger to coffee—not only because she speaks with knowledge and empathy about how difficult it can be to bring a café-owning dream into reality, but also because she talks at a speed that implies a few Americanos. Since launching the FCI in October of 2011, Coburn has sought new ways to connect experienced business owners with driven, enthusiastic entrepreneurs in all realms of the delicious.

"We started hosting these roundtables in our community amongst food makers and practitioners: jam makers, pickle makers, bread bakers, coffee roasters—everybody," Coburn says. "We quizzed them, and had brainstorming and strategy sessions about what they wish they had known before they had started their business, what would have saved them thousands and thousands of dollars, and hours and hours of time."

Turns out, there's a lot of things on that list: Navigating the worlds of real estate, finance, licensing, marketing, purchasing, and all kinds of legalities can be an overwhelming prospect for any new business owner, and when you throw food in the mix things only get more complicated. Coffee is no exception. In fact, it might be among the most complex, for a product that only has two main ingredients. With all its zillions of tiny moving parts and small per-ticket purchases, however, making any amount of profit in the first five years is a huge challenge, especially to a noob.

Caffeinated veterans including Blue Bottle's James Freeman and Ritual Coffee Roasters owner Eileen Hassi will join forces with Janelle Orsi from the Sustainable Economies Law Center and Jill Epner from Little City Kitchen Consulting for a 12-week program that includes classroom and field-study time for all attendees. "We're going to spend a day at Highwire in Oakland, at Blue Bottle in San Francisco, at Ritual, at Verve in Santa Cruz," Coburn explains. "We'll do tastings, take a tour of the facility. Attendees will get to do some hands-on roasting, and more importantly they'll get a chance to ask a million questions."


Participants will get to tour some roasting facilities, like at Blue Bottle Coffee. [Photograph: star5112 on Flickr]

A million questions are exactly what nervous brand-new business owners and folks making a mid-career leap might have. Short of trial and error, however, there hasn't been an outlet for the ready, willing, and nervous.

"You're learning from the people who are actually doing this, who made the mistakes or the great decisions" Coburn says with breathless excitement. "Students are blown away by getting to spend six to eight hours with someone who realized this dream, and to hear about their triumphs and failure."

Why would established business owners want to essentially aid their competition in starting up? Because it's the way of the food world lately: "I was shocked and impressed by how much the food movement has changed and matured," Coburn says. "The initial feeling for some was, 'I have spent two years making really expensive mistakes, and I just don't know if I can give away all my secrets in two hours.' I completely understand that; there are things that are propriety, there are secret recipes. But your experience is so valuable to anyone who's starting a new food business! Because you add your special flair and magic, there's no way anybody can start today and be you. As long as you can grow and change your business, you'll always be you."

"We need each other," Coburn continues, reinforcing one of the driving philosophies behind today's specialty-coffee culture: A rising tide floats all boats. "It's better for the entire movement if we teach each other. It's especially apparent in coffee. I feel like people who are part of the coffee world almost have a religious, metaphysical relationship to it, right? They know these secrets and they want to teach people."

The more the merrier, says I.

Food Craft Institute's Coffee Bar 101 is a 12-week program, running from January 5 to March 16, 2013. Sessions are held both on- and off-site, and occur on one Saturday or Sunday each week for the duration. The cost is $3,000, and class size is limited. To register, visit foodcraftinstitute.org.