How To Start A Coffee Roasting Business on a Budget
Starting a commercial coffee roasting business on a tight budget is not the most effective path into the coffee industry, however with advances in technology, competitive pricing and access to coffee roasting equipment – it is now achievable these days. A passionate coffee enthusiast has the potential to quit their job and take up the challenge of starting a coffee roasting business with minimum to no capital at all, providing they have the right attitude, access to coffee professionals, patience and motivation.
One method to accomplish this task is by dividing time between a part/full-time job and working on the coffee roasting business. It is not ideal to split focus, however, under normal circumstances most people don’t have the capital to finance a business at the drop of a hat.
As of late I have been considering the best and most effective method on how to start a coffee roasting business on a budget and I have a theory… I believe that the introduction of Uber/Lyft has provided a means for many entrepreneurs to work in their own time, under their own terms and under no urgent financial pressure while they save in order to finance another commercial enterprise. I have not started a coffee roasting business myself under these conditions, however I use Uber frequently and many a conversation has led to uncovering the drivers true ambition which is to drive until they are ready to leave Uber to undertake the operations of the business they’ve been building in the background.
Of course Uber/Lyft is not the only option to helping out your situation but it is vital to the success of your business that you have time to work on it! You need a stable income in order to take care of the day to day expenses such as food, accommodation and transport but outside of this – time must be spent on working on your business or working to earn money to invest in your business. Starting a coffee roasting business on a budget is achievable, although the hardest part is getting started in the first place which comes down to your current income situation. Therefore, it makes sense to be in a situation where you can both earn income but still have the space (permission) and time to take a call from a customer or visit a cafe that needs coffee supply. In order to start a coffee roasting business on a budget – you need to budget your time as well!
Quick Start Guide: How To Start A Coffee Roasting Business on a Budget
Below is a quick start guide to starting your coffee roasting business in a less expensive and less traditional manner. There are always conditions that affect each and every one of us which can ultimately determine how the business gets off the ground, how fast the business grows or whether the business will be a success or not. For example, an ex-employee of a well established wholesale coffee roasting business will have a greater chance of succeeding in this endeavour as opposed to someone from say, a non-coffee related industry. Not that there’s anything wrong with coming from a non-coffee background but I’m sure you can understand why the person from the wholesale coffee roasting business background has greater odds of succeeding. Experience in roasting coffee is not essential for this to work but it does help. In my opinion, its more important to have access to experienced people across the board because roasting coffee alone won’t get you as far as you think. Access to a quality network of coffee professionals will put you to the test and you’ll soon know how you stack up in the scheme of things. This is a great benchmark to grade not only your coffee but also your coffee knowledge and industry knowledge. Having good friends in the coffee industry will take you a long way if you are a nice, genuine person.
I’m going to start from the very beginning in my business on a budget scenario below – in other words, I am assuming you know nothing about starting a coffee roasting business except that you love coffee, you want to start a business and you don’t mind changing your current career in order to kick start this whole thing. Just remember that the main focus here is starting on a budget – alternatively, if you have capital to invest then this wouldn’t be the best use of your time and the decisions below do not apply. At some stage I will write another post for those who do have a lot of capital to invest in a coffee roasting business.
Lets get started….
Optional: Register with Uber/Lyft
This is obviously your decision to make and one just one of many potential options to earn money while keeping your freedom but if you get started by driving in a car sharing position, you will have something to fall back on while you are in the start-up phase. You still need to rack up the hours driving but this option provides you with flexibility and you will be your own boss. Not to state the obvious, but a car of reasonable standard is required to complete this step. It’s not operating on a budget if you need to purchase an expensive new car to use for Uber but… finance is available for new Uber drivers as the car acts as collateral for the Uber business so you can pay off the car while you use it to drive – which is affordable on a budget if you choose a modest vehicle. If you also need a vehicle for the coffee roasting business then this could be the answer to your problem. This car could double as a coffee delivery car which then increases the efficiency of your situation. If you choose to long term rent or lease the vehicle, the payments are usually tax deductible depending on which country you live in…
Just remember that this is not the only option to get started on a budget. You could work nights at a restaurant and then focus on the business during the day. You could work a normal 9 – 5 job but when someone calls to enquire about your services, you should be available to take the call. Remember that opportunities don’t come knocking everyday so you need to take every one, regardless of whether you can handle it or not!! It’s better to have tried and failed then to have never gained any experience at all. Your job right now will determine whether you will succeed, or whether you will continue focussing on your current career.
Buy a coffee roaster
So you’ve put in the groundwork working (or driving Uber) and have saved up enough to buy your first coffee roaster. I know this is quite a big leap from the first step, but you need access to a coffee roaster if you are be a coffee roaster. There is only one other way that I know of to get access to a commercial coffee roaster and it costs a hell of a lot less. I’ll add a link soon to a full blown guide to everything coffee roasting business related, however, for now it’s only 90% finished (July 2017).
If you need help with your first coffee roaster purchase, I recommend reading this: Top Ten Coffee Roasters Under 1kg (At a later stage I will have a full guide to buying coffee roasting equipment). Some coffee professionals recommend purchasing at least a 5kg coffee roaster but you need to be realistic when it comes to your budget and how much you can afford. You will need to learn how to roast coffee on a sample roaster because you need to be able to choose the combination of coffee beans from your blend. Green bean suppliers will give you small samples for free to roast in order for you to be able to establish what green coffee you will need to purchase. If your coffee roasting equipment is too big then you won’t be able to roast these samples. Also, because you are just starting there will be a lot of experimenting and you don’t want to waste 5 – 10kgs of green beans every time you need to practice. Since this post is all about starting on a budget we will be looking at commercial sample coffee roasters under 1kg. Later on, once you have some theory and technique behind you, you can move onto coffee roasting on a bigger roaster depending on budget.
The reason to start with a small roaster is quite simple:
- you cannot afford a large roaster, nor do you have the space, permits, afterburner, gas lines, plumbing, ducting, power, capital to sustain ongoing costs, availability of green beans for large batches and customers to supply.
- You need to learn how to roast coffee.
- You need to learn what the different parts of the coffee roasting equipment are for.
- small coffee roasters are reasonably priced ($800 – $4,000) in comparison to larger roasters.
- they come in electric – or you can use gas bottles if a gas line isn’t available.
- they can be set up in a garage or spare room thanks to the small size.
- they are great for roasting samples as well as full batch capacity.
- they don’t require an afterburner.
- if you make a mistake while roasting and ruin a batch of coffee, you only lose a small amount.
- if things don’t work out, you can still realistically keep it for personal use.
- you can operate in the initial stages under personal use while you transition to becoming a registered business and acquiring a food license, commercial premises, etc.
Whether you are experienced at coffee roasting or have never touched a coffee roaster in your life, is irrelevant… If you don’t want to actually purchase roasting machinery because you value money more than quality coffee then you could still make it work. It’s not essential to buy coffee roasting machinery in order to start a coffee roasting business because you can buy time on roasting equipment or outsource the roasting to a contractor but it will cost you more in the long term. It may also prove difficult when it comes to talking to potential customers about your coffee story. When you speak to a coffee roasting professional about roasting coffee, there is a level of dedication and love that comes through in conversation – its this genuine passion for quality coffee that helps to kick-start new coffee roasting businesses in the industry. In my opinion, the coffee industry runs on passion, not just passion for coffee but also passion for quality, passion to help people and the overall enjoyment of the whole process.
Buying roasting equipment works out to be more valuable over the long term because:
- this leads to learning how to roast coffee and therefore saving money on paying someone else to roast coffee for you.
- you don’t have to buy roasted coffee at contractor rates.
- you don’t have pay for time on roasting equipment.
- you can roast on the equipment whenever you like.
- you can experiment as much as you need to.
- you can use the roaster as a marketing tool and conversation starter.
- you control every aspect of the roasting.
- you can get paid to teach others how to roast.
- you can hire out your roaster when you aren’t using it.
- you learn more about roasting equipment, what parts are inside and how to maintain/clean your roaster.
- you become more knowledgable about coffee.
- you can connect to more professionals in the industry through roasting.
- you can join the Roasters Guild for networking.
- you have access to fresh coffee everyday.
I could probably keep going with this list but my main point here is that it is of more value for you to invest in small coffee roasting machinery rather than outsourcing your coffee roasting.
Buy green coffee & supporting coffee roasting equipment
You will need to purchase green coffee to roast with. If you need help selecting green coffee, speak to your local coffee importer. Green beans are a huge subject so I won’t get into detail here but the most knowledgable guys are the importers.
In regards to supporting coffee roasting equipment, you will need:
- packaging – coffee bags and stickers.
- bins for holding coffee and weighing coffee.
- sealing machine for sealing coffee bags.
- scooper for moving coffee beans.
- coffee machine.
- filter paper.
- pour over apparatus.
Practice roasting coffee
Now you have your coffee roaster its time to use it! There are 2 sides of coffee roasting:
- The physical operation of the coffee roasting machine.
- The theory behind why you are making adjustments on the coffee roasting machine.
The physical operation of a commercial coffee roasting machine is fairly standard:
- pre-heat the roaster
- add the green beans
- adjust the air/heat/drum with the controls as the roast progresses
- start the cooling fan and stirrer
- open the door and drop the beans into the cooling tray
I’m not going to dwell much here on the physical operation because this will vary depending on what roaster you are using and if you are using software such as Cropster etc. Anyone can make the physical adjustments and roast coffee but the difference between average coffee and amazing, delicious coffee is knowing where and when to make the right adjustments. You can use a software to help you roast on larger commercial coffee roasting equipment but if you can’t roast your samples correctly then you won’t be able to choose the best green coffee for your blends.
What is far more important here, is the theory behind what you are doing. The number one thing you must do if you want to improve your roasting and the taste of the coffee is collect data. You cannot improve if you can’t compare results. This is why knowing the theory of coffee roasting is the only way to improve. If you need to learn about the theory of coffee, watch these videos: How To Roast Coffee (Video Series). The videos are made by Joe from Cafe Imports alongside Mill City Roasters – both are reputable and knowledgable coffee professionals in the industry. Once you have the theory, the physical operation will make a lot more sense and you will have the tools at your disposal to roast delicious coffee.
Practice cupping coffee
Every person who learnt how to start a coffee roasting business can differentiate between an average cup of coffee and a fantastic cup but it takes time to learn. Become accustom to tasting new coffee… Now you are roasting amazing coffee and you can probably tell if you haven’t roasted a particular coffee the correct way. It’s now time to hone your skills by improving your palate. The best way to improve your palate is by practicing cupping – you can attend regular sessions as they usually pop up weekly depending on where you live. Another great way to improve is attend an Arabica Q Grader course – these are amazing and will teach you a lot about coffee.
Branding and packaging
With your new found freedom, the first thing on your list is to complete the branding and packaging of your business and product. This should be something that takes time and is well thought out. Consider what you represent and how your business is an extension of your personality, how you deal with people and why you will display the values and actions that you want your business to be known for. Branding is more than a logo, its a symbol that people might end up following because of what it stands for:
– what would you follow? who would you follow? who do you follow?
Because at some stage, people will follow you, your brand and your coffee. You want people to think you know how to start a coffee roasting business and run it professionally. Your goals and values don’t need to be visual in your branding but you want something meaningful that you can talk to people about – you need a story because people will ask you why you chose the logo you did and what it stands for. Make sure this is print ready and on your packaging, you should have both retail and wholesale bags ready. The retail size range include 250g and 500g, while the wholesale offering should be available in 1kg for espresso roast and 500g for filter. A great website for inexpensive logo and marketing content is canva.com – you can create amazing and professional work for free mostly with the option to pay if you need over and above whats on offer (you will need to create an account first).
Create an online store
You must have a presence on the internet! In order to be taken seriously you need to have a professional website that’s easy to navigate and looks nice. An online store is a promotional space just as much as it is an e-commerce space. The website could be the first impression for a new customer or validation to support your introduction in a previous face to face encounter. A website can be an expensive experience if you go looking in the wrong places, alternatively it can also cost next to nothing if you can navigate around some basic website building tools such as shopify.com or bigcommerce.com to name some popular shop-front sites. With the right combination of photos and branding, you could just create a website that will not only make you happy but also sell a few bags of beans each week.
Have business cards ready
Part of learning how to start a coffee roasting business is being humble enough to ask other professionals for their opinion. You may think you have style (and you well may have) but you should always get feedback on your ideas before you move forward, especially when it comes to marketing. You will need some attractive business cards – and the better they look, the more appealing you will be to potential customers. Having your business cards printed and ready to hand out is a great marketing tool which you can use to propel your business and help it grow.
The hard part about growing a coffee roasting business is getting your name out there – the best way can be by starting a conversation in a car with a stranger when driving Uber (if they are up for chatting). Be careful though not to push anything onto your passengers – you want to introduce your business to the right people at the right time. If the opportunity presents itself then you may get the opportunity to hand over a business card to the passenger at the end of the ride. If the passenger is truly interested they will ask you where they can try your coffee – this is where you need to provide tangible access to your product. If your conversation has been of genuine intent and you have asked the right questions to get to know your passenger, you will of course know exactly where to direct them in order to make it possible for your passenger to taste your coffee. In the best case scenario, you would have a cafe serving your golden beans, however this is very unlikely at this stage. At the very least you should have your online store on your business card where they can access your coffee through an online purchase. Have coffee samples readily available in the car as well for those who are truly invested in learning more and tasting your coffee.
If you come across the right passenger, you could land yourself a new account or a contact in the industry! There is no doubt that Uber/Lyft can be a great marketing tool while you grow your coffee roasting business.
Growing your coffee roasting business
From here the rest is up to you. Growing a coffee roasting business takes time and that’s why it’s so important to have something to fall back on such as Uber or Lyft. I hope at this point you feel confident in how to start a coffee roasting business and also completing it on a budget. As the money and contracts start coming in, you can scale up everything from your coffee roasting equipment to a commercial premises. Remember to secure a great accountant that works for you and build great relationships first and then sell coffee second – that is the secret to longevity in the industry!