Robin Pollard, a Rising Bean Star in Coffee Town
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Coffee is going the way of beer: Micro is in.
By Shannon Sims
Robin Pollard’s house is in a bit of disarray as we pull up the forested driveway. The carpet cleaners are there, a day later than scheduled. A new lab puppy keeps chewing on her materials. And she’s been meaning to get around to building a better website, but she has to keep running out back to the garage, past the garbage bins full of beans, to make sure the roaster hasn’t caught on fire. It’s an unlikely workshop for one of the hottest rising stars in coffee.
Yet here we are on Vashon Island, a quick ferry ride from Starbucks’ compound in south Seattle, at the humble global headquarters of one of the best coffee roasters in America. Currently, the country’s coffee producers count $12 billion in annual revenue, and the retail market for java is forecasted to triple in the next five years, market research firm IBISWorld says. But specialty coffee like what Pollard is producing is the niche to watch in this market — it’s never been more popular, and last year it took over the majority of market share, with 51 percent, up from 40 percent in 2010. Though Pollard’s operation is small, the praise bestowed on it is not. First came the recognition from Wine Enthusiast Magazine as one of the top seven roasters in the country. Then, in a town bursting with high-end artisan chefs, Zagat named Pollard one of Seattle’s seven “Rising-Star Food Artisans.”
With the owner roasting and packing and shipping, it’s hard to get much more micro than this.
It turns out, black-haired, blue-eyed, 60-year-old Pollard is exactly in the right place at the right time, riding a wave of hyper-customized coffee in a town that knows its beans. These days, coffee is going the way of beer, and micro-roasting is all the rage. You may have noticed Starbucks rolling out ultra-specialty, small-batch blends. Well, 75 percent of Pollard’s customers are already buying custom blends: that is, blends that she handcrafts to suit the client’s personal taste. She does this by sending interested clients a variety of free samples and encouraging them to mix and match on their own — or with her consultation — until they find what suits them. She then sends regular shipments to them.
Storefront? Nah. Only two retail outlets on Vashon Island sell her blends, and she’s got just three restaurant accounts, down in San Francisco. The rest is sold over the Internet, to just 50 regular customers. With the owner roasting and packing and shipping, it’s hard to get much more micro than this. And yet, even after all the sampling and consultation and customization, at $16 a pound, her price point is comparable if not lower than the big boys — like Starbucks, which sells its new small-batch online subscriptions for $19 per half pound. Which is why, she proudly tells me, she’s stolen away some “big name” clients interested in customizing their mornings.
While curled up in a window bench in her cozy kitchen, awaiting my first cup, I’m asked by Pollard if I prefer Ethiopian blends. I shrug, she smiles, and then Pollard turns her back to me before grinding at her kitchen counter. She explains how her partner, Chris Camarda, is an aficionado of all things fine, delicious and Italian — like his homemade salami and wine. It’s a mixed operation here, with coffee roasting in the garage, a shed of casks in the back, and chickens and bees alongside the house. But a joint wine-coffee operation makes sense if you know Pollard’s backstory.
The Iowa farm girl has long had her nose in wine. She was once executive director of the Washington Wine Commission, where she learned that a good proportion of wine sales are direct as well, and that gave her the courage to try that method with a different beverage. Before long, she was selling to the Comcast guy. Even Jim Stewart, founder of Seattle’s Best Coffee, recognizes that “Robin is dedicated and passionate regarding coffee, and experienced in marketing — advantages most don’t have.”
She tells me about her product as she reaches down into a big white garbage bin labeled “Sulawesi.” She scoops tiny Tanzanian green beans into her large Iowa farm hands, and rolling her fingers over the beans with a smile on her face, she speaks warmly about them, as if they were her children. She says her edge over competitors is in not over-roasting the hard beans, which means keeping a close eye on her $20,000 Diedrich roaster, something she says is “exhausting.” But the results shine: “Robin’s coffees are multidimensional, distinguished by expansive flavor, vibrant acidity and rustic sweetness,” says Mike McConnell, founder of Seattle’s Caffe Vita.
Still, custom coffee isn’t for everyone. These days, most people might prefer to simply pop in their K-cups, or keep using their faithful freeze-dried stuff. Pollard admits that her product is in some ways for an elite clientele with a sophisticated palate seeking a precise flavor profile. And micro operations can also bring with them another risk: inconsistency. Although she notes down temperatures and times on her clipboard each day, every batch is a new, unique one; to some people that’s the fun of micro operations, to others, that’s a drawback. And as Stewart says, in the end, the difficult part isn’t in roasting the perfect bean, “it is in finding a client who will pay for your effort.”
With that in mind, scaling up when you’re running your biz out of the garage is another challenge. By year’s end, Pollard hopes to double her customer base. And she’s not worried by big competitors like Starbucks; she gives her neighbor credit for facilitating the creation of a coffee culture, but says she’s offering something different. Starbucks agrees, and says through a spokesperson that “any investment in the specialty coffee market is a good thing for the industry.”
As the carpet cleaners drive away and the puppy falls asleep at my feet, a moment of quiet descends on the forest operation, and suddenly we’re just two women in the kitchen, sipping black coffee in silence. “I guess I think of my product not as a beverage but an experience,” she says softly. “I think I’ll drink just a little, but then I just keep coming back for more.”