Leelanau Coffee Roasting celebrates 20 years
Used to be, a cup of joe was a cup of joe. Coffee. Java.
That was waaay back, in, what, the early ‘90s? Hard to pinpoint a date exactly, but you can always use 1993. That was the year Steve and John Arens started the Leelanau Coffee Roasting Company in Glen Arbor.
In the intervening 20 years, espresso has become commonplace, complex combinations of flavors de rigeur, and coffee – well, it’s not just a cup of joe anymore. Whether it’s from Guatemala, John’s favorite (“I like a somewhat lighter body”), or is an earthy Indonesian blend, the Leelanau Coffee Roasting Company is dedicated to providing a flavorful cup of coffee.
The Arens brothers also engage in what they see as honorable and principled business practices, with fair trade, shade grown and organic coffees at the heart of their business.
It all started when Steve, casting about for something to do, came up with the idea of starting a coffee wholesale business. He’d worked at the Montana Coffee Traders, where he learned about roasting. When Steve called John from New Mexico where he’d traveled on a bike trip, John took the bait.
They moved from New Mexico and Mason, John’s hometown, to the area to start the Empire Coffee Company. Only problem was they discovered they weren’t alone. “We found there were 12 or 13 Empire Coffee Companies in the country,” said John with a laugh.
What to do? They decided to keep the concept, but needed a new name. “I said, ‘Why don’t we just call it Leelanau Coffee Roasting Company?’” recalled John.
The name stuck, and soon enough, so did the business. Their vision originally was strictly a wholesale operation. “We figured in Northern Michigan there was $6 million a year in gourmet coffee being consumed, and if we can get one sixth of that over time...” Arens said.
Arens says coffee-drinking habits and the total perception of coffee have evolved in the two decades since the business was started. “When we started, we had one of the first espresso machines north of Grand Rapids. There was not a lot of knowledge (about coffee). That’s changed dramatically,” said Arens.
It’s not simply about espresso and cappuccino. The kinds of beans, where they are from and how they are grown, the ways in which they are roasted and combined, all create a variety of complex flavors that also did not used to be nearly so familiar.
“We had to explain drinks and various types of coffee,” Arens said.
That’s not the case anymore. Now words like latte and barista have entered the vernacular. Even tea strongholds like Great Britain are in on the trend, with the number of coffeeshops there more than doubling in the last seven years. Starbucks boasts over 20,000 retail stores worldwide. “Howard Schultz (Starbucks CEO) has been in a couple times,” noted Arens in an aside. “Who would have stood in line for a $4 cup of coffee?” asked Arens. “But it’s an affordable daily luxury.”
That’s not the only change in the business.
While the wholesale end of things remains key, with restaurants and grocery chains throughout Michigan serving Leelanau Coffee Roasting Company coffee, retail took off in a way John and Steve never expected.
“Our first store was where Cherry Republic’s soda fountain is now,” said Arens. “We put a couple tables under the pine tree.”
They soon outgrew that location, and moved to the current operation at 6443 Western Avenue in Glen Arbor. The front serves as the coffee shop, while the back houses offices and the roasting operation. Staff grew accordingly, with the Arens brothers adding another partner, Mike Buhler. John says business at the shop has gone from steady to spectacular.
“We had no real expectations,” Arens said wonderingly. “That’s been a tremendous fun blessing and surprise. There are lines out the door in summer. Who’d have thought?”
ORDERS FROM AFAR
While the shop isn’t as busy this time of year, they ship coffee year-round via contacts from the web, another part of the business that wasn’t in the original plans.
“That’s really changed how we do business,” said Arens. “We have customers that order from Japan and England.”
The internet changed not only customers’ ability to find and order coffee, but enabled the company to find the tools and equipment it needs. Wholesale coffee companies are also usually expected to provide the brewing and serving equipment for its customers.
“I used to have to call around for catalogs and then go through them” to determine who could ship the correct items, said Arens. Then he would have to order them and wait for delivery. Now Arens can log onto the web, find exactly what he needs, “and 48 hours later I have them.”
But regardless of where the business comes from, Arens says best part is not in the monetary rewards but in the people they meet and the relationships they create with customers.
“You meet really great people,” said Arens. “That’s been the coolest thing: The people you meet, the relationships you build. That’s true whether you’re a doctor or a farmer.”
Or presumably a coffee maker and seller.
The Leelanau Coffee Roasting Company is located at 6443 Western Avenue in Glen Arbor; call 334-3365. Online, go to LeelanauCoffee.com or visit its Facebook page.