Stories are all about tension. I mean, who would sit down and watch a movie without some sort of tension? I attended this fabulous story workshop a couple of years ago. In it I learned that at its most basic level, a story is about a person who wants one particular thing, and then through the course of pain, loss, and frustration (i.e., tension), learns what it is that they actually need. Luke Skywalker would still be on Tantoine had a couple of pesky droids not shown up and ruined his safe, boring life. So, in telling the story of an independent coffee roasting company, naturally the story is all about the tension.
Meet Rose Park Roasters. Started by Andrew Philips and Nathan Tourtellotte seven years ago, this Long Beach company is all about supplying quality coffee beans for the home brewer and the local coffee shop. It seemed like a simple enough vision. Buy beans, roast them, sell them via an online store, and deliver the finished product (via bike delivery if you’re lucky enough to live in Long Beach). What could be complicated about that?
First, there were the normal challenges in starting a new business – finding people who will actually buy your product. In a growing coffee culture just outside of LA, it seems as though independent roasters can be found on any given corner. For years, Rose Park teetered on the brink of closure. In fact, Andrew remembered seven or eight times when he and Nathan were hit with the possibility of closing shop. So, why keep going? One day while on a walk, he mulled over his options: keep killing yourself trying to keep the business going or give up. He was surprised when he heard God say, “You get to choose”. In that moment Andrew felt freedom from the pressure of having to make the “right decision”. Explaining this idea further, Andrew brought up Kierkegaard’s take on the story of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham did not want to sacrifice his son. Yet, he continued to move into the tension as he walked the mountain, prepared the altar for sacrifice, and tied up his son. When you continue to sit in the tension, a third way is presented. In each situation it’s not always either or. As you may have guessed, he decided to keep Rose Park open. “I don’t always remember why I chose to keep going except for the sense that it’s not done yet.”
Tension it seems is a present reality in the life of those who grow coffee. Recent crop growers have been impacted by coffee leaf rust, a fungus that has a way of wiping out entire crops. Coffee takes four years to come to fruition, meaning that farmers have to bet on the hope that a crop will be harvestable. Many take out loans as they anxiously wait. This fungus is destroying smaller farms, which means that the two types of farmers who are surviving right now are those who produce extremely high-level, expensive coffee, and those who are choosing to roast a different type of bean (robusta) that is not impacted by leaf rust, but also takes a dump when it comes to quality. Yeah, tension.
Yet, that tension doesn’t end with the agricultural side of coffee. It’s present in our very coffee shops. With the current third wave coffee movement, there has been a growth in the quality of coffee being offered as well as a higher value of craftsmanship. However, these shifts have also brought about increased pretension in the local coffee shop. Purity is the name of the game and doing something as simple as adding cream can be seen as high treason. Yet, coffee was not always such a high brow affair. Coffee, Andrew explained, was the drink of the common man. For years it was cheaper than alcohol and thus allowed access to the masses. Coffee provided a way for people to connect. As humans, this is one of our basic needs, to connect with another person, to know that we are loved. Today, coffee has become an avenue for exclusion. There is a tension then that exists in the desire for connection that coffee can bring and the commitment to craftsmanship in the production of coffee. For Rose Park, it’s been about finding the balance between these two values.
So, in the midst of the risks of starting a new business that is dependent upon a crop that is susceptible to disease, amongst a culture that places high pressure on perfection, the temptation can be to just play it safe. Do what works. Stick to the plan. This past fall, Rose Park went off script. They opened a coffee bar. The company that was all about supplying beans and focusing on the distribution side, decided to open a retail location. What changed?
Andrew and Nathan were offered the opportunity to take over the lease of an existing coffee shop in Long Beach (which was literally across the street from the historic Rose Park district that inspired the company’s name). The offer made the owners come to terms with the fact that their present business model wasn’t quite working. The shop provided a way to give Rose Park a more solidified presence, and to do so in a relatively easy way. Since they would be taking over an existing shop, the process of opening would be much easier (of course, by no means did that mean it was an easy task opening a store with a month of planning and 10 days to execute the plan). Yet, having the store allows them to resource home brewers more directly. Sure, they’ll sell you a latte, but they’ll also sell you a bag of beans so that you can make a really good cup of coffee in your own house. Preferably in your pj’s and having not paid $4 a cup.
The first thing you notice upon walking in Rose Park is a wall emblazoned with the phrase: Welcome to the Process. Although the concept of life being a process can feel a bit cliché these days, it also is a really helpful way of summing up the experience of Rose Park Roasters. Start a fledgling coffee roaster and slowly grow it over seven years. Consider shutting down one, two, or seven times. Find freedom to keep trying, despite various challenges. Create a loyal following. Adopt a coffee bar and change your entire business model. A process it has been indeed. Full of tension yes, but a process that has led to the very shop in which we sit. A shop that is packed and has been very successful since opening in December. Reflecting on the experience this past month, Andrew said, “There is some sense in me that feels at the very least, for a month, we worked our asses off and created a good thing. I’m fine with whatever happens after this.” One can’t help but be reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:34 (NIV), “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”
And in case you were wondering, yes, bike delivery is still available.
Rose Park Roasters is located at 3044 E. Fourth St. in Long Beach. For more information, visit their website: http://www.roseparkroasters.com/