Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Coffee roaster Norm Whiting has remained focused on his just-right size family business

Walk into Whiting Coffee Co. in northeast Albuquerque and you can smell one of the reasons owner Norm Whiting started the business in 1986 after coffee roasting part-time and running a wine and cheese shop in Austin.

“It just seemed like a simpler business, and might even smell better than ripe cheeses,” says the 60-year-old coffee roaster and retailer in a slow and steady voice.

The scents Whiting now gets start in places such as Brazil, Ethiopia and Peru. They come to him as green coffee beans packed in decorated canvas bags, some of which – their contents long lost to a customer’s thirst – hang high on the walls of his roasting room like paintings in a gallery.

Whiting admits it’s hard work slinging around full bags that weigh from 132 to 155 pounds, but work that has brought him a comfortable living, enjoyment and a family business of a just-right size.

“I never minded the hours and the time spent,” he says. “I could have traveled more and done stuff, but I think it’s better to have a job you like than to be desperate for your two or three weeks or a month vacation.”

A big draw to the work is its independence, Whiting says, a job characteristic that he also found as a boy baling hay, hauling rocks and plowing for Michigan farmers.

“I’ve always had jobs growing up that tended to be more independent,” he says. “You work hard when you work, but you’ve got nobody to please but yourself.”

By keeping the business small and not opening a cafe, Whiting says he can keep prices down. It also gives him the time to continue roasting, to keep on handling the details he enjoys as part of his 60-hour workweeks.

“We’ve kept it fairly small and pretty much (the) original focus has remained,” he says. “I think you can sustain a business and enjoy it if you keep your central focus and value, and don’t get into things that don’t agree with you, lose control or have to have 20 employees instead of two.”

After 20 years, Whiting sells an average of 1,000 pounds of coffee a week. He attributes part of his success to a growing awareness of high-quality coffee beans.

“Bean coffee is available a lot more places now than, say, 20 years ago,” he says. “There’s been a discovery of a better quality and fresher beans, rather than . . . canned coffee.”

It’s an awareness Stephen Wolfe, owner of New Mexico Pinon Coffee, partly attributes to Starbucks.

“Starbucks taught Americans how to drink good coffee,” he says. “After that, people decided they wanted that good coffee at home. They started buying gourmet coffee. That trend hasn’t stopped.”

Four months ago, Wolfe’s business moved to a new location more than double the previous size to accommodate growth. The company – which Wolfe bought two years ago – sells about 10,000 pounds of coffee a week, most of it a blend flavored with pi¤on.

Maintaining a consistent flavor of the pi¤on coffee is one of Wolfe’s biggest challenges, he says.

“We’re constantly reblending and retesting to make sure the taste everybody expects is there from the blend of beans we get.”

Wolfe notes his coffee roasting business is unusual in its emphasis on the pi¤on-flavored blend. It’s given him a niche in the field.

“We’re not a boutique with 30 bean types, nor are we a big roaster with stuff on shelves,” he says. “We don’t really worry about the competition too much.”

After building up loyal clientele and making a commitment to limited growth, Whiting has a similar sentiment.

“There aren’t many people who have my focus on being small, on price and not wanting to expand or grow,” he says. “If they were, they’d be geographically far enough away to where they wouldn’t have a great impact.”

Limiting the business size allows Whiting the time to keep on roasting. It’s a bit of an art form, he says.

After putting as much as 55 pounds of green coffee beans – which can last up to two years – into the rotating drum of a large German roasting machine, Whiting roasts them for about 15 minutes.

What he’s waiting for is the sound of two snaps, similar to the symphony of popcorn being prepared. The second crack means the beans are ready, and out they come at a temperature around 450 degrees.

If Whiting wants to tweak the bean’s flavor, he can adjust the roaster’s heat and air flow, or play with the duration of the roast.

“It’s just like baking or cooking,” he says. “There’s a certain experience that goes into it and attention; you can’t just walk off and do something. You’ve got to listen to the coffee beans.”

His advice to aspiring coffee roasters is to get experience in the business before committing. They should also figure out what they want from their work; running your own coffee roasting business doesn’t allow much time for long vacations, he says. Patience helps, too.

“It’s mainly that temperamentally that you’re small-business kind of oriented, and that you work whatever’s required,” he says. “You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing and be comfortable with it.”

FACTBOX: GET ROASTING

If you want to join the 1,700 coffee roasters and retailers around the country, here are some tips from Norm Whiting, owner of Whiting Coffee Co.:

Start with 1,500 square feet; it will give you room to roast and sell merchandise or coffee drinks.

Be prepared to spend $50,000 to $100,000. Good roasting machines can cost $10,000 to $15,000, as will your first load of beans. An espresso machine costs another $10,000 to $15,000.

Besides being adept at roasting coffee, you’ll need the right attitude and skills, including communication with customers and colleagues, math to keep track of inventory and costs, the ability to work long hours and patience for success.

The Roasters Guild has begun offering classes for a “master roaster” accreditation. The three-year course is still being finalized. Go to www.roastersguild.org for more information.

More on coffee roasting: www.roastersguild.org, www.scaa.org, www.roastmagazine.com and www.teaandcoffee.net.

FACTBOX: ROASTING TRENDS

Since its founding eight years ago, the Roasters Guild, based in Long Beach, Calif., has gone from 200 members to more than 360, says Paul Thornton, chairman of the association’s executive council.

As the field has expanded, Thornton says he has seen these trends develop:

More interest in single-origin coffee over blends from different regions. Concomitant has been an increased acceptance of taste variations in single-origin coffee, a normal aberration due to different growing factors for each crop. Blends yield a more consistent flavor.

A lighter roast, allowing more nuanced flavors, is becoming more popular.

Controversy over automated roasting machines. Critics argue it takes the art out of the process, while proponents say it does the job just fine.

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