Coffee Talk with Old Crown Coffee Roasters
- Josh Tuck
- Danielle Tuck
It’s 1998 and a novice coffee roaster, keen on one day opening his own coffee house, has decided to roast his first dark coffee. He cranks up his little home roaster as high as it will go, anticipating a robust mug of the freshly roasted beans. Ten minutes later eighteen-inch flames are shooting out of the tiny machine and smoke is filling his house.
Mike Woodruff was that novice and his first attempt at roasting coffee beans was, by his own description, “disastrous.” The man who would soon be opening Fort Wayne’s first micro-roaster wasn’t about to let a small fire and a little singed arm hair stop him from realizing his, and his wife’s, dream of opening their own coffee house.
Putting the Pieces Together
Mike always knew he wanted to go into business for himself, but none of his previous ideas seemed to click; especially the preposterous notion of opening a coffee shop. Keep in mind that in mid-1990’s Indiana, the concept of a coffee house was still fairly new. Mike’s dad, whose opinion he regularly sought on business matters, questioned whether people would even buy three-dollar coffee drinks.
Mike put this idea on hold. Then, on while on a trip to Wilmington, North Carolina, he had a brainstorm. “What if we opened a coffee shop on or near a major university,” he thought, “And stayed open 24 Hours?” It was a more refined version of his original idea, but he still felt he needed a unique hook to differentiate himself from his competition.
While on a visit to Columbus Ohio, the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. After dinner with friends, they stopped into Stauf’s Coffee Roasters, a highly regarded coffee shop near The Ohio State University. “I walked in and there were four roasters,” he said. A light went on in his head. Roasting his own beans was the missing element he was after.
Mike quit his day job, bought a mini home roaster, and began teaching himself how to roast coffee in his garage. He occasionally sold what he made, but mostly gave it away as gifts to friends and family. In 1999, Mike, and his wife Jennifer, opened Fort Wayne’s first true “micro-roaster” and coffee house. They quickly learned there was a big difference between the dream of running a company with your spouse and the reality of doing so. “All the things that don't get written into the business plan quickly come to the surface,” Mike says.
Partners in Grind
In the beginning running the shop wasn't without it's difficulties. However, they soon figured out where each of their strengths were and learned to work within those realms. When it comes to the big decisions, they collaborate and brainstorm like all good business partnerships. “Without one or the other,” Jennifer says, “this would not be what it is. He comes up with ideas and I help implement and sustain them.” One of the more ironic hurdles they faced in the beginning was that Jennifer did not drink coffee.
When they decided this was something they were going to pursue seriously, Mike told her, “If we’re going to do this, you’re going to have to, you know, drink coffee… and like it.” She happily gave up her non-caffeinated lifestyle and tried everything Mike brewed. A quick study, Jennifer soon learned the many different flavor characteristics of different coffees. Before long, she was such a knowledgeable taster, she was able to help Mike develop the roasting recipes.
Winning Hearts. Changing Minds
A great product backed up with excellent service made it relatively easy for them to sell their gourmet beans. “I always believed people would buy better products if they had the choice,” Mike says. Even so, education was key to growing their customer base.
Jennifer said they would spend hours teaching people about what “green beans” were; about their process and how different coffees have different flavors on your palette. They would often draw comparisons between fresh baked bread and grocery store bread. “If you've only had grocery store bread," says Jennifer, "you go with that because you don’t know the difference.” The same is true with people’s knowledge of coffee. When their customers learned about, tasted, and compared Old Crown Coffee against what they were used to – they were instant converts.
Jennifer says education continues to be a regular part of their days as is a little myth busting. They know they have a “mystique”, but she says, “Once we get people in the door we allay all fears.” I too remember being intimidated by all the varieties on my first visit to Old Crown. I thought, “I am in way over my head. This is not for me.” However, Mike and his staff patiently helped me find something I would like and today I am hopelessly addicted to their beans.
Interestingly, the education process sometimes goes both ways. Mike thought a higher end product might demand a higher end clientele with a more sophisticated palette. “My stereotypical presumptions were broken very quickly,” he says. They discovered that coffee lovers of all types know a good thing when they find it. You would be hard pressed to describe a “typical” customer at Old Crown. On any given visit you will find families, professionals, college students, blue-collar workers, and people from the neighborhood hanging out over a cup of coffee.
When Old Crown moved into their current location, they added a full-service bar and kitchen. Customers can now enjoy a quick lunch any day of the week, or a gourmet dinner (Friday or Saturday nights only) paired with a deluxe cocktail or craft beer. For now, Mike and Jennifer are happy with Old Crown’s success, but it’s clear there are many ideas still being kicked around in Mike’s head for the future. Until then, there is still much to explore at Old Crown. In subsequent articles, and videos, we will go into more detail about their coffee roasting process and talk to Old Crown's head chef Johnny Bojinoff.