From the Ground Up: Compass Coffee in Shaw

The first installment of a series about the launch of a local coffee shop and roastery. Read all of the From the Ground Up stories

 

When Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez were training to become Marines, they drank some truly terrible coffee. "Sleep deprivation is part of the training," Haft said. "So you buy a 20-ounce cup of coffee for a dollar, and it's disgusting, but it has the caffeine and it keeps you awake."

Those cups of awful coffee -- and the ones that followed during their 2011 deployment to Afghanistan -- begat a friendship, a coffee obsession and a co-written e-book, "Perfect Coffee at Home." This summer, the duo will be launching Compass Coffee, a cafe and roastery, in Shaw.

Compass refers to a piece of their former lives as Marines: A training course in land navigation, where the two helped each other learn to navigate the old-fashioned way, with a map and compass. "It's one of the most important skills for a Marine: to know where you are, and where you're going, and how to get there," Haft said.

Those skills are just as important when starting a business.

For the next few months, The Post will be following Haft, 27, and Suarez, 26, through the process of getting Compass Coffee off the ground. By granting The Post access to the decisions, meetings and plans required to open a business in the District of Columbia, Haft and Suarez will give readers insight into the permitting process, architectural design, choosing a menu, hiring staff and purchasing products. Not even a small neighborhood coffee shop comes into being without significant challenges along the way.

"The saying [in the Marines] is, no plan survives first contact," Haft said. "You come up with an idea of what you're going to do for your patrol, but really, as soon as you see the enemy or something goes wrong, your entire plan changes."


Michael Haft, left, and Harrison Suarez (Courtesy of Compass Coffee)

From D.C. to Afghanistan and back

Haft and Suarez are both Washington-area natives, graduates of Maret and Walt Whitman High School, respectively. Haft's family has longtime ties to the area: His grandfather founded a series of pharmacies and other businesses, and his father, Robert S. Haft, founded Crown Books and Vitamins.com. Haft and Suarez met later, at Washington University in St. Louis. After finding their political and financial internships unfulfilling, both men independently decided to enlist in the Marines. They ended up at Quantico together as second lieutenants.

In another stroke of luck, the two were stationed together at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and deployed to Afghanistan together as platoon commanders, only a few miles apart in the city of Nawa, in May 2011. Both were responsible for training Afghan forces (Haft was embedded with the police, Suarez with the army); they both brought their entire platoons home safely.

"We're there during a time of transition. It's a very complicated mission we've been given," Suarez said. "We had this ritual of sitting down and drinking a cup of coffee and talking about how things are going."


Suarez, left, and Haft with their coffee in Afghanistan. (Courtesy of Compass Coffee)

When they completed their service in December 2011, the availability of good coffee in their civilian lives led them to experiment with different methods of making coffee at home. In July 2012, they self-published their e-book, which got mentions in the New York Times and The Atlantic.

"By August we were like, 'We love coffee, what are we doing? We should just do this,'" Haft said, and the pair decided that a coffee shop would be the next step. While they're working to get the Compass brand launched, they live together in Haft's family home downtown, where they've built a coffee lab in the basement. More on that in a future installment.

What is Compass Coffee?


The future home of Compass Coffee (Courtesy of Compass Coffee)

When Compass launches in a former laundromat space at 1535 Seventh St. NW, Haft and Suarez intend for it to be both a coffee shop and a wholesale brand, with cans of their coffee for sale in local stores. The shop, a stone's throw from Dacha Beer Garden and Ivy and Coney, has already been stripped of its previous fixtures, but build-out of the interior has not yet begun. For everyday customers, they plan to offer WiFi, pastries and a comfortable place to hang out. But for those who want to delve deeper, they'll host cuppings and educational events. A large coffee roaster -- it's being built in San Francisco for them right now -- will be the centerpiece of the cafe.

This series will cover their caffeine-fueled path to opening, as bumpy as it may be. And through it all, Haft and Suarez will try to address what it means not only to open a coffee shop, but also to create a coffee culture. 

"How do people actually drink their coffee? Across the table from family and friends," Suarez said. "Having a cup of coffee can be a really profound experience."

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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