The sixth 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 drive to Baltimore to meet with suppliers for their forthcoming coffee shop and roastery, they bring enough coffee for a much longer journey. A spigoted dispenser is buckled in the back seat like a child's car seat, next to business texts such as "The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success." Their preferred driving music is Drake.
Baltimore, still a city of manufacturing and distribution, is where many of Compass Coffee's suppliers are based. Haft and Suarez make the 40-mile trip to meet with them in person; besides, they also have a thing for warehouses, which they tour with the same kind of wide-eyed, craned-neck wonder you see in a tourist's first trip to Times Square.
Most consumers give no thought to the paper cups that hold their morning brew. But many small decisions -- some with important legal consequences -- go into the production of those paper goods.
What looks like a simple warehouse full of boxes is another tangible step toward the opening of Compass Coffee. On a visit to the Leonard Paper Company, Compass's supplier of cups, coffee stirrers, napkins and other paper goods, Haft and Suarez observed the pallet shelves, forklifts and caution signs: "Be alert! Accidents hurt!"
Haft and Suarez went to Leonard to select paper and plastic cups, an assortment of which were spread on a table in a conference room decorated with Chesapeake-inspired nautical prints. They were greeted by sales manager Paul Baumann and account executives Tim and Nick Carroll, who are cousins; Leonard, which began in 1940, is a fourth-generation family business.
"Our job is to be your logistics partner, to manage the inventory flow from manufacturer to you," Baumann told Haft and Suarez. "As you learn your usage patterns . . . [For example,] do we need to worry about the cherry blossoms next year because instead of five cases a week, you'll need 10 cases a week? That's our job, over time, to figure that out."
Haft and Suarez had a few goals in mind for their cups. They wanted an eco-friendly paper cup that was designed to mitigate the heat of the coffee without needing an extra sleeve, which would both waste paper and cover up their cup design. They also wanted smaller cups than you'd see in other coffee shops -- typical cup sizes are 12, 16 and 20 ounces, but they decided on 8, 12, and 16 ounces -- because the larger the cup, the more it throws off the ratio of milk to coffee in espresso drinks.
"Twenty ounces is just so big," Haft said. "You're pulling eight shots of espresso to keep the proper ratio . . . most places just add extra milk."
An eight ounce coffee cup, Tim Carroll explained, is tricky. "The problem you get with the eight-ounce is that 12, 16, and 20 always have the same lid fit, so for inventory purposes, you want less things on your shelves." Having two lids could confuse customers, but because the eight-ounce size is important to Haft and Suarez, they intend to label the lids clearly on their counter.
Choosing the lid and cup design raises the stakes even higher. Haft frowned as he examined a lid with a flip top, which carried instructions for locking the mouthpiece and a warning about the beverage's temperature: "Does it always have all of this stuff on it or is this more of like a demo type thing? It would be cool if it had nothing."
"They're all paranoid because of the lawsuits," Baumann said, referring to the 1994 lawsuit Liebeck v. McDonald's Restaurants, in which 79-year-old Stella Liebeck was awarded nearly $3 million in damages -- later reduced to $500,000 -- after suffering third-degree burns from a cup of McDonald's coffee. The widely misunderstood case led to a chorus of calls for tort reform, further explored in the 2011 documentary "Hot Coffee," as well as the phrase "Caution: The beverage you're about to enjoy is extremely hot."
Of course, Compass doesn't want to injure anyone, nor do they want to leave themselves vulnerable to litigation. But they do want to showcase their baristas' latte art. So your future Compass Coffee barista will hand you a lidless latte, giving you a chance to ooh and aah over your crema-and-milk heart before you cover it and take a sip.
"It's kind of like plating in fine dining. The way you present the coffee matters," Suarez said. "We want people to appreciate the time that went into their coffee."
And as soon as it's OKed by their cup manufacturer, Chicago's LBP, the legalese on the side of the cup will carry an amusing warning: "Caution: Objects in cup may be hotter than they appear."
"You don't have to treat consumers like they're idiots. It's coffee, it's hot," Haft said. "We like to trust the customers know what they're doing."
That's the fine print. But when you see one of the 150,000 cups of their initial order -- about a six month supply -- the first thing to catch your eye will be Compass's much bigger slogan: "Real Good Coffee."
There are 385,000 square feet filled with hundreds of machines at the Independent Can Company, and Haft and Suarez marvel at the efficiency with which they slice sheets of metal, bend them into new shapes and coat them with a varnish. But only one of them, the one churning out an assembly line of embossed Compass Coffee lids, matters.
To get to it, Neil DeFrancisco, vice president of sales, and sales representative Denise Gallion, lead the Compass duo on a tour of the factory. While many companies use cans made in China, the former Marines have vowed to buy American products whenever possible.
"If you pay two cents more, you get an American can made down the street, and you know the quality's going to be great," Haft said.
The tins will be used for wholesale clients, such as local markets or specialty shops, that want to sell Compass beans. Haft and Suarez prefer tins because they keep the coffee fresher and are recyclable. Once the roastery is in operation, Haft and Suarez will can their own coffee using a miniature assembly line in a workroom in back of their Seventh Street NW building.
In January, Independent Can began work on a custom mold of Compass's logo for the lids, and Haft and Suarez arranged to be there on May 1, the day production began. DeFrancisco and the group popped in some gumdrop-like earplugs and walked amid the din of machinery, churning out containers for Zippo lighter fluid, Joyva tahini, decorative tins for Curve fragrance and, finally, Compass Coffee lids. Immediately, Haft and Suarez made a beeline for the end of the conveyor belt, where they picked up a still-warm lid and ran their fingers over the raised logo, amazed.
The machine, DeFrancisco explained, takes pre-cut strips of metal and presses them into shape, curling the edge of the metal and "nibbing" the lid, or creating a slight indent in the side, to ensure that it will adhere to the can. Then, it makes its way up a conveyor belt and into a cardboard box that rests on a scale, counting the number of lids. Once it hits 625, a worker seals the box and replaces it with another one, over and over, until the run of 25,000 lids is complete.
There is new technology in the factory -- cameras are programmed to spot defective products -- but much of it, including the machine that produced Compass's lids, is decades old. Walking through the factory feels a bit like stepping back in time, especially because employees use quaint tricycles to save time when traversing the broad factory grounds. It's not quite the busy season yet -- that will come at the end of summer, when makers of popcorn and specialty nuts will place their orders for decorative holiday tins. Compass Coffee's lids are comparatively small potatoes.
"Our order is inconsequential to them," Haft said.
But when they stand before the green and yellow machine, warm and whirring with lid after lid, it feels very big. Not just the machine, but the enormity of the whole thing: Their first business, and nearly a year's worth of plans, made tangible in a single, five-inch diameter lid.