Founded in 1916, the M.E. Swing Co. had already survived the Great War, the Great Depression, World War II, the 1968 riots, the desertion of downtown Washington and various recessions by the time Mark Warmuth bought the coffee roaster in 2006. But Warmuth knew he had work ahead of him if he wanted Swing’s to survive the latest challenge: a seismic shift in the specialty coffee world to single-origin, micro-lot beans and pour-over preparations that emphasize each bean’s distinctive character.
When Warmuth purchased M.E. Swing from Patricia Swing, the granddaughter of co-founder Michael Edward Swing, the company had a whiff of desperation about it. Swing’s was still producing custom-blend coffees, such as its time-honored Mesco, but it was also selling flavored beans such as hazelnut, French vanilla and — avert your eyes, coffee purists — snickerdoodle. Swing’s couldn’t decide whether it wanted to compete with the giant food-service companies like Sysco for restaurant accounts or adopt the persona of a specialty roaster.
Sitting in his high-tech cupping and training room at Swing’s new Alexandria roasting facility and coffee bar, Warmuth says, “What was apparent to me when I took on the business. . .was the relative lack of focus of, ‘What are we trying to be?’”
In the seven years since he bought Swing’s, Warmuth, 48, has given the grandpappy of D.C. roasters a second life. He has taken an old-school company and re-engineered it for the caffeinated culture of the 21st century. He has done so deliberately, with genuine respect for M.E. Swing’s long, colorful history and with a critical eye on the places where the company had, in Warmuth’s words, taken a “wrong turn.”
The transformation of M.E. Swing may be hard to appreciate outside the hyper-geek world of specialty coffee, where the technical conversations about coffee grades, burr grinders, roast degrees, pour-over Chemex coffeemakers and dozens of other subjects can make your average caffeine addict run to the relative safety of Starbucks.
But whether you understand its complicated nuances or not, specialty coffee is slowly seeping into our daily lives. In 2009, the latest year for which statistics are available from the Specialty Coffee Association of America, 14 percent of U.S. adults said they drank such beverages daily, up from 2.7 percent in 1995. Independent coffee shops — presumably pushers of single-origin beans fresh off the roast, ground and prepared by baristas trained to bring out the unique flavors of those beans — are flourishing, too. There were 14,250 such shops in the United States in 2011, according to the SCAA, up from 13,390 in 2010.
Warmuth didn’t pay much attention to such growth before he bought Swing’s, but he was enough of a businessman to know a floundering company when he spotted one. Warmuth struck a deal with Patricia Swing to serve as general manager before he made a decision on whether to buy the company. The arrangement would allow him to not only analyze the business but also try to get its house in order. After all, back in the mid-2000s, the 86-year-old matriarch behind Swing’s was still keeping the books by hand, typically at night after her employees had left. No one was overseeing the staff during the day, Warmuth says. As best he could tell, the business was losing money.
Regardless, the late Patricia Swing had one unwavering condition when Warmuth ultimately decided to buy Swing’s, the owner says: to keep the company intact and not sell off its assets or absorb them into another coffee concern. “That is a bit of a challenge,” Warmuth recalls about his “leap of faith” to purchase Swing’s. “Retaining the name but also trying to be cutting edge or current.”
Warmuth was, at least at first, an unlikely owner of a roasting company. Although he loved his morning jolt, he knew little about coffee production, let alone the hundreds of factors that go into a great cup of joe. But he was grounded in business fundamentals — he had graduated from the University of North Carolina with a business degree, worked in the software industry and had already run a company, a small bagel shop in Alexandria — and he was willing to invest in his new coffee roaster.
Swing’s needed a serious infusion of capital at the time. Its coffee shop on G Street, opened in 1994, was a decaying museum of Swing artifacts and outdated equipment. Warmuth immediately invested in a clean-up project as well as new machines for grinding beans, brewing coffee and pulling espresso. For Swing’s old roasting facility in a bleak industrial section of Alexandria, the new owner added a second roaster for smaller batches and for backup purposes; he built a training room and bought the supplies necessary to cup and evaluate coffee. Apparently, he said, the Swing’s management team that preceded him didn’t spend much time cupping and grading coffees before (or after) buying them.
“As far as I know, the process was, ‘We need a Colombian coffee. Get me this Colombian. What’s the price? Okay, that’s good, I’ll take it.’ Whereas now we’re much more discriminating,” Warmuth says. “I’m working with probably twice or three times as many coffee importers as when I started.”
Neil Balkcom, director of coffee operations at Swing’s, says his boss isn’t one for half-measures. “When he has a vision to do something, he does it thoroughly,” Balkcom says. “He doesn’t buy the cheap, used sample roaster. He spends the money, does the research and buys the best one out there. The same with the espresso equipment. I think [his approach] probably permeates as a culture throughout the company as far as who he hires, where we’re located and how we treat customers.”
Over time, Warmuth has had to make tougher decisions than what equipment to purchase. He has had to make decisions about Swing’s many product lines as well as the employees he inherited. He ended up dropping the flavored coffees, not to mention the panini, ice cream products and frozen drinks he was selling at the G Street store. He wanted to put the focus back on coffee.
Killing off the flavored coffees was a risk, Warmuth says, because it meant sacrificing a revenue stream. “Yeah, we’re going to take a short-term hit, but the long-term benefit will be that we’ll never have to worry about a customer calling and saying, ‘Hey, my Colombian coffee tastes like snickerdoodles.’”
Of the 14 employees he inherited, only two remain, which Warmuth sees as a reflection of the old talent pool that “wasn’t as strong as it could have been, should have been, which is why we were in the position we were seven years ago.” The two remaining employees are Rosa Lopez-Williams, who fulfills orders at the Alexandria roasting facility, and Lorraine Mundy, who works behind the counter at the G Street store.
At the same time, Warmuth has added people such as Balkcom and roast master Carl Dodge, people who would help Swing’s compete with the best specialty roasters in the country. Balkcom is a licensed Q grader, a professional accreditation that, as Warmuth notes, “makes him uniquely qualified to differentiate between various grades of coffee and identify the best beans for purchase.”
Bean grading and buying have become two of Warmuth’s obsessions. He and Balkcom can spend a good chunk of the morning roasting small batches of beans to cup, grade and decide whether they’re right for a Swing’s blend or for a place on the coffee bar. If the old Swing’s was happy to buy the most cost-effective beans, Warmuth has adopted a more nuanced approach to selecting his bags from around the world.
“We’re going to aim as high as possible,” Warmuth says. “If I’m sourcing a bean to use in a blend, I’d like it to be nice enough that I can sell it as a single-origin coffee” on the bar.
Likewise, although the ingredients remain the same in the company’s signature blends — the Mesco, for example, combines beans from Brazil, Guatemala and Ethiopia — those beans have become “higher quality” over the years, says roaster Dodge.
“We have a couple blends that have some Indonesian [beans] in them,” Dodge says. “Six years ago, we were getting co-op Indonesian . . . . Six years later, we’re dealing with more of a direct line” to Indonesian growers.
The company’s change in purchasing habits is reflected in the products it sells, both wholesale and retail. Yes, Swing’s still hawks blends, but the company doesn’t emphasize them, Warmuth says. So, for example, at Swing’s new coffee bar in Alexandria, you’ll find only single-origin coffees for sale. And after 10 a.m., when Swing’s stops brewing drip coffee, you can order those single-origin drinks prepared only by pour-over methods. The exception to Swing’s new approach can be found at the G Street store, where Warmuth has given up on pour-overs. The high-powered customers downtown apparently can’t wait four minutes for a cup.
“You customize your shop based on the needs of the neighborhood,” Warmuth says.
The odd thing is that, although Swing’s is fast approaching its 100th birthday, many in the Washington area still don’t know much about the roaster. And they often don’t know much about its transformation.
“My perception of them was old school,” says Alex McCracken, co-owner of the Wydown, a new specialty coffee pop-up on U Street. Then “I saw some of the stuff they’re doing and some of the equipment they’re using. I’m like, ‘Someone there is up to speed with what’s going on now in specialty coffee.’”
Ryan Jensen, owner of Peregrine Espresso, had a similar reaction to Swing’s some 10 years ago when he first moved to Washington. “I hadn’t had great experiences when I visited their cafe,” Jensen says, “I kind of put them in a box and thought that’s what they were all about.”
Like McCracken, though, Jensen has seen the improvements at Swing’s. And yet both owners don’t see themselves adding Warmuth’s beans to their coffee bars in the near future. It’s a matter of loyalty to current roasters, they say. It’s also a problem of managing inventory — keeping beans fresh, meeting order minimums — when you have too many choices on a coffee bar. But Jensen, for one, takes hope from the experience of Caffe Pronto, the Annapolis roaster that changed its name to Ceremony Coffee and found a firm foothold in the District.
“I think the same thing will happen with Swing’s as they improve their offerings,” Jensen says.