The seventh installment of a series about the launch of a local coffee shop and roastery. Read all of the From the Ground Up stories
So, how do you move move a 2,900-pound, $129,000 coffee roaster into a construction site? Here's what you need.
It's 9:30 a.m. and Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez are waiting by a partially cut-away door frame, modified to accommodate an imminent delivery: Two shipping crates that contain the parts to their top-of-the-line Loring coffee roaster. The truck is supposed to arrive before 10 a.m., and each one that approaches their soon-to-be coffee shop on Seventh Street NW could be the one to deliver the centerpiece of their business.
Harrison and Suarez know everything about the truck they're looking for: When it left the Loring manufacturer in California 10 days earlier, what type of packaging was used to crate-up their cargo, and even the type of air-ride shock absorbers on this particular truck, the best to prevent damage to the expensive machinery, for which shipping and insurance is $2,700.
They know everything at this moment, except where the truck is.
The roaster needs to come on this particular day for a few reasons. First, a very expensive roaster technician, Doug Graf, arrives that afternoon from Vancouver. Four days of his services are included in the $20,000 installation price, but each additional day is an extra $1,500. Second, because exhaust vents for the roaster must be cut in the roof, a task Haft and Suarez would prefer to do sooner rather than later, as the forecast for the next few days looks rainy.
Compass Coffee's general contractor Larry Castle suggests a surefire way to get the roaster truck to come: step out for a break. They head up the street for a coffee at Uprising Muffin Company, when Suarez gets a call.
There's a long pause for the bad news.
"When did he break down? Does he have a cell phone, could he have called us?"
"This is so typical," Haft says.
"I have a very expensive technician coming in from Canada," Suarez tells the shipping company representative, to no avail. The truck is stuck in Illinois for repairs, and won't be coming until the next day.
2. A Forklift
The truck is repaired, and the driver travels through the night. The next morning around 9 a.m., while Suarez is at a zoning hearing (more on that later), Haft and a jetlagged Graf are ready to receive the roaster with the duo's newly purchased forklift.
"I can't believe there was a time when we didn't have a forklift," says Suarez, who would later propose chronicling their company history in dates BFL (before forklift) and AFL (after forklift). A secondhand purchase from a warehouse supplier in Baltimore called Everything Warehouse, the forklift is intended to help lift pallets of coffee for their wholesale operation. In the meantime, it has been great for receiving deliveries. It also serves as a big toy they can drive around the unfinished space, giving each other forklift rides. It was lime green when it arrived, but later, they paint it white to match the coffee shop's walls.
The forklift is equipped to carry 4,000 pounds, and the main crate for the roaster weighs 2,000 pounds, with an additional 900 pound crate of parts. So, getting the crates out of the truck is a complicated maneuver that, in the words of Graf, is "an opportunity for creativity." First, they try to lift it out with the forklift, but the crate is positioned in the truck lengthwise, and the forks aren't long enough to keep its balance, and the wood on the crate begins to crack from the pressure. So they try to chain the crate to the forklift, but it's still unbalanced. So they prop it up with one of Haft and Suarez's steel tables so the forklift can successfully carry it from its shorter side.
"All you can think is that it's a really expensive roaster inside," Graf says. "But it's in, and that's what counts."
They take the roaster crate apart and use the forklift once more to scoop up the nine-foot-tall stainless steel machine, which Graf very gently deposits in the middle of the roasting room.
"That is [expletive] perfect," Haft says. "Legit." He starts laughing the kind of giddy laugh of someone who has just gotten something that he very badly wanted.
3. A Good Eye
The Loring is a sexy piece of machinery, "the Tesla of roasters," as Suarez often says. So it's important to the Compass Coffee co-founders that it looks just right. They take great care to make sure the roaster is centered in the room, and that its feet are level. They begin to attach its various parts -- venting, an enormous funnel for coffee beans and the cyclone, a conical heating implement for the device. Doug, with his charming Canadian accent, directs the duo as they attach parts: "The cyclone will come oot to aboot [here]," he says, gesturing. A new roaster has the same pleasing, faintly chemical smell as a new car.
"This is awesome," Suarez says. "So [expletive] beautiful."
As pretty as the machine is, they plan to make a few adjustments. A full-spectrum light that allows them to inspect the beans isn't the style of lamp they prefer, so they intend to replace it. A computerized control panel that faces the front of the machine has been turned to the side.
Graf, who has been roasting coffee for 25 years, boasts that he could put together one of these machines by himself in eight hours. As an independent contractor for Loring, he helps coffee roasters set up their machines and troubleshoot. His job, he says, is "A cross between a machinist and a mechanic and a computer scientist."
"This is easy, these guys are great," Graf says. "They know what they're doing ... I get a lot of phone calls: 'The thingy doesn't work on the thingy ...'" They have attached most of the thingies to the other thingies. Tomorrow, they will hook the machine up to lines for gas, water, electricity and internet.
"It almost looks like a roaster now," Graf says.
"What's roasting?" Haft asks, facetiously.
"When a man loves his coffee ... " Graf begins.
Compass Coffee's Loring roaster uses the heat produced by a gas flame within the cyclone to both roast the coffee in a rotating drum, and to incinerate all of the byproducts of the coffee. This all happens within a vacuum, so without any oxygen to burn, the risk of fire is minimal. And because the roaster, unlike older models, is a closed system, it uses less energy and emits fewer pollutants than an old-fashioned roaster. With the energy savings Compass will get out of their Loring, Graf estimates that the machine will pay for itself within five years. It will able to roast between 500,000 to one million pounds of coffee a year, "If [they're] really cranking," Graf says.
But on the second roaster construction day, they face an additional holdup. The vents for the roaster, which come from a different provider, were also a day late; when they arrive, they do not fit together as they are supposed to. So Haft and Suarez weld them together. Then, racing against the rain, they extend the vents through the cafe's roof, when they encounter a minor setback.
"We had to cut holes for the roaster vent, and we were like, it's in exactly the wrong spot," Haft says. The spot was correct in the blueprints, but a thick steel I-beam on the roof that ran exactly through where the vents needed to go had been forgotten by the demolition crew. Once they cut it away, weld everything together, and made sure the vents are adequately supported by the roof, they are in business and ready to roast.
On day three of the roaster installation, seven burlap sacks of coffee from Kenya, Brazil, Guatemala, and Sumatra sit on the ground in front of the machine. Haft and Suarez start scooping the green Brazilian coffee into a wheeled cart that connects to the roaster.
"The Brazilian's the least expensive, and we want to do our first roast with something less expensive to ruin," Haft says.
But the chance that they will ruin it is slim. They have used this machine before, when they went to the manufacturer to test it out. Also, it's computerized, which removes much of the potential for human error. After the coffee is sucked up a tube into a bin above the roaster drum, the co-founders simultaneously press a button, and the roasting process began. The room filled with the sound of 10 kilograms of coffee -- a third of the roaster's capacity -- clattering around the washing machine-like drum, like the sound of hundreds of maracas.
All the while, they were pressing buttons on the touch screen to adjust the temperature, which was charted out on a steadily increasing red line. The first crack happens around 380 degrees. After the beans had been roasted for about 13 minutes, Suarez hits a button to open the door, allowing all of the coffee to spill out into a cooling tray, where it is mechanically stirred. The now-empty spinning drum makes a sound not unlike when a spaceship's airlock is opened in a sci-fi movie. Haft reaches in, grabs a handful of beans, and pops one into his mouth, crunching.
"It tastes like coffee," he jokes, and then, getting serious: "It's really good. But chewing on beans is not the best indicator of their quality."
"It's a very good first roast," Graf says.
"It's going to be good," Suarez says, "but we're looking for amazing."