Robert Peck (left) and Chase Damiano. (Photo courtesy of Brent Kostak with First Root Productions)

This week, an entrepreneur in the coffee business asks how to find employees as passionate as he is about his craft. –Dan Beyers

The entrepreneur

Robert Peck says he was first exposed to the power of fresh-roasted coffee 12 years ago, while working with his mother at a coffee shop in his hometown of Culpeper, Va. Peck was a barista and his mother was a roaster and café manager. When Peck went off to college, she “dove deep into the craft of coffee,” he says. When the owner of the Culpeper coffee shop decided to get out of the business, she bought the roasting equipment and started a one-person roasting business. Over time, it became more of a hobby because she didn’t have the business knowledge, mentors, team, tools, systems, capital, and network to succeed at a high level – she was great at roasting coffee, not bringing it to market.

Fast-forward a few years, Peck landed at Accenture doing management consulting after studying systems engineering and business at the University of Virginia. It was there he met Chase Damiano on a two-person project, and they discovered they made a great team. In 2012, Peck started to work with his mother and some college friends to revive the coffee roasting business as Commonwealth Joe Coffee Roasters. He left Accenture to concentrate full-time on the business and eventually Damiano, who coincidentally was also Commonwealth Joe’s first customer, joined him as chief operating officer. Now they are concentrated on building the coffee brand; testing new concepts at The Java Shack, Arlington’s oldest coffee shop that they acquired in 2015; bringing their Nitro Cold Brew Coffee kegs to market; and opening the first Commonwealth Joe Coffee Roasters retail location in Pentagon City, Va. later this year.

The pitch

Peck, CEO of Commonwealth Joe Coffee Roasters

“We want to make a difference in our own retail locations, where we can control the full customer experience and the quality of our coffee from bean to cup. We bought The Java Shack and, with a lot of help and lessons learned, did well in 2015, our first year in retail. We have a lease in the The Bartlett building in Pentagon City to open the first Commonwealth Joe Coffee Roasters retail store. We are excited to share our passion for fresh-roasted specialty coffee with more people.”

“We are passionate about specialty coffee and want to hire and train people just as passionate as us. Most people don’t realize though that there are opportunities for careers in coffee – we have to show them that they exist, and that, indeed, there is much room for upward mobility in our company. The craft of coffee has many sub-crafts within it, and each takes a lot time and experience to master – roasting, cupping, sourcing coffees, becoming a skilled barista. But food service and retail jobs have often been thought of as transient, temporary positions – summer jobs, or filler positions in between other opportunities.”

“We want to create a meritocracy that allows top performers to be awarded new opportunities and give them the support they need to reach mastery in their specific craft of interest, whatever that may be. Accenture, for example, does a great job of this in consulting. But this is very uncommon in food service retail for local operators. How do we change this perception – that we are seeking to create careers and not just jobs? It’s not just about sharing our passion for great coffee – it’s about shifting our industry, providing our people with opportunities to build valuable skills and subject matter expertise, and ultimately cultivating fulfilling careers in specialty coffee. How do we communicate our commitment and vision with a low budget to recruit the people that are truly passionate about coffee?”

The advice

Elana Fine, managing director of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business

“You’ll have to change the perspective of hiring people for the job as a barista versus starting career in a growing coffee business. You have to think about the compensation packages you provide to make this an attractive career: For example, offering salaries instead of hourly wages, and other benefits that people with careers expect.

“You will need to identify career development paths for employees. As a young company, you need to first think about how you will grow fast enough to create that kind of upward mobility. Also look at where you hire – perhaps from culinary institutes or food science programs – to recruit employees who are looking for careers in food and the art of coffee.

“It’s an expensive proposition to hire somebody for a career, so think about how important that is for you versus some of the other things that are important to invest in now. Creating careers in coffee might be a future goal as you expand to more locations, but think about that goal in your hiring decisions now even if you can’t make any concrete promises yet. Think about hiring ex-managers of large coffee chains who might really be interested in getting in on the ground floor of what you are creating.”

The reaction

Peck

“Structuring competitive compensation packages and designing career pathways in coffee are great suggestions. I also love the idea of recruiting from culinary institutes and food science programs, and potentially bringing in experienced hires as well. There are many professionals out there seeking a legitimate pathway toward pursuing their passion for coffee and hospitality. Indeed, we have a lot of work ahead of us, and there are more imminent priorities at hand, like building out our new storefront. But, as you suggested, we can consider long-term fit and passion for coffee in our hiring decisions, and invest in the training and education of our employees. Providing opportunities to those interested in growing themselves is a staple part of our company culture, and as we grow, we will inevitably be able to offer more opportunities, compensation, and benefits to our team.”

Looking for some advice on a new business, or need help fixing an existing one? Capital Business and the experts at the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business are ready to assist. Contact us at capbiznews@washpost.com.