La Colombe's CEO goes to the some of the most dangerous areas of the world--and films every journey--in his search for the best coffee beans.
La Colombe CEO Todd Carmichael hunts rare coffee beans along Papua New Guinea's highlands highway, parts of which are known for violent hijackings.
Company:La Colombe Torrefaction
Headquarters: Philadelphia, PA
Year Founded: 1994
Revenues: $35 million
La Colombe Torrefaction founder and CEO Todd Carmichael doesn't just search the world for good coffee beans; he goes to some of the most dangerous corners of coffee country to get them. From the violence-ridden mountains of Haiti to the opium-dotted landscapes of northern Thailand and Myanmar, Carmichael risks his neck to pursue high-end beans that other roasters have either avoided or overlooked.
The savvy marketing move? He lets the coffee drinkers of the world tag along, too. Carmichael captures each expedition on film for a Travel Channel show called "Dangerous Grounds" in which he documents each new discovery from start to finish--or field to cup, as the case may be. He first got the idea for the show, which brings new meaning to La Colombe's tagline "an adventure in every cup," from his wife, who requested that he bring a camcorder with him on his adventures.
What started as a private way of sharing stories with his wife became an effective means of bringing the adventure to La Colombe's customers. "Coffee guys are always trying to shrink the space between themselves and the customer experience... trying to get people closer to where their food comes from," says Carmichael. This show-and-tell philosophy seems to have paid off: Last year, La Colombe's sales topped $35 million.
Not bad for a guy who got his start at Starbucks. "It was really sort of a Forest Gump scenario," says Carmichael of his surreal introduction to the coffee business. In 1982, the future coffee-hunter wandered into what was then a single coffee shop and roasting company in Seattle, Washington. He caught the travel bug reading the names of exotic locations on each bag of raw beans and "just fell right into it" from there.
Now Carmichael travels the globe searching for unique beans and flavors--and his enthusiasm for adventure appears to be contageous. "Dangerous Grounds" has already aired eight episodes on the Travel Channel, and was renewed for a second season in January.
With all this attention, is Carmichael worried that he'll run out of exciting places to take his audience? Hardly. "I'm searching for something that doesn't exist--the perfect coffee," he says. "It's an ever-changing landscape. I'm never going to be done."
Besides, there's a lot more to coffee-hunting than what people see on TV. The hardest part is getting the coffee out of a newly-discovered location, he says--often La Colombe must set up fair-trade agreements and establish shipping routes from scratch.
"For that," Carmichael says with a laugh, "the film crew tends to disappear."
FRANCESCA FENZI reports on entrepreneurship, technology and small business news from San Francisco. Her work has previously appeared in TIME, USA Today, Pop City and The Northside Chronicle. @FrancescaFenzi