Duane Sorenson is one of those guys who takes his coffee very seriously--very seriously. "At four or five, I used to just dump tons of cream and sugar into the coffee," he says. Thus began a lifelong obsession with finding the perfect cup of joe.
Throughout high school and college, Sorenson worked as a barista, eventually dropping out in his senior year to study the craft of roasting at Lighthouse Roasters in Seattle. Enthralled with the shop's handcrafted approach, he continued roasting for several more years.
In 1998, when he was just 26, Sorenson decided to strike out on his own. With visions of launching a hip independent coffee shop, he splurged on a cast iron Probat roaster from the 1920s and moved down to Portland--a city he'd always admired for its skateboard and coffee scenes.
The path wasn't easy. Sorenson worked night after night as a bartender at Horse Brass Pub, spending his days and his paychecks equipping the space he'd secured. One night, after having too much to drink, the bar's owner, Don Younger, offered to lend some money so Sorenson could buy his first (and certainly not last) La Marzocco espresso machine. Combining that money with his personal savings, Sorenson managed to bootstrap what eventually became Stumptown Coffee, named for the city's rich logging legacy. "I was so freaked out about it," he says of becoming an entrepreneur. "Being an employee my whole life, starting a business was just a weird experience."
Fortunately, the excitement of "making people's mornings better and being behind the espresso machine" motivated him to continue. The first Stumptown, opened in November 1999, was an overnight hit among Portland's many artsy types, and soon Sorenson was delivering coffee to wholesale customers out of his Ford Pinto. Within a few years he had opened three other shops in Portland and expanded his small team to 30 employees.
"We've always been growing, especially on the wholesale side," says Stumptown vice president Matt Lounsbury, who's been with the company almost 12 years. "I always like to say it's been the same every year."
Focus on sourcing
While Sorenson earned a reputation as a coffee-sourcing fanatic wired on espresso, Stumptown forged relationships with coffee farmers around the world. This evolved into what's known as its Direct Trade program, which aims to improve coffee where it starts by offering incentives to farmers for growing better-quality beans. To hear Sorenson tell it, this is what makes "Stumptown Coffee the best part of a lot of people's days." Lounsbury calls the program the company's backbone.
"We go down to the place of origin, look the farmer in the eye, and agree what we're going to pay to them based on how the coffee tastes," he explains. "Their coffee improves every year, and we pay them for it." Today Stumptown has two full-time coffee buyers who travel six out of every eight weeks to view farms. "We have [farms] in Colombia, Peru, Ethiopia," Lounsbury says, with the goal of continuing to buy their coffee "with the idea we can see it get better."
Lounsbury says Stumptown is unwilling to settle for just a "good" cup of coffee, and remains "on the lookout for the next best thing or new, emerging places of origin." Not only is a steady stream of samples coming in, exporters and other "people on the ground" tip off buyers to where some of the best stuff is being grown.
With so much coffee-tasting going on, you have to wonder how Stumptown maintains quality. To that Lounsbury responds, "Literally, on a scale of 1 to 100, we only buy coffee that's an 86 or above and pretty unique to us." A full-time quality-control team assesses every batch of coffee, and all roasters and cuppers are calibrated so they have the same standards, resulting in a consistent "score taste." "It's a lot of experience and shared gut feel on how those coffees are performing," he says.
The company also invests heavily in wholesale to keep quality up where the coffee is served. That means dispatching Stumptown employees to educate baristas on coffee, and teaching them the background "so as they go to prepare that coffee, they do a good job and are getting other people excited," Lounsbury says. "We're really big on support, training, service, and education."
In fact, Stumptown is so committed to the businesses selling its coffee, it will even help them install the necessary equipment, show them how to use it, and get the doors open, free of charge. "We're still pretty selective about who carries our coffee--and not in a snooty way--but we want people to care about good coffee, be interested in good equipment and the training we offer," Lounsbury says of these wholesale buyers. "If the answer's no, we get it--but we might not be the right roaster."
After opening an outpost in the lobby of New York City's Ace Hotel on Labor Day of 2009, Stumptown saw its popularity soar nationally. "We received more recognition than we ever have," says Sorenson. As a result, Stumptown became a brand associated with Portland-quality joe and grew to 275 employees. Today, there are nine Stumptown coffee shops, plus the company's e-commerce business.
Although Stumptown declined to provide revenue figures, its plans for 2015 speak to its growth. A new shop opened in Los Angeles last August, and another recently opened in New York City's trendy West Village.
Like the quality of the coffee, Lounsbury attributes the company's growth to the skill and dedication of his team. "You'll realize there's a pretty common thread among our people in that they work really hard and also like to hang out together, and are typically musicians and artists outside of work," he says. And of course, Sorenson adds, they have a genuine love for the product. "Our employees are proud to work at Stumptown, and work hard to make the coffee taste good."