People of Specialty Coffee: An Interview With Launtia Taylor

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Launtia Taylor, VP Marketing & Communications, Probat Inc. (left) and Mary Tellie, Roasters Guild Executive Council Chair (right).

How did you get involved in coffee?

I started in cocoa when I was living in Jamaica. We grew coffee and cocoa in the area, and I was used to both products. So, I didn’t start off in coffee—I just sort of ended up in it about 20 years ago. My husband was a food scientist working in the cocoa industry. When we came to the U.S., we started our own consulting company in Florida. It just so happened that Probat Burns was one of the companies we represented, and my responsibilities included organizing trade shows and promoting Probat Burns at the SCAA Expo and Roasters Guild Retreat. In fact, I believe the first event I went to in the coffee industry was the Roasters Guild Retreat.

So you got involved around the same time as the Roasters Guild was getting off the ground?

Yes, I think there were five roasters at the time—there really weren’t that many more out there. As we grew, and the Guild grew, Probat Burns became more and more involved in the organization and the SCAA. Probat Burns did so many wonderful things like donating the Probatino to various origin countries on behalf of the team challenge winners. The first one we donated was actually to Ric Rhinehart, back when he was running a roasting company. He gave the roaster to Tim Schilling, who was in Rwanda at the time.

That was when I realized there was a lot more that could be done, and I wanted to become more involved in coffee. When we started this program, the only criteria we had was that it would be donated to a producing country. I have so many letters and postcards from people all over the world. It made such a difference in their lives, because they were able to roast their coffee and sell it, or even just learn more about their harvest by cupping their own coffee. Some of the best times I’ve had in coffee were when I was able to see the difference that this sort of thing can make. The Probatinos that were donated made quite a difference in these coffee growing communities, helping to train, educate, and sustain the people working at the farm level. This was supported by the coffee community and members of the SCAA.

I also served as the Vice President and President of the International Women in Coffee Alliance for two years, focusing on educating and raising awareness in the coffee industry on behalf of women in producing countries. From this perspective, the roasters donated to origin played a very important role in helping these women to add value to their product—a small but effective way of helping to improve their family lives and communities.

What do you think makes a great coffee roasting company?

Well, I think you have to understand your industry and the craft of roasting. Know your topics, know your product, know what you want to do. You really have to do that in order to be successful. It can’t just be a hobby. Of course, if that’s what you want to do, you can roast in your garage, but if your goal is to develop that hobby into a successful business unit, you need to have a solid business plan. You need to know what your endgame is going to be. You need to know where you want to be in the market, and what kind of product you want to offer. You can’t just say, “Oh, it looks like a great thing to do because so many people are doing it.” A lot of people are doing it, but not everybody succeeds. The ones that do are the ones that have a good plan, know their product, and understand roasting.

Ask yourself what segment of the market you would like to penetrate. Then do your homework and learn as much as you can about the product, the market, and the players. It is fine to go out and hire someone to roast, but it is important that you know how as well, because ultimately it is your business. It is easy to be an entrepreneur, buy a company, and just run it looking at the dollars, but coffee is a little bit different. You have to know the level of quality that you want to provide to the market, what location you want to be in, what you want to roast—you need to know all of those things, and you also need to know the product. If you don’t know that, it will be difficult to succeed by throwing money at this.

What do you think coffee drinkers are looking for in a roasting company?

Consumers are so savvy these days that they can really distinguish the brands that know what they’re doing, have their heart is in it, and are putting in everything they have. People now are prepared to pay a premium for a good cup of coffee. But there’s a challenge for people coming into the market; they need to be able to provide a quality product, and if they don’t, they won’t succeed. If they do, the rewards can be very positive. You can create a good and retentive customer base; people will come back every day for a good cup of coffee. They’ll go out of their way to come back to your shop. It is very important to understand that in today’s market.

What would you say about roasting machines and the importance of selecting the right machine for different types of businesses?

First, you have to consider the location and related permitting requirements, as well as available investment funds. You also need to determine the desired capacity of the machine and how much you want to roast. Will you be providing private labeling or creating your own brand? If your business plan includes future growth, your concept and layout need to allow for this expansion. As you’re planning and selecting a location, you also have to consider the logistics of bringing coffee in and out of your roasting operation. Be aware that requirements may change, and they will be different when roasting in a coffee retail shop versus roasting in a larger facility.

For private labeling roasting or creating your own brand, the roaster should be capable of providing a consistent roast batch after batch roasting any coffee. Features like monitoring coffee temperature during roasting, exhaust temperature, and flexible burner controls are essential for providing a quality product.

How do you grow from a small avenue into doing larger things?

Having a solid business plan and doing your homework is essential for success. You have to think ahead and make sure that the location is capable of handling the capacity that you’re planning on, and the necessary permitting in that area has been researched. Best of luck if this is you!