As soon as we walked into Bird Rock Coffee Roasters in San Diego and took a sip, we knew they were the perfect partner for Lyric Park 12. Luckily, they agreed. So, we sat down with owner Jeff Taylor to hear about his unexpected journey from photojournalist to coffee roaster, Bird Rock's commitment to their farmers and how Bird Rock is giving back close to home.
How did you get started in coffee?
Long story short, I was a photojournalist by trade, living in the Northwest when I got a job offer from The Topeka Capitol-Journal. In photojournalism circles, it was a legendary newspaper, and a stepping stone that took you to your next great job – so I moved to Topeka. When I got there in 1990, I was familiar with coffee because of living in the Northwest, Starbucks only had two or three stores at this point, but I had seen espresso carts on the street and drank lattes, so I took for granted that good coffee was all around. Then I moved to Topeka and there was zero coffee – I mean none! I never dreamed of giving up my career, but in 1993 I just opened up a little coffee shop, PT’s Coffee, on the side so I could get my coffee! I told my roommate, Fred Polzin, “Dude, I’ll give you half of this thing if you come and run the shop for me, so I can keep my day job at the paper.” So we did that, and the first café had a line out the door. There was no plan, no business strategy, no thought process behind it, initially. We just wanted to make lattes because that’s what we wanted to drink! Soon we had a second café, and another line out the door.
PT’s Coffee was part of the “third wave” of coffee, in which every person in the supply chain – producer, importer, roaster, barista, and consumer – is appreciated. How did you become part of this?
So, everything was great with PT’s until one day, a guy came up to me and said, “Hey, I visited your store yesterday.” I was all cocky and said, “Yeah, what’d you think, pretty good huh?” And he said, “Actually, your coffee sucked.” I mean, if you want to motivate someone, tell them that what they’re doing is really shitty! And that was the turning point in my life, where I was like, “I’m never going to let that happen again.” And ever since then, I've been on a quest for GREAT coffee. I realized if we wanted to stay in business, we needed to have a great product above all else, because that’s what makes you successful in the long run. That was the turning point that led me on the mission to find great coffee.
Roasting hadn’t crossed my mind yet, it was only 1995, so we switched to a different roaster. But after trying three or four different roasters, I thought, “There’s gotta be something I’m missing, none of this is good.” I bought my first roaster in 1997, assuming that just by roasting it, it would make it better – but it was still shitty coffee! So I thought, “Man, I just spent $50,000 buying a coffee roaster and it’s still not good? I gotta go to where it’s grown.” So I started doing research, and in 2001, I ended up taking a trip to Guatemala, touring 5 different growing regions there, about 20 farms. What I learned was that at that moment in time, 1999-2001, the price of coffee was set by the International Commodities Exchange (ICE), and it was averaging around .49 cents a pound. I went to the farms, talked to the farmers, and realized they were going bankrupt because the cost of production was $1.20. They were selling their farms, they were coming to the states, they were broke. And when I went to the mills where coffee was processed, the mills were rancid and really dirty. It was being treated as something that had no value.
How did you set about to change that?
After going to Guatemala, my group realized there was no incentive there to produce good coffee. A lot of the knowledge the coffee farmers had was what was passed down from their fathers and grandfathers, and it was often very rudimentary. We talked to the producers, and understood that the best coffees are usually grown at the highest elevation on a mountain, around 1,800 meters. So, we incentivized them to go slow, be cautious and hand-select the best cherries (coffee beans are the seeds inside these cherries) from the top of the mountain, one at a time. We said, “Trust us, we’re going to pay you more for this.” Everything was on the up-and-up, and it worked for them. We’re still doing this today, but it all started for us, on that trip, with 8-10 other people in 2001.
Can you tell us about Cup of Excellence?
Yeah! Next in the process was to show the farmers that they could make more money from this process. Cup of Excellence was created as a competition in various coffee-producing countries to get farmers to microlot their best coffee and enter it in the competition. We were cultivating pride in the growers to change the psychology around coffee growing. It was created by a guy named George Howell, a great friend of mine, who was on my initial trip to Guatemala and is a legend in the industry – he had about 20 coffee shops in Boston in the Eighties and Nineties that were bought out by Starbucks because he also created the Frappuccino! George had a non-compete clause in the US but didn’t want to leave the business he loved, so he worked with USAID and created The Cup of Excellence. And that was the genesis of microlotting and third wave coffee – the whole thing just started to expand and explode.
What brought you to Bird Rock?
Bird Rock's founder, Chuck Patton, founded his first café on July 5th, 2006. The next year, in 2007, I met Chuck at a coffee roasting event in in Nicaragua. One night we were sitting around drinking beer, and he said to me, “Dude, aren’t we the luckiest guys ever? Look at what we get to do for a living. If only I didn’t have to run retail stores.” And I said, “Look, if you ever sell your stores, let me know, because I’d love to move to San Diego.” It was totally off the hook, just a brash statement. I had no ability to buy his store at that time, because we were still a very small company. But Chuck remembered that conversation.
We go back home, and in 2012, Bird Rock Coffee Roasters won Micro-Roaster of the Year and opened a few more cafés around San Diego. Fast forward to June 2016. I had reached a point with my company in Topeka and was planning to leave and open cafés and a coffee roaster in DC or New York. I was all set to move when Chuck calls me up and says, “My wife and I are done, we want out of the coffee business, and you’re the only one I’m calling. I want you to buy the company.” I thought about it for a split second, considered moving to DC or NYC then considered San Diego, and I said, “Okay! I’m in!”
How much microlot coffee do you sell at Bird Rock?
85% of our coffee is direct sourced. We know our producers, and if we can work with them to get the product we want, we guarantee purchase for the best price so they have less risk with us. But when I know it’s good, I know we can sell it. I'm in the business of curating the best coffees for our customers.
One of the things we love most about Bird Rock is its commitment to the community. Can you tell us how your social responsibility program works?
When I took over the company, we had a meeting with our staff because we wanted to donate some money and do it democratically. We formed our CSR (Company Social Responsibility) Team to have a member of each store in charge of working in the community to make each store community-focused. If someone’s having a fundraiser at the local elementary school, the CSR rep makes sure that they get a bag of coffee and a mug, and if there’s a bike race, they make sure we’re there to serve coffee in the morning. We also sponsor Padres Pedal, a local fundraiser which raises money for cancer research. This year we donated close to $15,000 in cash and product to our causes. Additionally, we created a little competition in which a member of our staff who donates the most time to charities and the neighborhood project gets a trip to a coffee “origin” country. Our first winner is getting a 12-day trip to Colombia.