Coffee is the second most consumed beverage in the U.S. (bested only by water), and its popularity only seems to be growing. According to Mintel, coffee sales were up 8.7 percent between 2014 and 2015 while carbonated soda and juice saw stagnate sales. Supply is easily scaling to meet demand but now coffee purveyors must confront a growing field of competition.
Some are embracing new recipes—everything from coffee blended with butter and oils to lattes sweetened with jasmine syrup to S’mores Frappuccinos—while others are differentiating themselves by the quality. Durham, North Carolina–based coffee wholesaler Counter Culture is an example of the latter.
This weekend the brand will celebrate the official grand opening of its new (larger) facility with a free tour, tasting, and home-brewing lesson. The move dovetails with other initiatives—like hiring its first on-the-ground East Africa employee and winning the 2016 U.S. Barista Championship—to further Counter Culture’s impact.
“It really pushes us to the next level in terms of quality,” says Brett Smith, cofounder and president of Counter Culture.
Counter Culture’s headquarters had originally squeezed into a 750-square-foot office in a strip mall before moving to a 15,000-square-foot space. The new location better aligns with the company’s ethos; it’s downtown, in an area undergoing rapid revitalization with a local brewer and a gardening nonprofit as neighbors.
The 25,000-square-foot facility will also streamline production, boost output, and enhance the brand’s engagement. Now customers (whether they be retailers or consumers) can visit the training center to learn more about the product.
“The education side of it is what first drew me to Counter Culture,” says Lem Butler, Counter Culture’s whole sale customer support and barista trainer, as well as the 2016 U.S. Barista Champion. “I encourage restaurants to train with us. Otherwise I’m getting a phone call.”
For Counter Culture, the quality of its coffee begins with its farming partners in 20 countries around the world. From there, transportation, roasting, and processing are key to optimizing the coffee beans, but once it is delivered to the restaurant, quality control is no longer within the company’s control. That’s where training becomes so important.
Whether operators choose to use a French press, espresso pot, or pour-over, Butler recommends starting with a good grinder, an accurate scale, and quality water.
As local weekly paper The Indy Week reported back in October when the company’s move to new headquarters was first announced, Counter Culture has been part of a growing movement wherein coffee roasters cultivate direct relationships with farmers and retail partners. Other brands in this space include Chicago-based Intelligentsia, Oakland, California–based Blue Bottle Coffee, and Portland, Oregon–based Stumptown, although Intelligentsia and Stumptown have since been acquired by retailer Peet's Coffee.
Stumptown and Blue Bottle have also expanded their operations to include cafes, but Counter Culture remains a wholesaler—at least for now.
Smith calls this possibility “the great debate,” which has been ongoing since the beginning. He sees the value from a business-to-consumer perspective, but also knows that cafes would add a whole new operational dimension to the business. And, he adds, Counter Culture doesn’t want its foodservice clients to feel as if their wholesaler is now competing with them.
While brick-and-mortar stores might not be in the immediate future, the company is growing its footprint. Last year it opened its first roasting facility on the West Coast. Add to that a burgeoning number of training centers (currently numbering 10 but with more in the pipeline) and Counter Culture is well on its way to becoming a major player in the java scene, and restaurants wishing to upgrade their beverage programs should take note.
By Nicole Duncan