Twenty years ago Monday, Simon Craven Thompson and his wife, Rebecca Templin, launched their coffee roasting business.
The date – April Fools’ Day – was a coincidence. But some might have seen it as a harbinger. Skeptics included wholesale customers who counseled Cravens Coffee Co. to offer flavored blends and a cheap line along with their premium coffees.
But Thompson and Templin were no fools. They had years of experience in the restaurant business.
Today, Cravens remains a mom-and-pop operation by national standards. “I think Folgers spills as much coffee in a day as we roast in a year,” Thompson joked.
But the past two decades have been good to the specialty coffee trade, and to Cravens, the region’s largest roaster.
Thompson discussed the evolution of his business, as well as his daily coffee consumption, during a recent interview.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Thompson: Norfolk, England, on the east coast.
S-R: Did your parents drink coffee or tea?
Thompson: My grandmother was the coffee drinker. She liked a chicory liquid extract mixed with hot milk. But we were more of a tea-drinking family.
S-R: Were you an entrepreneurial youngster?
Thompson: I was. As a teenager, I had a paper route in the morning and my own yard maintenance business on the weekend.
S-R: What brought you to America?
Thompson: I came here right out of college in 1984. I’d graduated with a hotel and restaurant administration degree from Leeds, intending to travel to the United States, Australia and then Africa. But I got a restaurant job right away in Minnesota, and didn’t make it past the U.S.
S-R: How did you and Becky meet?
Thompson: We worked together at Restaurants Unlimited (which owns Clinkerdagger). She was in the Seattle marketing department, and I was running a restaurant in Los Angeles.
S-R: Why did you switch to roasting coffee?
Thompson: When I was ready to leave Los Angeles, I contacted a former colleague who worked for Seattle’s Best Coffee and asked if I could use him as a reference. He said, “Why don’t you come talk to us?” I told him I didn’t have any coffee knowledge, and he said, “We don’t have coffee problems, we have management problems, because we’re growing.” So I went to work for Seattle’s Best Coffee.
S-R: How long were you with Seattle’s Best?
Thompson: Just over a year and a half, until they sold the business. Becky and I concluded it was time for us to do our own thing. This was 1990-91, when coffee looked like it was going to be an emerging industry.
S-R: What brought you to Spokane?
Thompson: We looked at Minneapolis and Atlanta first, because demographically they were similar to Seattle, but they were prohibitively expensive. Then we considered Portland, but it already had more roasters than Seattle. When we looked at what fuels Spokane – its large medical community – we saw an opportunity.
S-R: How many local roasters were there in 1993?
Thompson: We were the third. Now there are probably 20.
S-R: How much did it cost to open your business?
Thompson: We had $40,000 and we borrowed another $40,000 (from the U.S. Small Business Administration).
S-R: Simon and Thompson are good names. How did you settle on your middle name for the company?
Thompson: We threw a few ideas out to friends and family, and they liked Cravens best.
S-R: What’s your job title?
Thompson: Our company mantra is: Nobody wears a tie, nobody has a title, and everybody knows how to operate a broom. So if something spills, sweep it up. That said, my main job is to travel around the world buying coffee. And if someone needs a vacation, I’m usually the one who jumps into a delivery van and covers. If I had a job title, I suppose I’d be president. Becky runs the financial and marketing side.
S-R: Was Cravens successful from the start?
Thompson: Yes. We were warned that, coming from Seattle, it would take a while for us to be accepted. But we came in humble, we were respectful of the existing coffee roasters, and we got involved early on with the community.
S-R: How has the business evolved over the past 20 years?
Thompson: We’re doing more grocery sales and less restaurant sales than we expected. Grocery sales can be as much as 35 percent, restaurants are about 20, and the rest is cafés, drive-thrus and offices. I think that reflects the economy.
S-R: Who’s your main competitor?
Thompson: Starbucks is our main competition. They are unique in all of industry in that they are No. 1 and No. 2 in their industry. Think about it: You have McDonalds and Burger King, Coke and Pepsi, Exxon and Conoco. But in specialty coffee, you have Starbucks, and nobody else even close to having the number of outlets they have.
S-R: What’s your business philosophy?
Thompson: It’s almost corny, but we like to think our company initials – the three C’s – reflect our priorities: coffee quality, customer service and community involvement.
Right now there’s a race to the bottom – roasters trying to buy coffee as cheaply as possible because if they can get it for a lower price, they can sell it for less. That’s not a race we’re in. We want to stay in the top echelon of coffee that really is special. If we deviate from that, we’ll lose our soul.
Secondly, we’re very much a customer-service company. Someone may not like our coffee, but they’ll say we offer phenomenal customer service.
And third is community involvement. As the guys at Ben & Jerry’s will tell you, it’s a good thing to do, and it’s good for your business, as well.
S-R: Any favorite customer reaction?
Thompson: I remember someone telling me, “I have vendors coming through my door every day, and Cravens is the only one that makes me feel like I’m the only customer they have that day.”
S-R: How has production volume changed?
Thompson: The golden years of specialty coffee were 1996 to 2006. We peaked in 2006 and then leveled out – a classic product lifecycle.
S-R: Did the recession play a role in sales flattening out?
Thompson: Yes. Coffee is a luxury, and when it’s not affordable, people stop purchasing it.
S-R: What’s ahead?
Thompson: We’ve partnered with URM to do more grocery-store fixtures in outlining areas. That’s taken off in the last three months.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Thompson: Traveling to places like northern Tanzania is a thrill – to be in a truck, winding my way up to a coffee farm that I’ve been with since the beginning. I absolutely love that part of my job.
S-R: What part do you not like?
Thompson: When competitors get away with not playing fair. Coffee is very unregulated – you don’t have to say what’s in your coffee. So there are a lot of claims made that are blatantly untrue.
S-R: What’s the best business lesson you’ve learned?
Thompson: Be disciplined. Never stop thinking about your business. When you get distracted, problems magnify. Being a husband-wife partnership has been fundamental to keeping our business on track.
S-R: What advice would you offer aspiring entrepreneurs?
Thompson: There’s always room for a better mousetrap. But whatever you do, be financially conservative. If you go out on a limb hoping to be profitable quickly, you set yourself up for failure.
S-R: The 19th century French novelist Balzac famously claimed to drink as many as 50 cups of coffee a day, calling it “a great power in my life.” How much coffee do you drink?
Thompson: I drink two double Americanos at the beginning of the day. I’m not a voracious consumer of coffee. I’m a taster. Everything in moderation.