Business: Convoy Coffee (formerly Handlebar Coffee)
Founders: Alex Johnstone and David Rothstein
Industry: Mobile vendors
Find them: at the Wallingford and South lake Union Farmers Markets and Coyle's Bakeshop in Fremont
How do you like your coffee? Black, with milk or sugar? How about human powered?
Two Seattle coffee enthusiast have set out to supply customers with high quality coffee and a free coffee education, and they’re doing it all by bike.
Barely two months up and running, Alex Johnstone and David Rothstein pedal their custom, 100-pound coffee carts from farmers markets to neighborhood events where a following of their pop-up business – Convoy Coffee –is quickly growing.
Friends since their Nathan Hale High School days, Dave and Alex share a common love for the great outdoors, quality coffee and small businesses.
“Dave and I have always talked about starting a small business,” said Alex.
So a little of a year ago, inspired by small, human-powered food vendors around the world, Alex and Dave got crafty. They put their old woodshop skills to use and started building one-of-a-kind coffee carts.
“We could have done something else but we both have a passion for quality coffee,” said Dave, a former Seattle Coffee Works barista. “The moment I stepped a foot in the specialty coffee world, I was intrigued.”
Alex a ‘home coffee enthusiast’ and organic chemistry major, got into coffee brewing while camping and rock climbing.
“Even while camping, I make quality, pour-over coffee,” he said.
Coffee, bikes and Seattle –it seems like a natural fit.
“It’s conscionable and people love it!” said Dave.
From crop to your cup
Handlebar Coffee is as much an educational endeavor as it is entrepreneurial.
“Part of our business is to educate people. To teach them that coffee is a crop, farmed by experts and roasted by specialists,” said Dave. “We want to teach people about the whole journey of coffee as well as the different beans, brewing methods and the artisanship of roasting.”
“Seattle has a great coffee reputation and yet a coffee ignorance at the same time,” Alex explained. “People want coffee. It’s what they start their day with and ingest in insane amounts. But few people know anything about the crop that is coffee. People should know what they’re drinking and where it comes from.”
The journey of a coffee beans kind of goes like this:
- Coffee “cherries” are harvested by hand
- And soon thereafter depulped to separate the coffee seeds from the outer layer of flesh
- These seeds (beans) will then ferment and be laid out in the sun to dry.
- The now fermented beans are sorted either by hand or by machine to remove any defects
- Ready to be roasted, the beans are shipped off to roasters around the world.
- Once roasted according to taste —light, medium or dark—the beans are ready to be ground and brewed.
- Handlebar Coffee pedals the beans from the roaster to your cup
Since espresso machines are too heavy to pedal around on a bike cart, Convoy Coffee only serves brewed coffee by airpress, pour-over and French press. And when you order a cup of coffee, the choice is yours.
“Not having an espresso machine teaches people about the different brew methods and it frequently turns into a 10-minute conversation,” said Dave.
You also won’t find a refrigerator on the Convoy Coffee carts, thus no milk.
Alex and Dave probably wouldn’t even offer milk if they could carry it. Outspoken black coffee advocates, Alex and Dave belief that single-origin coffee is so good that it doesn’t have to be dressed up with milk, sweeteners or syrups.
“There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a latte but we encourage people to drink coffee as it was intended: black,” Alex stated.
Alex and Dave not only want to do right by their roasters –whose art, science and passions lie in roasting single-origin beans –but also by the small farmers who devote themselves to varietal, quality coffee crops.
“When you buy quality coffee, you pay not just for aroma and taste but for someone’s livelihood,” said Dave.
Convoy Coffee is currently brewing a rotating list of single origin beans from local roasters Conduit, Kuma and Velton’s.
Starting a small, self-funded business can be risky, especially for two college-aged guys dipping their toes in entrepreneurship.
But Convoy Coffee is doing well.
“We’re still developing but things are going well,” said Alex. “It’s amazing to us how supportive and inspired people are by this idea.”
“It’s been such a rewarding process. We’re meeting a demand, while educating people and operating sustainably,” added Dave. “We want it to be profitable without a bad impact. At the end of the day, it’s about changing the status quo and making difference.”
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