Brewing Up a Niche Coffee-Roasting Business in the Shadow of Starbucks

by Teri Cettina on December 28, 2011
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When Pat and John Curry launched Buona Caffe, a specialty coffee-roasting company in Augusta, Ga., as a part-time venture in 2009, each entrepreneur had a “regular” job. Pat worked as a freelance writer, John as a newspaper photographer. But after John was laid off in 2009 and again in 2011, the couple accelerated its plans to make the coffee-roasting business a full-time endeavor.

Although some startups may be reluctant to enter an industry dominated by mega-sized competitors like Starbucks, the Currys see their presence as an advantage. Big companies have primed the public’s palate for upscale coffee, which creates opportunities for new gourmet roasters to get into the game. Buona Caffe taps into the “locavore” movement: Its coffee appeals to customers who are interested in buying products made or processed by local vendors (rather than by large corporations).

The Intuit Small Business Blog recently talked with Pat Curry about how she and her husband have managed to brew up a successful business in a niche market.

ISBB: Who is your target customer?

Curry: We initially thought we’d do internet-based retail sales to consumers, shipping across the country, and we do that. Then we added higher-end restaurants, banquet facilities, caterers, bakeries, and corporate clients, both for in-house employee coffee and for client thank-you gifts. We’re also pursuing bed-and-breakfasts and small inns — anyplace that sees the value in having a locally roasted, signature coffee rather than an expected major brand.

Because “locally roasted” is a big selling point, we also sell through Augusta Locally Grown, a local online farmer’s market, and the Augusta Market at the Commons a Saturday farmer’s market. Our coffee also is sold both by the cup and by the bag at a downtown specialty grocery store and also at a natural food store.

So, how does a small business like yours differentiate itself from a major competitor like Starbucks?  

Starbucks really opened the door for companies like ours. Without them raising awareness about specialty coffee, we probably wouldn’t be a viable business today. We differentiate ourselves because our coffee simply tastes better. Coffee sold in grocery stores or large chain coffee shops is typically roasted six to nine months in advance. By contrast, we roast on demand. There are no beans sitting around getting stale. We use that as a sales advantage.

How do you motivate larger customers to choose your coffee over corporate brands?

We try to get in the door before a restaurant or other facility opens and has locked in their vendors. That is how we got into the Kroc Center, a new events center in Augusta. We also push our personalized service. The executive chef at the Kroc Center called us a couple weeks ago at 5 p.m., asking if we had anything already roasted because he’d forgotten about a breakfast meeting the next morning for 350 people. John fired up the roaster and delivered coffee beans that night.

I also spend as much time on social media marketing for my customers as I do for our own business. I tend our Facebook page, find local businesses, “like” them, comment on what they’re doing, answer questions about coffee, etc.

How do you get the word out about your business without owning a coffee shop or storefront?

We make a point of attending as many local events as we can. We have Buona Caffe logowear that we wear to those events, and we are pretty brazen about getting our picture taken for the local newspaper. Selling through Augusta Locally Grown, which has several hundred members, and the farmer’s market has also really helped build our presence without advertising.

We’ve also invested in creating a consistent brand. Everything is cohesive, from the look of our website and our roastery’s signage to our labels and countertop signs for customers’ spaces. We consistently hear, “You guys are everywhere!” That’s pretty satisfying considering that we have done very little traditional advertising.

Anything else that sets your business apart?

Yes, we have a charitable component to our story. For every 12-ounce bag we sell, we donate 50 cents to Children’s Safe Drinking Water, which provides water purification packs in developing countries. People feel good knowing they’re helping someone else when they buy our coffee. It’s a natural tie to our business, which relies on water to brew the perfect product.

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