Are you a Western student?
What are you studying?
I’m at Fairhaven College completing an interdisciplinary degree. My degree is in gastronomy and cultural studies. My minor is in Entrepreneurship and Innovation. That’s a new program at Western.
Is that the Idea Institute?
I have been a part of that for four quarters now. I will finish that up in two quarters and will graduate next spring.
Where are you from originally?
Lopez Island, Washington. I was born and raised there. Lived there for eighteen years minus the year I lived in Italy.
Most college students say I’ll graduate first and then I’ll go get a job—then i’ll go open a coffee cart. You are not doing it in that order.
I have never agreed with that at all.
I started my first business when I graduated high school—selling pasta. I went to a culinary school in Italy for six months while I was in high school. When I came back I decided I wanted to start making fresh pasta and selling it. So I sold pasta at the farmer’s market for a summer and decided I wanted to go to college but decided I wanted to wait a year. I went back to Italy, spent another year there and learned a lot. I have spent the past nine years working in the restaurant industry pursuing the life of a chef more or less. I came to a point where I realized I didn’t want to go to culinary school. I wanted to go to a place where I could get a wider variety of skills. I didn’t want to only be around chefs, waiters, waitresses and hotel owners, I wanted to be around all types of people. I also wanted to stay in the Northwest so I ended up at Western. I have always worked through school. I worked at restaurants and on farms the whole way through.
It wasn’t until my sophomore year that the coffee thing started kicking around in my brain. I thought it was a really good idea based on all that I have learned in the restaurant industry and selling pasta. I thought coffee was a striking business model because it has the potential for innovation and it is really easy to manage because of how simple the product is. When you boil it down all you have to focus on is getting great coffee, procuring it, and roasting it well.
I feel really lucky that I learned that before graduating college. The whole purpose of the entrepreneurship program is that we get going before we graduate. They want us to have a business launch by the time we graduate or before then. Ninety percent of businesses fail. That doesn’t mean that they don’t get back up on their feet. We have definitely had our little hiccups and failures, but we’ll be more resilient because I started early.
Where are the regular spots that you post up?
Railroad Avenue has kind of been the downtown spot. There are two places we go on Railroad. Right by El Capitan’s. That was our original spot. We also pop up over by Jimmy Johns.
What days of the week are you there?
Monday and Wednesday.
Handshake just launched in May. And I also run the kitchen at an italian restaurant. So that takes a lot of my time. But I will be passing on my responsibilities there so I can focus completely on this. Then I will be popping up more like four days a week rather than just one or two.
The downtown spots have been good, mostly for the shock value. People will come up and say, “What are you doing? Are you just serving coffee?” I have a few different options with a couple different brewing methods for people to try. Some have never tasted coffee brewed like this before. Some have never had their coffee black and they try it and say, “Wow, I’m never drinking coffee the way I have been ever again.”
Yeah, you can actually taste the coffee instead of tasting all of the milk, foam and other stuff.
I focus on light roasts. I do dark roasts as well because I know that people love them but I like to get people to try lighter roasts of coffee because most aren’t used to tasting the fact that coffee is a fruit.
When you pick a coffee cherry and eat it it kind of tastes like lemonade and when you roast it lightly it preserves some of that flavor. What’s amazing is if you roast it really well coffee is kind of like wine—you can get different notes. That’s where coffee is going.
But my favorite part is that Handshake Coffee is all about relationships. People meet each other at the stand and you hear all sorts of cool conversations. People from all walks of life come by and check it out especially when we serve for donation only. That experience—in public, at a stand—is really fun.
I saw that you use the pay-what-you-want model pretty often. How did you come to the decision to use that? I imagine that is a little scary for at times.
It is a marketing tactic for starting up. I think that free and coffee are some people’s two favorite words. It’ll get anyone’s attention. I have gotten the attention of so many people by giving them a free cup of coffee. Then they go tell their friends and soon the news of the business has spread around town.
Now, if I am doing an event or a festival, then I will always charge. Usually I have paid an event fee and I’m there to make money. Whereas when I’m downtown I’m there more to establish a positive presence in the community.
In the next couple months the donation thing will be much more rare. We may have one day where we sell by donation and people will know to come that day. I don’t believe we would be able to survive forever doing the pay-what-you-want model. Though there are some businesses that have done it.
You’re in the “Here’s who we are. Come get to know us” phase and you are going to move into a model that’s a more traditional coffee stand plus subscription? How will you deliver? Did I hear that would be delivered by bike?
Yes. If you are in our radius we will deliver roasted coffee beans to you by bike. Some people haven’t seen the distinction. They think we are delivering hot coffee.
We sell hot cups of coffee at our stand, but we will deliver roasted beans by bike.
Again the stand is a marketing tactic for our roasted beans. We will also be popping up in certain popular neighbourhoods, and subscription customers can pick up their beans right from the stand.
The way that it works is we have a few selections of coffee you can pick from. It will be a particular light roast or a particular dark roast that you get every couple weeks but we will include a little two ounce sample of something interesting from a different roaster or maybe something that we have sample roasted.
Nice. So you get your stand by that you know like but you might discover something else that you like too.
So that goes back to your question about where we like to pop up. We have done really well at outdoor events. Were went to one event that was just a concert and we were the only vendor there. There’s a picture of us there in the woods with our stand on instagram. I don’t know if you use instagram much but most of our pictures get thirty to fifty likes. This photo got 130 likes. The image was just there–the coffee with all the trees behinds us. And that gave me the idea to pop up on a trail head and be the adventurous, outdoorsy, coffee cart that is all over the place. We would like to make a music video with all of the places we have been both urban and out in the wilderness.
You are highly mobile. You don’t need power because you’ve got the battery. But what do you do for water?
We have a five gallon drum. It’s basically one of those blue jugs with a small hole in the top. Then we have another for wastewater that goes down the drain. Sometimes we’ll take two of each.
How many cups of coffee can you get out of one of those?
More than eighty for ten gallons. We tend to do smaller size cups, like six ounce cups. First of all it’s very potent. When you do pour over coffee the caffeine content is a lot higher. So people tend to drink less of it than they would of coffee brewed other ways.
When we are using the car it’s no issue. It’s when we are traveling by bike the weight can become a challenge. But I love the idea of bikes being a part of the business.
What we want to be in the community is the promoters of specialty coffee in Bellingham. We are trying to educate the community about coffee and where it comes from, about different ways of brewing coffee and how to get away from using milk and syrups and how you can bring out so many flavors with just coffee.
How did this all start?
Back when we were living in the Fairhaven dorms at WWU a friend of mine and I were talking about how we both love the service industry but we don’t want to own a restaurant. We also loved coffee and talked about how it is a great model because it’s just refining this one ingredient. We said why not go down to Central America and find some really good coffee and bring it back here. That was just kind of a silly idea. But sure enough, one year later we were visiting Costa Rica and Nicaragua. We worked on different farms, met farmers, and got to see what the coffee industry is like on the farming end. There we made a friend—Abraham.
He and his family grow coffee and they sell it through a distributor. They grew amazing beans and are getting the same price as the other farmers, most of which don’t have nearly the same quality. So they were looking for a direct relationship.
In the coffee industry having a farmer who is willing to sell directly to you is the most valuable thing to have. So he became an exporter. He just sent us our first batch of beans. We got it sample roasted at Onyx Coffee, who are good friends of ours.
So if folks are reading this interview and thinking I have to go find this cart. How do they do that.
So you post up somewhere, take pictures and say here’s where we are?
Yeah. And we will have a schedule.
People have been asking me, where can I find you and I will be like, “You just have to be lucky.” [laughs]
Part of the fun has been popping up and not telling anyone. Part of what we learn in entrepreneurship is testing hypotheses. Asking the question, when should we pop up. Should we pop up every weekday morning? That’s obviously a great idea. But maybe we should try popping up on a Friday night. That’s something we have tried and been pretty successful. We have a nice bar and put out games and sometimes we’ll have a bit of live music there. It’s an attractive setting.
What I really want is for people to say hey I’m having this party at my house and I want some beverages there. We will do cold brew coffees, iced tea infusions, or hot drinks. Another idea is popping up alongside food trucks like Deli’cious Mischief or Goat Mountain Pizza and supplementing them with drinks.
So if folks are doing an outdoor event and want a pop up coffee cart how do they reach you?
They can reach us through our website and our email: firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place to go to get a coffee subscription.
So are you going to stay in Bellingham after you finish at Western? Is that the plan?
Yeah. That is the plan.
I am trying to make this business model scalable but not in the sense of becoming a big corporation in Bellingham. I want to open up small franchises in different towns where the the idea is the same—promoting specialty coffee in that town through a coffee delivery service and a mobile coffee cart. So I’ll get Handshake Bellingham running and healthy then will go to Olympia and will do the same thing.
You know how the breweries here in Bellingham are very interconnected? That exists for coffee in places like San Francisco and Portland. Here we don’t have that. A lot towns don’t have that but there are a lot of specialty coffee shops and roasteries that could benefit from that sort of thing. One of my dreams is to put on an event for the public with roasters and baristas within the next year where you can come taste different coffees and there are seminars about the coffee industry and coffee farming. I’d love to start more of a dialog in the community about coffee.