Anyone endeavoring to carve out a corner of the growing worldwide craft coffee market will need to take more than a cursory glance at their future enterprise, and it’s a path that may seem daunting at first. Whether just setting up for the first time or venturing to expand an existing operation, it can either be a slew of small errors or one gargantuan one that puts a serious dent — financially, practically or both — into your initiative.
In this four-part series, I’ll be exploring space planning, inspections preparation, personnel and equipment — the four most critical areas for consideration in the process of launching a small commercial roasting operation. These four crucial subjects constitute some formidable territory, rife with potential pitfalls only rigorous research and planning can prevent. It’s important to tread carefully and take things one step at time. The step we take today is toward equipment.
The search for equipment begins with dual concerns. One is to engage local inspectors in order to verify what special equipment might be required. The other is to select the most appropriate equipment to get your operation up and running.
Know What’s Required
Even before picking up the phone, a little research and preparation is helpful. Drawing up a clear list of agencies you’ll need to contact and their phone numbers ahead of time will save some frustration when it’s time to place calls. In King County, Wash. for example — a jurisdiction with which I am familiar — this includes Puget Sound Clean Air, the health department, and building permit offices, at a minimum. You should also be prepared with specific questions, such as: Does your local municipality require an afterburner for that new roaster you’re considering? Do you need to apply for a building permit to install a roaster in your café? If not, will you have to close your shop entirely until the install is complete?
Knowing in advance what hoops you must jump through will save you plenty of trouble in the future. The wrong time to reach out to inspection authorities is after you have purchased everything you think you will need, because an oversight as simple as a missing work safety poster can actually push timelines back. Inspection agencies can tell you the local ordinances for installations, environmental requirements and permitting, which in turn tells you what equipment you will need. Before the conversation ends, be sure to record the name of the person you spoke with and the date of the conversation in case questions arise in the future. Once the initial conversation has been had, it’s time to select your gear.
Roasting machines come in many shapes, sizes and functionalities, therefore the determination of which one best balances your needs and your resources should be undertaken with care. The dimensions of this workhorse, and its requirements for installation into your chosen space, can mean a world of difference in build-out costs, remaining capacity for green coffee storage as well as production output. Its maximum batch size will determine how much time and fuel you will spend in the course of meeting your daily or weekly output, which in turn translates to how many hours your staff dedicates to the work of roasting. It may also indicate whether one unit in an expanding production line outpaces another, which leads to waiting around for coffee to roast, which is a waste of time and money.
Mark Michaelson, head roaster at the Arkansas-based company Onyx Coffee Lab, offers these words of advice: “My main thing is always buy a bigger roaster than you think you need. It’s easier to build into something, rather than having to just roast more batches.” With skill, dedication, and a willingness to learn, anyone can produce exquisite coffee. Supplementing that skill with proper equipment can amplify the rewards and streamline the process exponentially.
A destoner is a device that removes foreign objects and debris from roasted coffee. The manufacturer of your selected roaster may sell these, or could probably recommend one for you to purchase. Smaller operations sometimes choose not to install them due to the added cost, which means they put a lot of faith in the sorting and careful processing work that goes into the specialty coffees they order. The thing is, coffee is inevitably an agricultural product with an exceptionally long processing and logistical chain. You never know what odd — and potentially dangerous — bits might sneak into the mix along the way. A common hobby of commercial roasters is to keep collections of rocks, concrete, sticks, nails and bullet casings revealed by their destoners.
Scales are necessary both for weighing green coffee batches and portions of roasted coffee in the packaging stage. Automated systems such as a Weigh and Fill have scales incorporated into them, although when these are dedicated to bagging roasted coffee, another scale is needed for weighing green coffee charges. Ideal green coffee scales should be capable of weighing at least 60kg with a graduation of .1kg, and should be large enough to accommodate both your green coffee batches and your roasted coffee batches. The quality of a scale used for roasted coffee is important as well, not just for your own accurate and honest work but for passing inspection by the Department of Weights and Measures or some similar agency.
Storage bins constitute another category of tools that are available in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Bins should be purchased to fit into the design of your space. Wheeled barrels are best for larger operations in a warehouse, while smaller, stackable containers are great for cafés with the roaster standing in or near a public space. Chris Alspach, Lead Roaster at Portland’s Upper Left Roasters recommends that new operations should “acquire 25 percent more bins than they think they need, to avoid wasting time and energy on immediately having to optimizing their system.” All storage containers must be food grade in order to pass health department inspections.
When equipment breaks — and sooner or later, it all does — it’s crucial to be prepared. An entire day of production can be lost by a belt snapping on a roaster, which is a part that could otherwise be kept on hand for quick and easy replacement. Speak to the manufacturer of any equipment you are purchasing to determine what spare parts are necessary to ship with it. Once received, review maintenance manuals and ensure the proper tools and extra nuts and bolts are on hand for swift repairs and maintenance.
Obviously you want to provide a safe and healthy work environment for your employees. Yet keeping well equipped with safety gear also keeps OSHA and your insurance adjustor happy. Eye washing stations, a first aid kit, eye and ear protection and even proper work attire should find a spot in your budget and be purchased. Take care to acquire the proper fire extinguishers as well, as there are multiple types available for extinguishing different types of fire.
Gram scales, brewing devices and a moisture meter are essential items for ensuring that the coffees you buy and the coffees you roast all meet both your own expectations and those of your customers, as well.
Plan for an additional 15 percent of your equipment budget to be used for emergencies and miscellaneous items. Budgeting for incidentals will help prevent your business from exceeding its financial ceilings later. Should it prove unnecessary by the end of your build-out and equipping, whatever is left can always be used elsewhere or reinvested into your company.
When it comes time to start pricing out your needs, it’s important to remember the long-term costs associated with maintenance and staffing requirements per product used. Many businesses start out considering used equipment, which offers lower short-term costs in the process of acquisition, but consider the future. Will maintenance cost you more in parts, labor and downtime? Does your equipment come with solid warranties?
When rolling the dice on used equipment, it’s a good idea to contact its original manufacturer or the service technician that worked on it to inquire about the item’s maintenance history. Other roasters that have used the same machine are good resources for tips, recommendations and possible solutions to problems you might encounter with the tool in question. Another point to keep in mind that most prices are negotiable, even on brand new equipment. Don’t be afraid to try to negotiate, as the worst that can happen is you pay the sticker price.
Up Next: Space
Having selected your equipment, you may already have a production space lined up or perhaps you’re actively on the hunt, hoping to secure it before signing for that shiny new roaster. In the next installment of this column, we’ll walk through the considerations for an ideal space, ensuring that yours is prepared, optimized and capable of housing not only your current operation, but the larger one yours will be in the future.