Ashland coffee roaster has seen the rewards of taking a financial risk
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth in a six-day series on ways local residents are reinventing themselves in hard times.
Step inside Noble Coffee Roasting in Ashland's historic Railroad District and lines sometimes stretch to the door as customers happily part with $2.25 for a cup of java.
Opening a business in the middle of a recession is risky, but starting this high-end coffee shop last May with big-city pricing seemed even riskier.
"It's an affordable luxury," said co-owner Jared Rennie, who started Noble as a roasting business out of his garage two years ago and often mans the espresso machine in the coffee shop at 281 Fourth St.
Judging by his patrons, the coffee is more of a necessity than a luxury.
"I have the curse of seeking quality," said 28-year-old Ashland resident Nick Roberts. "They go above and beyond anything else in town."
Roberts said he's not well off, but he just can't abide bad coffee. He often savors two or three cups of his preferred brew while he works on his Apple computer.
"If the price seems high to you, you can go to a grocery store and get some Yuban," he said.
His girlfriend, Zoe Samczyk, said she likes the environmental ethic of Noble, which buys organic, fair trade coffee and offers only cane syrup and organic milk products.
"Everybody I know who makes coffee at home buys from these guys," she said.
Unlike her boyfriend, Samczyk limits herself to one cup of coffee but was sipping on tea during her visit Tuesday.
When the owners — three couples — first started planning the coffee shop in 2007, the economy seemed healthy. But by the time they opened last May, the recession hit hard and Rennie, who is a former teacher, and his partners wondered whether their idea would work.
"At that point we were already in it," he said. "You make a decision and ask yourself, 'Gosh, do we think our idea is good enough to open up in any given time?'"
Many businesses base pricing on what the owners think the market can bear, then go out and find the cheapest products to create as much profit as possible, he said.
But 33-year-old Rennie and his partners decided to gamble on a different approach: Buy the best quality beans, roast them on site, then brew the coffee in a French press. If it isn't drunk within 45 minutes, throw it out.
Rennie said the partners decided to find out how much it would cost to pour the perfect cup of coffee, then add a little extra on to make a profit for the owners.
They also gambled on the location, a side street away from downtown that was relatively quiet before they opened the doors.
As a result, they had to turn the coffee shop into a destination, which Rennie describes as modern, sleek and cozy. A bookstore, the Palace Cafe and other businesses also moved in this year, and the formerly empty street is crowded with cars.
"There's a renaissance in the Railroad District," Rennie said.
Many of his customers treat the coffee shop as a second office. Rennie points to two men working on computers who have been developing an Internet-based company.
From the first day of its opening, Noble hasn't lacked for customers. The number of employees has increased from five to 15 since May.
"It's beyond amazing," co-owner Kelly Sacks said.
Most of the customers are locals, said the 44-year-old Ashland resident, but sometimes a tourist on Interstate 5 will call looking for directions to make a quick pit stop for coffee.
Other owners include Carolyn Rennie, Steve Sacks and Caleb and Libby Peterson.
Jared Rennie started Noble out of his garage, selling beans online and to local businesses.
He speaks Spanish, so he's able to contact farmers directly in Costa Rica or Nicaragua. One of the premier beans he now sells is produced by a woman farmer in Costa Rica, Francisca Cubilla. Sacks of beans imprinted with her name, phone number and e-mail address sit on a pallet waiting to be roasted. Rennie said it is unusual to find a woman coffee grower in Latin America.
If you think $2.25 is a lot for a cup, try the $4 siphon pot brewing method that resembles a chemistry set and works on a vacuum system to filter the coffee from the grounds.
The siphoned version on Tuesday featured Cubilla's Costa Rican roast, which is also the top selling bean, costing $18 for a 12-ounce bag.
Rennie and roaster Sam Sabori demonstrated a process known as "cupping," in which they sample the effects of different roasting methods on green beans.
Customers can view the roasting through windows and watch as Rennie and Sabori almost stick their noses into a cup or loudly slurp a sample of coffee.
"Oh my God, that's strawberries," exclaimed Rennie, describing the taste of a blend of Sumatran and Ethiopian beans.
Sabori, who laboriously logs every roasting in a three-ring binder, said Noble tries to determine the roasting method that brings out the full flavor of the beans, which often contain subtle or pronounced berry flavors.
"We're trying to let the beans do what they want to do," he said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.