Interview with Harry Hutchins of Alma Coffee: Business Advice, Choosing a Roaster, and Staying Prepared.

How did you go about deciding your brand look, feel, and design?

For my wife and I, our background is that we were two accountants, so that creative side really wasn’t the greatest for us. So we sat down with a local artist here just based out of Woodstock, Georgia, and told them our feelings and thoughts towards the brand of what we were trying to portray. We really wanted to pay homage to the five generations that were before us farming coffee, as well as showcase the pillars that we are built on; improving lives, sustainability, and extraordinary coffee. We came up with the idea of Alma Coffee, Alma meaning “Soul” in Spanish, and that’s why we put our whole heart and soul into the coffee. From the moment it’s planted, the four years it takes to cultivate and raise, and the time and effort it takes to pick, process, dry, export, and import the coffee, it really is our whole heart and soul; and, the pictures of the two macaws (the national bird of Honduras) and the the barn owl represent our farming roots there.

What inspired you to take the leap in owning your own cafe?

What inspired us to get into the coffee industry was really our love for farming and the origin of coffee. We are fifth generation coffee owners, as well as owners of our farms down in Honduras and Central America, and we wanted to make sure we connected to the audience about where coffee comes from. This means making sure that we are fully vertically integrated to really tell the story from a farmer’s perspective, a roaster’s perspective, and just make sure we deliver really extraordinary coffee that’s not only improving lives down at origin, but here in the United States just north of Atlanta. That’s why the Loring Roaster came into huge play for us using about 80% less fuel than conventional roasters of the same size, and we want to make sure we are doing our part to make this world a better place.

What’s the hardest part of starting your own cafe? 

So, for me the hardest part about starting our own roastery and cafe was just diving feet first into it. My background is as a former auditor and accountant with just a huge passion and love for coffee. So, really trying to make sure we chose the right equipment and that we found the right space was the hardest part for us. Thankfully through a lot of good friends we were able to go over to their cafe and roastery and pick some of the best equipment, one of those being our 15 Kilo Loring right behind me. I would just say that there’s so much unknown and for a lot of folks who are kind of new to the industry, it’s just that initial research and development of where your brand is going to be positioned, and the customers you’re going to serve. That was the most difficult, and once you have that part figured out, everything comes in like a nice puzzle piece.

How did you transition from co-roaster to own your own roaster?

The transition to roasting our own coffee was a little bit of a hybrid method. We were not really in the co-roasting space yet, we were actually toll roasting with a good buddy and friend of ours and mentor over at Joe Van Go Cafe in Hillsborough, North Carolina. He was one of the folks that allowed us to come over and check out his roasting facility. The roasters that they have there (35K and two 15K) and just getting to spend some time with him in their space really made the decision easy for us. But that’s how it went, we were toll-roasting with them, sending them some green coffee from our farms, and they would send over the roasted stuff, and as soon as we really started having a really good business plan, getting some sales going, we were able to get one of our own. So shout out to Robbie!

How did you decide which roaster you wanted to purchase?

So for us, Loring was always a really big front runner. When we were looking at different roasters, we tried many different roasters from buddies of mine who have roasting facilities. Different brands, different makes, etc., and the Loring always just stood out. One reason it was really great with us was because of the consistency and controllability of the roast profile. The amount of control we have when we are profiling our roasts and the consistency is amazing. And lastly, which was really huge for us, is not only that it was American made, but the sustainability aspect behind that. Our brand being about sustainability, improving lives, and extraordinary coffee, that sustainability and that side making sure mother Earth was in our mind was huge for us.

Best advice for new cafe owners? 

The best advice for owners is really get ahead and prepare for crazy. I know for us when we first started, making the big investment of our 15 kilo was very scary, and we were kind of going into the unknown. But now that thankfully our business has scaled and grown, we couldn’t be any happier. The fact that it’s actually able to roast the 15 kilos has been tremendous in terms of managing capacity and making sure we don’t fall behind, especially on the roasting level; and then, with all your other pieces of equipment, make sure you’re buying ahead of time, thinking a year in advance, and thinking where your business is going to go. Don’t just buy for now in the present situation, buy for the capacity you’d like to see. Hopefully soon that’s what we’ll be doing with the 35.

What is the most important part of what we do?

I think for us as coffee owners and purveyors to a lot of folks that come into our cafe, it’s really trying to showcase and tell the story of the farmers and the hard work that goes into making the coffee. So making sure that the most important thing we do is bringing the stories into light and making sure the customers know where their coffee comes from and all the hard work that’s going into it.

What do you look for when hiring new employees?

So for my wife and I, when we are looking to hire, we always hire for personality over technical skills. We can really teach anyone to do a lot of skills, from the roasting side to the cafe and pulling shots from the espresso machine. But, the hardest thing to find is a really great personality where we can be with each other for 10, 12 or 14 hours a day, because sometimes it gets very long at the roastery. There’s long days, hard work, and finding folks that have the right mentality and the right attitude, or “Almatude,” is something we’re looking for. So, someone with a positive mentality, always looking to better the day, as well as better themselves is what we really look for.

How do you stay safe and navigate changing protocols during COVID?

For us at Alma, we really took COVID seriously. Especially making sure that we separated our manufacturing as well as cafe space from unneeded cross contamination and people moving in and out. We also listened to a lot of local health experts so that we can keep our community as well as our employees safe.

Are there any restrictions or requirements that surprised you before opening a cafe?

Thankfully no surprises that we weren’t ready for, but one thing that really helped out is that any Loring roaster already comes with a built in afterburner. So, for our local officials that were worried about air quality, being able to say to them that there is afterburner and you’ll get very little emissions at all helped with a lot of their concerns.

With the ever-changing digital market, how have you adapted to doing online business and utilizing social media?

So for us we actually have a full time team member, his name is Kelley Bostian, who comes up with some really great content for our social media on both Instagram and Facebook, which we like to call “edutainment,” So, shout out to Kelley! What he likes to do is both educate and entertain the folks by having really funny videos. We’ve done a Star Wars rendition on May 4th and a number of different things while also sprinkling in a lot of additional content such as where the coffee comes from, how hard it is to get it to you, as well as all the work that the farmers do to produce some really good coffee. So through social media, we are able to tie people in and really educate them on what the industry is facing while entertaining them too, and especially showcasing what a lot of producers are facing in origin countries.