Anyone have ideas or experiences on how to build a coffee scene?

This is a question for those of you who have been a part of bringing specialty coffee to areas where it has not existed before ("frontiers", if you will), or anyone who has thought about it. I have just moved to a new town (metro area of 350,000 or so, at least two major universities, and the state capital). So far, I haven't seen much knowledge of coffee or interest in learning. There are several shops in town, so people are drinking coffee. I am interested in trying to build an interested community here, to provide ways for people to learn about and appreciate quality coffee, as well as a chance to meet people with passion about coffee.


To get to the point: Any ideas about how to start building this from the ground up? Also, any lessons learned from experience appreciated.





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I've done it in Lubbock, TX.  

It was more organic than simply deciding to create a scene.  It evolved with my interest in coffee and my desire to share it with other people.  Pair that with my natural inclination towards teaching, and it was practically inevitable.  


I got a job at what I thought would be a good shop to start in as a barista.  I learned latte art while there, and had the chance to keep practicing espresso.  Unfortunately, I was the only one who cared about the coffee, and being the newest employee, it was difficult to impossible to make a difference.  

I was left off the schedule (as were other employees) more than a couple of times.  The shop was going under, and I just took it as my cue to not bother coming in again.  I wish the owner had at least had the courtesy to inform his employees, but that's water under the bridge. 

I had a Gaggia Coffee and a Gaggia MDF at home that I practiced with religiously.  I found a nearby shop that had just opened.  I asked what coffee they used.  I had never heard of who they were using, but it wasn't so great.  I got to know them and expressed interest in working there on more than one occasion.  I taught them a bit about coffee, and they agreed to hire me.  I was enough influence to change the coffee supplier to something that was acceptable (not ideal, but low-budget operations tend to lean towards the "downward spiral" mentality of running a business).  

I got the idea to start a training project for other shops in the area under their banner.  I was told "good idea!", and then never gained any ground on it.  I then decided that if I wanted something to be done, I had to do it myself.  Thus, was born.  

When it was time to leave that shop, I applied to another local shop that had a cool atmosphere and some pretty awful coffee.  Why?  Well, I was a coffee guy who needed work, and it seemed like the best option.  They did not hire me as an employee, but they did hire me to train them.  That one gig was a big step in changing the landscape here.  Today, they are the best place to get a cup of coffee in town.  All coffees are pressed.  All cappuccini come in a ceramic NP cappuccino cup.  It's one of the best places to get coffee in Texas, and I've been around.  

After competing and placing 3rd in the first SCRBC (2007), I tried, once again, to find barista work.  There was one roaster in town with three retail locations.  I was referred to as "super barista" or some such nonsense by the retail manager.  I was hired as a technician working out of the warehouse.  I met pretty much all of the staff, and a small handful were interested in coffee.  This was just another step in putting together a scene.  

I had this idea of small local coffee jams on a regular basis.  There was another shop that closed at 4pm who was willing to host it (in exchange for the free information that their staff was getting as a result).  So, I ran it by the manager of the shop I trained, a few of the baristas at the roasting company I was working for, and asked everyone to spread the word a bit.  It was small.  I think the most people we ever had was 10.  


My goal was to do as much as I could to get the scene self-sustaining.  It's very easy for a business to get lazy and focus on their own goings on rather than looking at a regional scene as a whole.  The owner of the shop that I trained told me just a few months ago that he gave up on trying to get anything going here because nobody else seems to care.  

The roasting business sold its three retail locations to the owner of another shop (after I was asked if I wanted to buy them.. sounds fishy, right? The founder/owner-my boss at the time- was willing to finance it as well. I respectfully declined).  The new owner called me to train all four locations to do everything consistently.  I met MORE baristas, and I had the opportunity to help those with a genuine interest to really develop their passion.  Those who really got it still get it.  Unfortunately, a business can only go in the direction that its owner points it.  He is the captain of his ship, and the crew can only do so much without having their own hands at the helm.  This fact has both fed and inhibited the growth of our local scene. 

The scene now is made up of a few individuals only, but we always have a great time on those rare times when we do get together.  

We've lost a few shops over the last few years, and there are now three more opening up, one of which is a client of mine.  I'm hoping to get something going to get them involved.  I hope we can revive this dwindling scene that a few of us worked towards building.  


That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.  It can be done, but it isn't always easy. 


Thanks for the reply. It gives me a few ideas and some inspiration. I don't expect this will be easy, and maybe it won't work at all. But I am living here for now, so I'm going to do what I can. My whole goal is to bring together the people who are passionate, and pick up some others along the way. If nothing else, I'm hoping that people brought together can feed off each other and create momentum.


Here in Providence our coffee scene is just starting to take hold, and frankly it is the result of a lot of hard work, undying (and sometimes unreasonable) optimism, and truckloads of enthusiasm. We have progressed to the point where we have regular jams, throwdowns, and industry happy hours, and things are generally pretty well attended.


I think the key is to connect to as many people as positively as possible. Get around to your shops, shake hands, make some friends and contacts. Get to know the other working baristi in town before making any moves on events or organizations. You need to have an idea of who will come to events before planning them. The more enthusiasm and passion you can bring to bear, the more interested people will be. Be nice, listen, and take everyone and everything seriously, you never know who will end up being a totally integral part of your local scene.


Once you've started to become a fixture, you'll have a solid idea what shops and which individuals are your most likely allies. Use them! Talk to them, see where you can host, who would donate coffee, who would attend - then do something! Even as small as a $1-buy-in latte art throwdown. Play it up like the biggest, best thing to ever happen to coffee in your town - because it might be! Then, make sure it's awesome, make sure you meet every person who attends, and move on from there.

Good luck!



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