Social media and word of mouth combine to keep coffee roaster busy
Troy Bridgeman, Special to the Mercury
GUELPH — Coffee is big business around the world and in Guelph, but the formula for success for local roaster, Joe Harrison, is keeping it small, at least for now.
"There are a lot of cafes in Guelph," says Harrison. "The city is pretty saturated. The way I am focusing on the coffee culture is not so much at the café, but more in the home brewing – almost like a chef approach to it. The big thing for me, why it has been so successful so far is that it is fresh and it is a local company. People like that."
Harrison is the founder of the Grizzly Bear Coffee Company, a bean roasting business he runs part-time out of his home.
"My customers are mostly other business professionals, 20 to 40 years old who like coffee," he says. "They are the type of person who would go to the Farmer's Market on the weekend – the type of person who likes to support local businesses. That is what I have found."
The fair-trade coffee he sells is organically grown in many of the traditional regions of the world, such as Panama, Africa and Indonesia. Harrison buys the green beans in 20- to 30-pound bags from suppliers in Toronto, Hamilton and Richmond Hill.
He has a small roaster in his garage where he can roast up to three quarters of a pound at a time and where he has experimented to perfect his roasting process.
"There are all kinds of nerdy formulas for roasting," he says. "It takes between 15 and 20 minutes. The timing is relative to the type of bean."
There are basically two ways customers can order Grizzly Bear Coffee.
"One way is just ordering a jar of coffee," says Harrison. "The other way is to join the coffee club. It's a 12-week coffee share and every other week you get a delivery of coffee."
You can order it by the pound or half pound.
"I use glass mason jars," he says. "It keeps them nice and fresh. I usually roast one or two days before the delivery date so it is super fresh."
People can pick up their orders from his home on Beattie Street in Guelph or have it delivered.
"I do my deliveries on bike in the downtown core," he says. "Not in snowstorms but when it is nice."
It was Harrison's love of coffee that inspired him to start roasting his own beans and his entrepreneurial instincts that helped him recognize the business opportunity.
"I had a few friends who were roasting their own, but at a very small level, like popcorn poppers," he says. "When I decided to get a roaster, I just got a little shop roaster. I made some for myself then started making some for friends. I decided with my business and marketing background, that it might be a fun venture to do."
Harrison was born in Mississauga and grew up in Brampton where he lived with his parents, his older brother and younger sister.
He first moved here in 1995 to study commerce and marketing at the University of Guelph.
"I started a graphic design business in my fourth year and I did that for five years," says Harrison. "Then I sold that and went back to school for teachers college."
He and his wife of 13 years, Elisa Harrison, were teenage sweethearts.
"We met at camp when we were 16," he says. "We were camp counsellors."
They have two sons – Jesse, 6, and Porter, 4.
"We lived in Toronto for a couple years then moved back to Guelph in 2002," says Harrison. "Elisa works in town as a pedorthist. During the day I teach computers and art at a high school in Brampton and I do this at night."
He spends, on average, two hours a night roasting and packaging the beans.
"I ramp that up coming into a delivery weekend," he says. "It's just me right now, but my kids like to help out a little bit. I'm just doing it in my spare time at the moment, but it is turning into a lot more than my spare time."
Harrison attributes a lot of his success to the influence of social media.
"I got started just making low roasts and then, using some web design skills, put together a website," he says. "I put it on Twitter and just with word of mouth it started growing.
"I don't think the business would have grown as fast just with word of mouth, but word of mouth with social media has been really big at growing the business."
People can order online by email or by filling out a form on the Grizzly Bear Coffee Company website.
"I get alerted on my phone that someone has made an order," says Harrison. "I will contact them within the next half hour or hour just to confirm and welcome them. Then I go ahead and make it and let them know when it will be ready."
He says being a small operation allows him to provide a much more personal service than many of the bigger suppliers.
"Another thing I do that sets me apart is I will say the date that I roasted it which is usually two days after the order is placed," says Harrison. "The thing about coffee is that it is freshest two to 14 days after it has been roasted. That's its peak. It is still emitting CO2, it is still very fresh so if I keep my roaster small and keep my roasts small then I can make it for them on an as-needed basis."
He will even grind the coffee if a customer asks him.
"I sometimes grind as a special request but usually people who are into coffee will have their own grinder and grind it on an as-needed basis," says Harrison. "I am mostly marketing toward customers that are highend coffee people who like their coffee and like brewing it themselves."
He says the focus on local food in Guelph and on promoting local business has made all the difference.
"Guelph is nice for that because there is a lot of support for trying new things and supporting local initiatives," he says. "I grew up in Brampton, but I don't think I could do this in Brampton. It wouldn't be the same community feel."
His goal is to get a spot at the Farmers Market and then move on to independent cafes, delis and grocery stores.
"That is the longer goal, but I would need a bigger roaster and more time," says Harrison.
"What I like is it is a simple venture to do. It is scalable for myself to get to the next level."