An article we feature in the current issue of Barista Magazine (February+March 2014) called “Own Your Own: Baristas Turned Café Owners” has resulted in some of the best and most numerous letters to the editor we have ever received. Hundreds of you emailed, Tweeted, texted, and called to tell me how the story resonated with you, and how if you didn’t already own a café yourself, how inspired you were by the story to give something all your own a shot.
But it doesn’t always have to be a café, of course. Take the example of Portland, Ore.’s Ben Schultz, a longtime barista most recently with Ristretto Roasters, who recently launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise the initial finances he needs to get his equipment service company, Steadfast Coffee Tech, off the ground.
As I tend to think that the best café owners start their careers as baristas, it only makes sense that a thoughtful, skilled, and instinctive technician would have the kind of intimate familiarity with espresso equipment you can only glean as a day to day barista. Ben’s excitement and effort really moved me, to the point that I wanted to share his story with all of you in hopes that you will be inspired to take risks and be brave, like he is. Also, go help a brother out and make a donation to Ben’s campaign—it’s worth every penny.
To learn more about Ben, I requested an interview with him, which led to some of the most delightful responses—and I’m sharing them here with you. Don’t forget to check out Ben’s campaign page as well as the Steadfast Coffee Tech PDX page. And get ready to be hearing a lot about this guy and this company in the future.Sarah: What’s your background? How did you get involved in technical stuff? When did you start in coffee, and when did the two fields merge for you?Ben: I was born in Wisconsin, the fifth of eight children (how Midwest of us, right?). Early on, I was always interested in statistics—as a boy, my party trick was knowing the jersey numbers of countless athletes. As I grew older, like most Midwestern boys, I fell in love with the car. Love became an obsession. I learned about cars inside and out and became a member of the growing online automotive community around age 12. Before I had even driven above 25mph, I was a resource people would come to for automotive guidance. By the time I could drive, I had a considerable working knowledge of the technical side of cars. In 2002, when I was 16, my family moved out to Oregon. I was the oldest one still living at home so I was the oldest one that “had to” move, as well. Cars became my life and I dove even deeper in. Working on cars became almost as enjoyable as going for long drives. On these drives, though, I began to fall in love with Oregon.
As far as coffee, I was just talking with my wife about where the coffee shop came in to the picture. Coffee wasn’t a part of the culture in Wisconsin at the time. Now in Oregon, I must have been 16 when my brother-in-law, a Salem native, took me for coffee. We went to the (then) newly-built Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Lake Oswego, Oregon. I didn’t know what to order, and he, being a benevolent snob in most things, ordered me a “traditional cappuccino,” an item that wasn’t even on the menu. I don’t remember being absolutely blown away, but I do remember realizing I was at the top of a slippery slope.
Fast forward a few years to 2005, and college wasn’t going very well for me. I was a tactile learner but didn’t know it yet. I would skip class and go for drives, starting and ending at Peet’s. The Trad Capp (6oz, one shot at Peet’s) became my drink of choice and, as such, attracted the attention of the baristas there. Somewhere along the way, they mentioned they were hiring and that I should apply. I did apply and I got the job.I worked for Peet’s from late 2005 to early 2011, filling every position from closer, to opener, bar specialist, coffee and tea specialist, and shift lead.
Little did I know that the coffee shop was going to be a very big part of my life. In my time there, I matured. I became more social, more self-confident, more content with life. I fell in love with the bicycle, sold my car, and progressed in any area I could with coffee.
I met my best friends at Peet’s, I met the woman I would marry, and I could draw the lines of connection to countless people that I consider dear to my heart during my five years at Peet’s. During this time, I ventured out into the world of coffee that is Portland and fell for the culture. Now, I loved Oregon. The first “third-wave” cafe that I felt at home was Coffeehouse NW. This must’ve been around 7 years ago.
I began to dive into bikes the same way I had dove into cars and coffee. After a short stint in bicycle shops, I found myself with my dream job: part of a small team hand-fabricating bicycle frames. Due to situations outside if my control, I was laid off under strange circumstances 4 months before my wedding.
This is how I ended up at Ristretto. I needed a job and rested again on my barista skills. The Nicolai location had opened up a few months earlier and my soon-to-be sister-in-law was working for a company that moved into the Schoolhouse Electric Building. I would stop by for coffee after work sometimes and found out that Ristretto was hiring. Opportunities and connections outside of my power—that seems to describe my time in the coffee industry.
In summer 2012, I was hired as a barista and my love affair with the coffee shop began a new wave. I was working with a beautiful Strada and wanted to know more. I wanted to be a better barista and Ristretto had the drive to help me do so.
At Ristretto is where tech and coffee finally intertwined. I figured we had a skilled artisan working on our machine, someone similar to the men and women at La Marzocco who must have put it together by hand. I was shocked to find out that there was no one with a passion to work on such high-quality, beautiful machinery.
One tech company after another let our shop down. It was then that my manager (the best manager I’ve ever had, for the record) saw my passion, realized my skillset, and told me I should talk to the owners about working on our machine. That was the beginning of another slippery slope. I dove right in and learned as much as possible. At La Marzocco’s recommendation, I rolled up my sleeves and started tinkering. “Be careful with electricity and have towels around for the watery mess,” was their only warning.
I learned pretty quickly that I had chanced into a job that used so many parts of who I am and applied them. I think in technical drawings and diagrams, creating 3D models in my head. I learn with my hands. If i can take something apart, I can figure out how it works, how it will break, how long it may need in between maintenance intervals. As a son of a small business owner, and a brother of multiple small business owners, it didn’t take long before I realized how I had been primed for starting my own business.Sarah: What’s your experience in coffee tech thus far?
Ben: I started off taking care of all the grinders at Ristretto. This moved pretty quickly into all things in our cafes: water filters, ice machines, refrigerators, pitcher rinsers, hot water dispensers… A few months in, I went up to La Marzocco and was able to tinker with their machines with the aid of Scott Guglielmino and the wonderful team up in Seattle. When I came back from LaM, the owner of RR, Din Johnson, and the director of wholesale, Ryan Cross, instantly put me to work.
RR has three shops and I started with our machines. Then I moved on to our wholesale accounts. There was no structure, so I built the program. Little did I know that I was running a business within a business. I’ve since went to Alpha Dominche in Salt Lake City and have had hands on technical experience troubleshooting and repairing everything from Steampunks to Mazzers to Mahlkönigs. I was technical account manager, inventory specialist, head tech, public relations, investigator… a one-man department.
In cities with mature coffee industries like Portland, “cafe technician” can be a serious job title. Why would a cafe technician come from anywhere else than the coffee industry? I want to help foster a technical community in our city and beyond.Sarah: When and how did you get the idea for Steadfast Coffee Tech? Obviously you saw a need for it — can you explain that?
Ben: As I began working on more and more machines, I saw the lack of people with a passion for technical service. There’s an obvious interest in the gear for the average specialty-coffee barista, but it ends at replacing steam valves. There’s so much more to an espresso machine than that! As I began to make my way to cafes outside of RR, people were excited to have someone excited about tech. Cafe owners and trainers began asking if I could work on their machines, too. “Why?” I’d ask. What I came to find out is that, within Portland, there is no one dedicated to third-wave coffee tech. You have the guys who are working on Starbucks and Peet’s that also fit in other shops.
Specialty coffee demands better service than that: they need someone who knows what they go through and holds similar expectations. It just made sense to create a company that strives to provide the same quality of service for machines that the Portland coffee industry demands of their cafes and baristas. High-end shops have someone on staff who also works on their machines and that is fine for most of the parts replaced on Preventative Maintenance visits but, as I said earlier, there is so much more to an espresso machine than “gaskets, baskets, screens, and screws.”
Sarah: What services will you offer?
Ben: Steadfast specializes in Preventative Maintenance schedules. A PM schedule takes in to account all the gar within a shop that needs Preventative Maintenance. We manage the schedule proactively so that cafe owners can concentrate on the business side of their cafe and so baristas can concentrate on drinkmaking. A typical PM schedule could be every 3-months OR we can spread things out so that it happens in smaller doses once a month.Steadfast is a distributor for all high-end coffee equipment. We provide sales, installation, maintenance, and education around La Marzocco, Slayer, Kees van der Westen, Alpha Dominche, Mazzer, Mahlkönig, Everpure, OptiPure, Ditting, Bunn, and Fetco. We are relationship driven with our clients as well as our vendors.
To start, Steadfast will concentrate on the greater Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, Wash., area. As we grow, we hope to provide support to the growing coffee scenes in Salem, Corvallis, and Eugene, Oregon. As Alpha Dominche’s regional tech and distributor, we will provide sales, installation, service, and education for the Steampunk, as well.
Of course, emergency maintenance is available although our goal is to maintain machines well and find problems before they halt a cafe’s business. Emergencies are more expensive, chaotic, troublesome, and bothersome for both the cafe and for the technician. Avoiding emergency maintenance is a goal we strive for.
Steadfast will also move into the role of technical educators. We hope to build a coffee tech training lab in the future where we can train and tech coffee industry professionals in all things tech while providing demo machines from multiple companies for people to try out.Sarah: There are other technicians in the area — what do you offer that’s special?
Ben: Steadfast is different, first and foremost, because I (and soon, we) am a product of the Portland specialty-coffee industry. I’ve worked behind the bar in multiple places for almost 10 years now, and I understand the life of a barista. I understand the parameters of a perfect shot of espresso—I’ve pulled them.
Second, Steadfast is specifically geared towards the specialty-coffee industry. We want to foster a smaller number of clientele with a higher degree of detail. This is why I call Steadfast relationship driven. As such, we won’t have a gigantic portfolio of machines we work on. Steadfast will be on the leading edge of the highest-quality coffee and espresso machines the industry has to offer. The average cafe may not have the desire for such in-depth service, but I believe the coffee industry in Portland has been seriously lacking when it comes to technical service. The classic saying of “quality not quantity” goes for Steadfast.
We’re relationship driven, as I’ve said a few times, and that goes for our clients as well as our vendors. To be dependable means a few things: you have to have great service, you have to be reliable, and you have to be trusted. Trust without relationship is nearly impossible.
Lastly, we want to be educators. There is no desire in me to horde the super secret knowledge of the espresso machine. I think the coffee industry can benefit from a closer relationship between manufacturers + technicians, technicians + trainers, technicians + baristas, and technicians + cafe owners.Sarah: Where does the name Steadfast come from?
Ben: This may sound weird but “steadfast” is a word that I hope will describe me at the end of my life. “It’s a funeral word—a eulogy word,” a coffee industry friend of mine said when I told him the company name. To be steadfast is to be trustworthy, dependable, reliable, and hard-working. To be steadfast is to be there for someone, and to be there for someone is to know their needs. There’s no way to be steadfast without relationship, and I believe that life is about the relationships we foster with the world around us.
Sarah: Anything else to add?
Ben: Thanks so much for this opportunity! I really want to make it clear how grateful I am of all the people who have provided a way for me to get where I am. I couldn’t be here without Ristretto Roasters – the ownership, managers, wholesale team, and friendly, hard-working baristas! Thank you to my business mentors and friends, Mark Hellweg, Matt Brown, Ryan Cross. Thank you to my family, beautiful wife, friends, and all those dear to me. Many thanks. Many thanks. And thanks to Portland and its cafes (and all those involved) for having a coffee industry worth working for.