How independent shops are using quality, technology and collaboration to compete with big names
From restaurants to retailers, movie theaters to breweries, people are more willing than ever to support local businesses. As Americans seek premium coffee to start their day, they’re increasingly patronizing local coffee shops, partially because of the quality that running a smaller operation allows. That’s a benefit the roasters at Dayton’s Boston Stoker are very aware of. Henry Dean is president of the company that his parents started in 1973, and passionate about the impact local coffee can have on its community and the communities of the farms they support.
“Local coffee is higher quality and helps support your city,” he said. “The coffee itself is going to be fresher because the supply chain is much shorter from the roasting to the coffee shop. There’s a much smaller turnaround time compared to national chains that roast out of state and then send it through their distribution channels. And it makes sense economically, too. The money is staying in the local community, which is something that’s important to us and other local roasters. We try to source as much locally as we possibly can, and it makes a difference.”
That commitment to producing great coffee in a responsible way is an important pillar in Boston Stoker’s mission. Dean himself has been traveling regularly to Costa Rica to work with Hacienda La Minita, where the shop buys its beans. He said the process of getting to know the farmers, sourcing the best coffee and supporting the best farms is among the most rewarding parts of his job. And it’s a part of the process that can’t be replicated at the huge scale of national or international coffee brands.
“We see huge benefits for both us and the farmers,” said Dean. “From our perspective, we get the benefit of being on the ground to work with the farmers where we can collaborate together on special projects, unique coffees and other experiments. Even outside the farm gates, we’re able to get involved in projects and give back to the places we’re buying from. And as smaller roasters, they’re able to get a better premium from us per pound. When you’re supporting local roasters, you’re supporting higher wages for coffee communities around the world.”
As is the case in most industries, convenience and cost savings can sway people toward choosing the bigger names. Helping boost local shops while providing that convenience is where Cafilia comes in. The Cleveland startup created a membership, priced between $25 and $77 per month depending on your coffee intake, that gets you a specially designed Cafilia travel mug that works at the local coffee shops on Cafilia’s roster. It’s a way to support local coffee shops and cut down on waste of paper cups.
“There are no chains and no corporations — it’s exclusively small, independent coffee shops and local franchises,” said founder Aleksandra Brankov. “It’s 100 percent local business support, first in Cleveland and then beyond. I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if, with this one mug, you had access to coffee wherever you go?’ I thought about who would benefit from it the most, and that would be small, local coffee shops. Those shops need the visibility and the sales and the foot traffic that they might not have the marketing dollars to attract otherwise. That’s why offering the subscription exclusively to local shops is important.”
Mike Vehar owns 3-19 Coffee in Cleveland, a Cafilia member who has already seen the benefits of the program. He said an increase in support for local coffee shops means an increase in what they give back as well. For instance, 3-19 coffee partners with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and also created the Rural Guatemala Assistance Program during the pandemic as a way to help send help to the sources of their coffee.
“Small roasters like us have the ability to connect with communities in unique ways simply by living our mission and listening to our employees and the community,” he said. “We feel now more than ever that coffee consumers are not only looking to try a cup of responsibly sourced, specialty coffee but connect with the story behind the beans as well. If people prioritize exceptional tasting coffee and positive community impact, small roasters like 3-19 Coffee will continue to grow and in turn, impact the people we work with everyday.”