Authenticity in visuals and packaging. Visual communication is important in sharing your message quickly. Pick a good designer to help you visually communicate your company ethos. The images and symbols you use can take on a life of their own and become avatars of your company. We chose a wild boar to represent Big Island Coffee Roasters and, initially, it was shocking to people. Boars aren’t exactly elegant creatures, so why would we use it to represent one of the world’s most expensive coffees? Our boar represents a wildness, and there is beauty in that. It’s the antithesis of a gimmicky, manufactured Hawaii, and the antithesis of souvenir coffee.
Asa part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelleigh Stewart, Co-founder/ Director of Big Island Coffee Roasters.
From humble beginnings, Big Island Coffee Roasters has earned Grand Champion in Hawaii’s Cupping Competition and has been listed by Forbes as one of the “12 Best Coffee Roasters in the USA”. Today Big Island Coffee Roasters features specialty Hawaiian coffees from each region, and an edible Hawaiian coffee bar called Espresso Bites, which was picked up by Whole Foods Market this year.
Neither Kelleigh nor her partner/husband, Brandon, had prior experience in marketing, business, or coffee.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I’m the daughter of a traditional cowboy (ferrier and blacksmith) and mother who would do everything from sew my clothes to rescue stray animals. We didn’t have much money so my family would utilize any opportunity available — from bartering with grocery stores to searching for our toys in dumpsters. When I was 13, I started my first job at an egg farm in Draper, Utah, and my second was at a dairy. We weren’t raised to expect handouts or wait for luck. We were raised to be resourceful and look for opportunities.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
In 2010, while living in Portland, my husband and I found an owner-financed coffee farm for sale on Craigslist, located in a wild, impoverished region of Hawaii (Puna). With little to lose, we thought “why not?” and went for it. As hardcore foodies and coffee lovers living in Portland, we had heard that Hawaiian coffee was a gimmicky souvenir for tourists. And our first experience of Hawaiian coffee confirmed it. It was awful — over-roasted, stale — and we threw it out.
After we moved to the Big Island, we integrated with farmers and sampled fresh coffees from around Hawaii. We were surprised by the diversity and quality that’s frequently overshadowed.
The more we learned the complicated steps to produce great coffee, the stranger it became that the final product was a gimmicky tourist souvenir: artificially flavored, stale, over-roasted 10% blends. Plus, Kona coffees were rife with counterfeit scams.
We learned from local coffee farmers in Hamakua and Ka’u that they often sold coffee to Kona coffee roasters who were effectively counterfeiting their coffees as Kona because there was no market for non-Kona coffees at that time.
That was the “ah ha” moment. We wanted to change that: share the diverse, authentic Hawaiian coffees from all regions to real coffee lovers. We knew that coffee lovers wanted authenticity, and we knew many local farmers wanted their work represented authentically.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Back when we were homesteading and establishing our farm, before Big Island Coffee Roasters took off, we began acquiring sheep and chickens before we had a proper fence set up. Things got out of hand and pretty soon we had 60 free-range chickens and almost 20 sheep and there were no boundaries between their field and our home. We’d wake up to all these animals standing right outside of our front door, staring at us, waiting to get fed. Feeding them was chaos — the sheep would eat the chicken food, the chickens would be on the porch eating the cat food, and the cats would be whining. On top of that, the chickens were hiding their eggs, then hatching them and multiplying. Not quite the peaceful farm life I’d envisioned. All of the mistakes we’ve made, including this one, has taught me to start small, gather data, refine, and then grow.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
#1 — Losing touch with the customer experience. Customers see hundreds of brands every day. If your product isn’t differentiated by form factor or packaging, it’ll get lost. The quality won’t matter if people aren’t curious enough to pick up the product. Method soap, for example, differentiated on the shelf through the shape of the container and elegant design. We’ve differentiated our packaging with an iconic Big Island boar logo, which represents us as a company, and the wild side of Hawaii. I can’t tell you how many people know us by logo. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes on a daily basis.
#2 — Thinking too broadly, getting scattered and becoming inefficient. Define your goals, break them into smaller chunks, and always leave time for optimizing the channel. For instance, instead setting a goal to launch an ecommerce site and a retail store, start by segmenting and building room for optimization into your plan. “Spring will be dedicated to setting up our website, and Summer will be dedicated to optimizing for conversions, boosting AOV, etc.” Once you’ve optimized and are performing at the same level or better than benchmarks in your industry, you’re ready for the next channel. I promise you this: by compartmentalizing and optimizing, you’ll protect your cash and your endurance.
#3 — Overpromising and under-delivering. It damages trust and creates financial strain. It’s better to under-promise and over-deliver.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Step 1: Create a small-scale prototype and refine the heck out of it. Start by gathering feedback from family and friends, then find people who are in your industry that are not friends to give you feedback. Ask if they’d buy it and at what price point. Don’t forget the most important group to get feedback from: local grocers and retailers.
Step 2: Once you have product feedback, explore manufacturing risks and requirements. What risks you foresee in distribution? Melting, breaking, staling? If part of your product is manufactured outside of your facility, I recommend finding one main co-manufacturing partner, and one as backup. Ask about their minimums and whether they foresee issues with the packaging and production volume that you envision.
Step 3: Next, write an RFP (request for proposal) seeking a designer. Don’t skip this step unless you already know a designer that can visually communicate your company ethos. Find designers to send your RFP to on Behance, Upwork, locally, or within your industry.
We made the mistake of skipping Step 2 before moving onto Step 3 when we were designing the packaging for Espresso Bites, and that mistake cost us $13,000 and a year of delays, so don’t skip it!
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
You only have 3 choices here: time, money or partnership. Ideally you have all 3. But if you don’t have years of education, or enough money for trial and error, find a partner with decent business acumen.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
If you’re low on cash, I’d recommend a mentor in your industry or partnering with an accelerator. But if you’ve got the cash for it, consultants can save you time and money in terms of the mistakes you might have made.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
Ask yourself, would you rather answer to a bank or to a VC firm? How do you perform under pressure? While a bank will stay out of your day to day operations, they won’t offer much support or guidance if you need it. If your payments are delinquent, they’ll seize your facilities. On the flip side, investors will want regular check-ins and may apply pressure if you’re not hitting your targets. They probably won’t seize your facilities, but they might replace you if you underperform. With that said, your investors have the same goal as you — to grow your company — and a good investor will provide resources, leads, and the advice you need to succeed.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
You can find all of these by networking with people in similar industries or within professional organizations. If possible, look for ways to participate at a high level using your existing skill set. That will enable you to gain the trust and support of others participating at a high level, and it will get your name out there.
For instance, I’m pretty savvy with digital communications and I noticed that the Hawaii Coffee Association was not — they were slow to communicate with farmers and industry members, and that was causing frustration in our community. So, after a series of conversations, I — a new farmer and 29-year-old girl — was elected to the Board of Directors for the Hawaii Coffee Association as the Communications Chair, which was mostly farmers and CEOs over 55. I spent 4 years writing the association emails, helping the HCA rebrand, doing trade shows and community projects. That pretty well established us in the Hawaii coffee community. I gave a lot, but I also learned a lot. Oh, and we no longer have issues with sourcing great local coffees. Win-win.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1 — Connection with the people who produce your main ingredients. Specialty food is produced by great ingredients, and you can’t have great ingredients without farmers who care. As an example, we both grow and source specialty Hawaiian coffee. One of the key differentiators between specialty grade coffee and commodity coffee is ripe harvesting of the coffee cherry. When the coffee cherry is harvested unripe or overripe, the acids are unbalanced and the coffee can hurt your stomach (similar to eating a green banana) or taste so bad that you have to burn it, just to mask the true flavors of the coffee. If we can’t convince our farmer-partners to harvest ripe coffee cherry only, we don’t have a specialty product, and we can’t promise a better experience to our customers.
2 — Fresh and clean ingredients. The “small-batch” revolution is a rebellion from the commodification of the food chain. It’s a celebration of freshness, seasonality and attention to detail. You don’t actually need to be “small batch” because that term is relative, but your products should be fresh and contain minimally refined ingredients.
For instance, we mill in small batches and roast to order. In the milling process, we remove the protective shell ‘parchment’ from the coffee bean before roasting it. Less than .05% of U.S. roasters can mill in small batches and this one step dramatically preserves the liveliness and nuance of our Hawaiian coffees. After it’s milled, our coffees are roasted-to-order. It may sound small, but it’s a detail that can convert a person from a non-coffee drinker to a coffee lover.
3 — Authenticity of voice. Whatever it is you believe, whatever your differentiator, be authentic with it and let it come from your voice. Why do large companies hire celebrities to be the brand voice for them? Why does ‘Flo’ the fictional insurance salesperson exist? To help large companies connect with regular people. That’s an advantage you already have if you can harness it.
4 — Authenticity in visuals and packaging. Visual communication is important in sharing your message quickly. Pick a good designer to help you visually communicate your company ethos. The images and symbols you use can take on a life of their own and become avatars of your company. We chose a wild boar to represent Big Island Coffee Roasters and, initially, it was shocking to people. Boars aren’t exactly elegant creatures, so why would we use it to represent one of the world’s most expensive coffees? Our boar represents a wildness, and there is beauty in that. It’s the antithesis of a gimmicky, manufactured Hawaii, and the antithesis of souvenir coffee.
5 — Partnership. Your partner can be a business partner, advisor, investor or mentor. Ideally the partner shares some of the workload, but they can also be an advisor helping you externally process ideas. Overtime, you might develop an intuition that helps you scale as a solo business owner, but I don’t recommend it. Even seasoned entrepreneurs and CEOs have advisors. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can do it alone.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Become a bridge that connects two worlds and tap into the subcultures that have been built around your product or ingredients. Even ordinary ingredients like rice have fanatical subcultures. The specialty coffee industry is downright cultish, and besides us and 2 or 3 other roasters, you just can’t find specialty Hawaiian coffee.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Since 2015 we’ve purchased nearly $2.5M of fresh coffee from local Hawaii farmers and we regularly feature their stories in our blogs and articles. We use our email series to educate buyers about the differences in Hawaiian coffees and share pro tips for brewing Hawaiian coffees at home.
In the end we hope you’ll celebrate these wild and beautiful foods and places with us. We must preserve this way of life: small farms, real food, and integrity.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Access to birth control. It goes hand-in-hand with protecting and preserving wild and beautiful places, while addressing poverty, species conservation, and safeguarding farmland.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Tim Ferris. From business acumen, to ambition, to courage, we’re big fans. He’s so generous with his time and energy, we’d love to thank him for how he’s contributed to our perspectives, relationships, and lives.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.