I recently got the opportunity to sit down and interview Chris Edden of Josie Coffee, the former highway patrol cop-turned-coffee buff, and full-time roaster. This guy knows his stuff, and has such a great community connection, both here and with his suppliers. Learning about his business was more than just a feature interview – it was a crash-course in coffee education!
Standing in the modest warehouse, you cannot escape the aroma in the air of coffee beans roasting, which surprisingly doesn’t smell like coffee at all, but more like popcorn. It’s overwhelming, and watching the roaster arm spin around is mesmerizing.
Chris takes me on a tour of the warehouse, which is about to get a full makeover. The mammoth black roaster machine sitting in the middle of the shed is gently purring at the moment, with Greg, Chris’s offsider (more commonly known as the “coffee nerd”), at the controls.
Buckets and bags of coffee are stacked and sprawled, as it’s roasting day. Chris leads me to the front of the shop, where he proudly shows me the results of hours of work that have framed what will be a cafe with one of the few Modbar coffee machine set ups in Australia, its own water filtration system, a stone waterfall bar; a place to be able to have customers and wholesale accounts come, try, and enjoy the coffee, enjoy some light eats, as well as showcase their more exotic blends. It will also serve as a cool training location for their wholesale accounts.
We get to chatting about how Josie Coffee went from home hobby to commercial roaster, in just three years.
K: I know the story behind the name, which is such a lovely tribute to Josie, but were you always into Coffee? Was it a family thing?
C: Thanks. No, I wasn’t. I started dabbling with a tiny home roaster and sharing the roasts with friends. I think I wanted to get into a business, in the back of my mind, but was happy in the police force and didn’t set out to make coffee a full time thing at that point. And then a while into it, I took a trip to Melbourne, where Josie’s parents, Paul and Liz had organised a day roasting with the guys at Code Black (where Josie had worked for a number of years). I spent the day there, and then I was hooked! I decided I wanted to make the business bigger and start pushing towards more wholesale volume and roast more coffee. After a heap of planning, I moved into this very shed, which I shared with my brother at the time, and got a bigger machine. I worked out of a small room here for a while, however, the business just kept growing, so I began sourcing a new roaster from Germany, our Probat UG22 and a smaller Probat P5 to compensate for the growth and we ended up taking over the whole shed!
K: Was it hard to get wholesale accounts in the beginning?
C: I was fortunate enough to gain two really good wholesale accounts fairly early on, which we still have now, that enabled us to have some income at the start. It was lots of groundwork to get these early accounts, even though I had known one of the café owners through being a family friend. Having this relationship didn’t just gift me the account though, you still have to have a good product and be able to deliver. It accelerated pretty quickly from there, just through word of mouth.
K: How did you and Greg meet?
C: We met through me going into coffee shops where Greg had worked. Greg, who was previously a sound engineer, has worked in coffee for about 8 years now, and we just became mates. I stayed in contact when he moved to different shops, and I told him, if he ever wanted to get into roasting to give me a call; and here we are. He’s been with me for 18 months full time, and it’s a great combination. We have our processes and routines down pat. That’s a really important thing in owning a business: I try not to treat him as an employee, and give him as much reign in decisions as possible, and in return he is invested in what we are about. It was important for me to get the business to a point where we could support him full time and he could take some of the load off me from doing everything myself.
K: Talk to me about transitioning from a career to owning your own business.
C: It definitely helped that I was able to transition out of the police force slowly, with leave and long service etc., as there was just so much money going into the business at the start. I was still working full time in the Police while building Josie Coffee up and it got a little crazy as it was getting bigger! There came a time when I was confident I could step away and take the plunge full time.
It’s a big help knowing that you have something to fall back on worst-case, even though that’s not how I looked at it at the time. The first year is the hardest, because of the outlay and commitment. It was hard there for a while, where there wasn’t much growth – and a few roasters popped up in that time, but we kept on going and stayed true to being genuine, making it all about the coffee.
K: Your social media portrays very personal backstory to your brand. Was that always your marketing objective?
C: No, not at all. We named the business after Josie as a legacy to her. I am always happy to tell people about the story of Josie when they ask, but it is not something we market in any way as it is a very sad story and naturally very close to our hearts. I try my best to steer clear of all the crap that can go with marketing and social media. I want the coffee to speak for itself and for our marketing to be an accurate representation of who we are. That’s the best kind of marketing you can have, even if it’s a bit harder in the beginning. Yes, we have photos from our trips, but that’s to highlight the importance of where the coffee comes from. My goal is always to be genuine, and I think that’s the key for small businesses.
K: You have been to your supplier’s farm in India. Talk to me about the importance of that happening, and how it impacts on your business.
C: Going to India was very humbling. It’s madness! Riverdale is in a remote area of Southern Inda, with almost zero non-Indian tourists. I really wanted to meet the farmers and learn their story, and see how we could make a commitment to them to form a relationship that would serve us both ongoing. I don’t want to just buy the cheapest coffee I can and get the best profit margin, it’s not about that for us. We choose to have ongoing relationships with farms as we can get ongoing access to a great product and build relationships with like minded passionate coffee professionals from around the world. We also work with Cedro Alto, a not-for-profit organisation based in Colombia. They are a company that organises coffee cooperatives and works with completely indigenous farmer cooperative in Tolima, Colombia to supply us with our Colombian blender coffee. They only work in post-conflict areas, to help communities that really need to be re-established.
We use a few coffee importers to handle the import and storage logistics and these guys do an incredible job to make all of this happen. For us it’s about creating a sustainable business that has growth, but also has ethics that are in line with our personal beliefs and makes us happy to come to work each day!
K: Organic is the “it” word at the moment. Is your coffee organic?
C: No, generally our coffee is not organic certified. We choose farmers who are focused on quality and ethics as we feel that’s more important. Many of our farmers will use fertilizers to ensure their crops grow healthily, ensuring they have good quality fruit and are less susceptible to disease (generally leaf rust – which can be fatal to coffee crops). After visiting Riverdale Estate in India and seeing the crops and the process, I think that’s more important. Organic certification is something that can often be paid for by coffee farmers wanting to add this to their farm, but
You can’t put a price on making sure that the relationship, the working conditions and processes are all fair and ethical.
We have some very cool coffee on the water from Colombia currently, it is from a farmer called Jose Ramiro in the Tolima region. We have tasted his coffee through the assistance of Cedra Alto and Langdon Coffee Merchants and have agreed to purchase his entire crop for this harvest and hopefully for the foreseeable future. This allows us to have access to a coffee that no other roaster around the world has, as well as being able to provide financial security to the famer. We intend to work closely with him and visit in the near future, to work on some more experimental processing and chat about helping out with some basic infrastructure that can help his coffee farming easier and more profitable for him.
K: You have built a great community around your supply chain, but you have also built a great community here with the locals. I see you greet almost all of the people you serve at the markets by their first name. Do you think the markets played a big part in creating that community?
C: Yes, we definitely have a great following at the markets and we are super appreciative for that! It’s a big, hard day, but it’s worth it. You only get a small window to talk and chat, so it’s always nice to be yourself and have a joke and a laugh. We are also very lucky that our website does so well, and people can access it to buy online if they need to. I hated doing sales for new wholesale customers, so now we don’t do it, we just focus on the customers we currently have and do the best job possible for them. I like to think it’s important to focus on what you do well, be true to your brand and then like-minded people will want to do business with you. We have run some events here at the roastery recently for people to come along to check us out and spend time learning about coffee in a relaxed atmosphere. We get a real cross section of people coming along, from our wholesale customers, baristas and a heap of normal coffee fans who are just curious! We like to keep our events pretty low key, passing on some knowledge about coffee, learning about Josie Coffee while having beers and pizza.
K: Any more trips to origin planned?
C: Yeah, Greg will head to Riverdale in India next month, and I plan to head over to Colombia and Panama in the near future to check out some of the projects we are working with over there.
K: Is there anything new that’s coming to Josie Coffee?
C: Yes, we are planning to open our coffee bar at the roastery early in the new year sometime. This has been a long time coming, but construction is underway and we are making good progress on it. We are really excited to be able to serve our customers 6 days a week and not only at the markets! Keep an eye on our social media for more info on this one!
Also we have a new blend coming called Purple Rain – its made up of two coffees that we work direct with; India Riverdale Aroma Natural and Colombia Jose Ramiro washed process. We are really excited about this coffee blend, it should be really sweet and fruity, perfect for black coffee and very good in milk. We are planning to run this in our coffee bar and will be available for purchase.
From a business point of view, we are also looking at releasing a transparency report that will outline all the coffee we purchased, the quantity purchased, how much we paid, how much the farmers got paid, so we can have an open book of what we do and what we paid, and goes back to ensuring good ethical relationships and stays in line with our business ethos. This is something we hope to do in the near future to prove to our customers that we are transparent in our dealings and it may encourage other roasters in our community to do similar things!
We headed back downstairs to the roaster, where Greg was finishing the final roast of the day. Chris explained the difference between washed and natural coffee, and it made me realize that there is not only a science to coffee roasting, but the depth of knowledge in horticulture to get the plants to the point where they are a successful crop, and then the skills of the barista making the coffee. So many levels of input go into making you that one cup! After today, I sure have a new appreciation for the black gold!
I ask Greg on the floor if he had a most memorable cup of coffee.
‘I had just gotten here (Austalia) from Manchester, and I was on a gig in Melbourne. I had a $25 cup of Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda Special coffee, and it was pretty epic, and the first time I had a really good Geisha.’
On leaving, I ask Chris, ‘Do you still have an emotional connection to the coffee smell?’
He laughs and says he doesn’t notice it in the warehouse, but once it’s brewing, yes.
Does anyone hate the smell of coffee? I don’t think so…
To get a cup of the good stuff, you can catch the boys at the Newcastle Famers Markets every Sunday, Speers Point Markets on the second and fourth Saturday of the month or check out the website for online sales and wholesale information.