V. Hi, Hunt! What brought you into the coffee industry?
S. I spent most of my teenage and college years in coffee shops and had spent considerable time daydreaming about owning one someday but those thoughts took a backseat when I began a career in the nonprofit sector. After several years working in various NPOs, I found myself stressed out and working 90-100 hours per week. I was in desperate need of a hobby to focus on.
I came across a website in 2002 about roasting coffee at home and was quickly hooked. That Christmas, I gave home roasted coffee to some friends and family as gifts. When the holidays were over, some of those friends asked if they could get some more of that fresh, specialty coffee, so I started an informal coffee of the month club. In 2004, my wife, Amanda, and I moved back to my hometown of Griffin, Georgia, to continue our non-profit work and needed a way to fund our endeavors of helping families with chemical addiction issues. One thing lead to another and Safehouse Coffee Roasters was established (back then, it was called Safehouse Coffee & Tea) as a small cottage industry roasting only 20-30 pounds each month. The plan was to grow a wholesale roastery and eventually open a retail shop, but that was not the way it happened. While roasting in a tiny storefront in 2006, a couple of college kids walked in thinking we were a coffee shop. I made them some coffee in my personal French press and we talked for quite a while. The next day, they brought a friend – and the day after that, and the day after that as well. Within a month, we were packed to the walls with high school and college kids drinking coffee and playing musical instruments and games. We quickly outgrew that spot and moved into our current location, upgrading both our roasting capacity and our coffee shop seating.
V. What makes your business unique, interesting, and awesome?
S. Our bar design was laid out so that the coffee making process is completely open to our guests. In that same vein, the front wall of the roastery is glassed in so that the entire roasting process can be watched at any time. It has been a lot of fun to build a shop where the environment itself makes a service-forward atmosphere where our guests can be as connected as they want to be to the coffee processes that are happening. We have found that this has made people more comfortable asking questions about our coffees and released the staff from trying to guess whether or not a guest wants to know more about them. This adds up to a guest-centric design that I honestly haven’t encountered in many other coffee shop – I think that’s pretty special.
V. If you were to start again, what would you do differently?
S. In a very real way, when our shop burned down at the beginning of 2012, we did get to start over. Rebuilding was a laborious process that I’ll never be able to fully communicate all the difficulties of, but it was worth the work. Starting over from scratch gave us the opportunity to capitalize on our years of experience by refocusing our brand, our store layout, our offices – everything. Above all else, we found that focusing on our guests is the best guiding principle. We asked ourselves, “Will this design element serve our guest better? Will this layout communicate what we offer better? Will this menu description make it easier and more enjoyable for our guest?” That is my advice to the coffee businesses and restaurants that we consult with: Focus on service and design your shop and systems to maximize your guests’ experience – in short, build your brand to be the pinnacle service experience of every guest’s day.
V. Why did you choose “Safehouse” as your name?
S. Some years ago, I was traveling across the states looking for something – something elusive and always a town or so ahead of me. I was on a trail of some kind and making lousy time. What started in Little Five Points, Atlanta, made stops in Tallahassee, Athens, Memphis, Wichita, Manitou Springs, Eugene, San Francisco, and L.A. Of the many places along that trip, I had an eight-day layover in New Orleans. A road buddy of mine was going to meet me there in his 1965 Dodge Dart and we were rolling on to parts west – to start a business of some kind in the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately for me, what was supposed to be a day or two turned into over a week due to an uncontrollable catch on his end.
Just a few short blocks from Bourbon Street is the rest of New Orleans that lies just within the blind spot of most anybody that’s not from there. For trail walkers and ramblers, there are certain cities and towns that just don’t like passers-through. New Orleans, or at least the affluent areas, is one of those towns. My nights were spent in a haze of half-wakefulness, heel-toeing it up and down the Quarter like some semi-lucid escapee from a sanitarium. Most towns and cities have an extensive network of food pantries and soup kitchens, but then some, like New Orleans, had none unless you were on the outskirts of town – it helps keep down the vagrancy if the vagrants don’t have anything to eat.
As I made my way up Bourbon Street with my big, aluminum frame backpack, and bedroll for the hundredth time that week, my eye caught something that seemed out of place. All the signs are meant to make you buy whatever they have, but this was a small wooden sign – handmade. It said, “Patrons may enter with or without money,” and there was a symbol on it – a circle with an X in the middle. I turned towards the bar to my right and stopped when the barkeep looked at me. He was grey and craggy and seemed to look past my shaggy face into my past. He looked at the pack in my hand and back at me and then nodded – first at me and then to an empty barstool at the dark, far end of the bar. When I lifted my head, there was a bowl of bar nuts and a glass of water in front of me. Tears almost ran down my face and I turned to the barkeep and nodded my reserved gratitude – he didn’t acknowledge. After a few minutes, a couple at the bar got up and left, leaving half a plate of uneaten fried onions. Barkeep picks them up and slides the plate to me – never looking at me. In fact, he did not acknowledge my presence again that night, but by the time I left, I had had a full meal.
I never forgot that night, the barkeep, or that sign and years later I came across a website about old hobo symbols and what they meant, and there right on the screen was that circle with an X in the middle and the caption beneath it: “A safe place to get a meal. Usually a home or business owned by a former hobo.” Now, I am guardian of a business and that symbol is part of our logo so that I never forget where I have been and remember to look past the surface of everyone who walks in the door.
V. Wow, what a story! Thanks, Hunt.
[iconbox title=”Safehouse Coffee Roasters” icon=”adress_book.png”]
109 South Hill Street
Griffin, GA 30223