On the Shoulders of Giants
Stewart grew up in Wisconsin and even went to college at the University of Wisconsin. In 1967 his parents moved to Seattle. “I guess you could say that I went to Seattle for a visit, caught a salmon, and never went back to Wisconsin,” he alleged.
From Ice Cream to Coffee
Stewart, the founder of Seattle’s Best Coffee, surprisingly did not originally begin his journey in the coffee industry. His first adventure started with a small ice cream shop in 1969 on Whidbey Island in Coupeville, Washington, called The Wet Whisker.
Later that year in the fall, he went to optometry school in Los Angeles, California. It was there where he ran into The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. Believe it or not, Stewart did not even drink coffee until The Coffee Bean.
“It made me nauseous and nervous,” he admitted. “Because of The Coffee Bean, I became fascinated with coffee. It was so appealing that Sumatra tastes completely different than Costa Rican coffee. It was interesting to me, different, unusual, and very complex.”
One thing had lead to another and coffee was introduced in the second summer at The Wet Whisker with the help of a roaster in Portland, Oregon. Stewart bought his coffee from Boyd’s Coffee Company.
In 1971 The Wet Whisker opened as a year round store on Pier 70 on Seattle’s waterfront. It remained The Wet Whisker for roughly ten years. However, to compete in the market, he and brother Dave decided to rename the company to Stewart Brothers Coffee. In 1982 an opportunity presented itself that allowed Stewart Brothers Coffee to open up a store in Bellevue Square, Washington.
The Evolution of SBC
Stewart built a house on Vashon Island, which is located just outside Seattle, and only accessable by ferry. He rented a building on the island and went from a 25-pound roaster to a 132-pound roaster. The building is still on Vashon and, in fact, in use by a local roaster. It will be the site of a charity dinner this year honoring the pioneers of Specialty Coffee!
Tim Girvin was hired in 1985 to design the company logo. It was here where the SBC oval was born. Little did Stewart Brothers Coffee know, but Stewarts Private Label in Chicago had discovered them and challenged their right to use the name.
“They were relatively nice, but firm about the whole thing. They let us keep our logo and stocked supplies, but gave us 18 months to change our name. For a while, SBC stood for ‘Screwed By Chicago,’” he said jokingly.
It was not until 1990 that Seattle’s Best Coffee became Seattle’s Best Coffee—literally. A local Seattle restaurant, McCormick & Schmick’s, held a competition to see who had the best coffee in Seattle. SBC won the competition and coincidently SBC now stood for the famous Seattle’s Best Coffee.
“The name kind of… well, just fell into our laps,” said Stewart.
In 2004 Starbucks Corporation bought Seattle’s Best Coffee.
Stewart had said that his first greatest accomplishment was starting and growing a business successfully for 35 years. Roughly 90 percent of startup businesses end in the same year and 95 percent are gone within five years. Accordingly, his financial accomplishment was to plan a successful exit from his business.
“Most business owners work until they get worn out or die, go broke, or just plain quit. I was able to plan a profitable exit and continued to work for the company for the following ten years,” explained Stewart.
Also, Stewart was successful in having the first Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) certified coffee farm in Costa Rica.
“I’m proud to say that I pioneered the first long-term fixed price contract at a sustainable level. This enabled coffee producers and individuals that we bought coffee from to stay in business. They could take our contracts to their banks and obtain financing as we guaranteed them sustainable income from their product,” he said.
The creation of the Vashon Island Coffee Foundation was also on his list of accomplishments. He did this to pass on international value of coffee to coffee producing communities through disaster relief in countries like El Salvador, Colombia, and sister city of Santiago de Atitlan. It was here where a water system, two schools (including supplies and uniforms), roadways, and a clinic were built and made possible by the Vashon Island Coffee Foundation.
“We also did a project in sister city Santiago de Atitlan, Guatemala. We helped change a culture from one of distrust, to one where there is a future,” explained Stewart. “They gained an appreciation for an education and did not just work because children were taken out of school after the third grade by the parents to work.”
It was because of this project, that for the first time three students have completed the eighth grade, and even one child has plans to go to high school and eventually attend a college. It was not just educating a few kids, it changed an entire culture and way of thinking, and it gave them hope in a future and a better life for their children.
“That is record breaking!” Stewart said with excitement.
Advice from Stewart
“Don’t do it!” he said laughing with regard to entering the coffee business. “There is no tougher business than the coffee business. Prepare a budget and use a calculator to do it, not your computer!!!”
You should use that budget as a plan and watch the numbers unfold. See how long the losses from January and February take to get back to normal, as summer approaches and sales increase.
“My toughest obstacle was success,” he said. “While some may say that I have pioneered coffee, the real pioneers are Al Peet of Peet’s Coffee & Tea and Herb Hymen from The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf.”
“Herb taught me the standards I maintain today in coffee and in life. I followed his philosophy… Northern European countries roasting lite to develop the fine Arabica coffee flavors, while the Southern European countries roasted dark to mask the bitterness of their Robusta coffees,” He said.
Just because you may not start where you want to, does not mean that you wont end up where you are supposed to. And that is the case for Jim Stewart.