It is time to enlighten our minds with good coffee and good conversation with Shawn Steiman, an amazing man who is one of the few coffee scientists in the whole world, an author (The Hawaii Coffee Book), and a successful businessman with his operation flourishing here in Hawaii. I couldn’t miss an opportunity to chat with him:
V. First, for those of our coffee lovers who have never been to Hawaii, please tell us how the independent coffee scene in Hawaii differs from the java culture in mainstream coffee cities like Seattle and New York?
S. I like to think that the coffee scene in Hawaii is underdeveloped and out of sync with the geeky coffee scene in some mainland cities like San Fran, Portland, and NYC. This is bolstered by the fact that coffee is so integral to Hawaii’s identity and economy – one expects more form it! Let’s take a second to remember that Hawaii is an entire state, albeit a small one and it is not a single city. So that makes the comparison a little skewed. It isn’t like all of California drinks coffee the way they do in San Fran and increasingly so, LA. The truth is, very few cities on the planet are geeky coffee cities and very few coffee producers are geeky drinkers. So statistically, Hawaii and all its cities are probably right in the middle of the bell curve. With that being said, we’re developing our geeky side. Most of the islands have at least one cafe that does bespoke coffee beverages and Honolulu sports the occasional latte art competition. We are not Seattle, but we’re on a trajectory to become like it one day.
V. You have a Ph.D. in coffee studies! So cool! What made you get into coffee in the first place?
S. My whole adult life has been in coffee. Prior to finishing college, coffee was a serious hobby. After college, I moved to Hawaii to study coffee in grad school. I have an MS and Ph.D. in horticulture. Although ultimately, it is coffee science because I studied many aspects of coffee: production, processing, ecology, physiology, biochemistry, and sensory science. I basically soaked up anything I could about coffee and slowly became active in industry groups, local (Hawaii Coffee Association), national (SCAA), and international (ASIC). After I finished grad school, I started a consulting company, which I still operate. Some years ago, after an SCAA Symposium talk I gave, a fellow came up to me to discuss my ideas. This fellow is the guy who generated the idea for Daylight Mind. It took some convincing, but I eventually agreed to be a part of it. By that point, I’d been in the Hawaii industry for 12 years and considered myself an expert (I had written a book on the subject, after all!).
V. What challenges did you face along the way and how did you deal with them?
S. I think my fingers will fall off if I write all of the challenges! I’ll give some poignant ones: -Undercapitalization. Even though we thought we were prepared, we weren’t. This is not unusual, but of course we had to deal with it. How? Well, we cut back to focus on the restaurant and bakery, leaving wholesale coffee and the coffee school on the back burner for awhile. We sought out more money, and we cut back on staff. There’s so much we still intend to do but haven’t had the resources to do it, yet. -Too much on our plates. We have six profit centers at DMCC: roastery, cafe, coffee school, restaurant, bakery, and event space. We need a small army to run them all, and we can barely keep up because we have to balance income with employees. Patience has been the key to this one. If you can’t do it all at once, you focus on a few and let the others simmer until you can give them more attention. -Coffee wait time. Here’s an interesting one that most cafes don’t deal with. Our cafe services the restaurant; everything is on the menu. So, you can imagine if ten tables all order at least one bespoke beverage and there are folks in line at the bar itself, wait times get to be pretty horrendous. We’ve had to train our customers that the variety and quality of their coffee takes time and their meal may be out of sync with their coffee. It has been a tough battle because most folks think coffee is fast, easy, and cheap in a cafe, never mind a restaurant. So, not only do we have to teach cafe customers about geeky coffee culture, but we have to teach the restaurant goers as well!
V. You must have lots of tips and secrets for our newbie business owners. Please share some.
S. Do it right the first time. This is always easier said than done. When you’re in a time and money crunch, and you have to open your doors but there’s so much still to get done, you want to take shortcuts that will get you open and earning money. This isn’t inherently a problem; you’ll redo them eventually. However, you’ll be so much happier if things work, as you would like them to from day one. This can be anything from internal systems, to labels, to bags, to mugs, to receipts.
V. In your opinion, what makes your coffee business unique and stand out from others?
S. Well, there’s the whole restaurant/bakery thing. In truth, we’re a roaster/retailer. We do espresso, batch brew, and bespoke beverages. We sell bags of beans and coffee gadgets. There really isn’t much that we could do that is particularly unique. Yeah, we have a bigger line-up of Hawaii grown coffees than most roasters, but we also have a line-up of world coffees. So, if I had to name some things, I’d suggest two. The first, we have deep relationships with our Hawaii growers and we carry a bunch of local coffees. The second, we use a centrifuge to make coffee flights. I guess this last one is something to write about; I’m very proud of it. You can get a four to eight sample flight of any of our available coffees. To pull this off, we have a laboratory centrifuge. Think of it as my chemistry background brewing to the surface.
V. Anything you would like to add as a last message to our readers?
S. Opening a brick and mortar is not for everyone. Expect longer hours than you want to put in, stresses that you don’t know how to solve, problems you shouldn’t have to deal with, and frustrations that sap away your sanity. With that being said, if you surround yourself with good people, both teammates and support, than this path in life is a rewarding one. You may also find that you will like to push your limits and you will like challenges
[iconbox title=”Daylight Mind Coffee Company” icon=”adress_book.png”]
75-5770 Ali’i Drive
Kailua-Kona, HI 96740
+1 (808) 339-7824
Maxim Vershinin has been a columnist for CoffeeTalk for the last few years highlighting various roasters and retailers in the industry. He has lived in Peru for the last few years and is now furthering his education at Columbia University seeking a B.A. in economics.