It all started in 1992 when Paul Odom took a different direction from his family’s beverage business and founded Fonté Coffee Roaster just as the coffee boom was about to explode in Seattle, Washington. While specialty coffee was just becoming more popular with consumers, Odom saw a void in the hospitality market for a high-end product, noticing a lag in exceptional quality and service to chefs, restaurateurs and hoteliers.
At age 22, just out of college, Odom made it his mission to create the finest coffee and espresso blends in the world by setting the strictest standards in product development and delivery. He procured the best roasting and processing equipment, partnered with arguably the most talented master roaster in the industry, built a sales team with experience in premium coffee and established a business to service this untapped market.
Today, Odom oversees a rigorous daily roasting schedule, a sales force on both coasts and a quality control program that maintains the highest standards of service to its top-tier clientele. Odom also launched Fonté’s online business and downtown café to service a rising demand for its coffee products in the consumer market.
Odom’s right hand man, Steve Smith, has a distinguished career in roasting coffee spanning over three decades. He is an industry veteran and considered an expert by many in the coffee trade. Beginning in 1979, Smith worked for Starbucks and was one of the first roasters ever trained under the three original owners of the company. He was the first roaster to earn the title of Master Roaster and was responsible for all aspects of the roasting process. In 1992 Smith discovered a like-minded enthusiast for small batch, artisan coffee in Fonté Coffee Roaster founder Paul Odom and joined forces as the company’s master roaster.
Smith’s production philosophy is that of a coffee purist – his techniques adhere to the strictest standards and work to maintain the integrity of the coffee flavor during the roasting process. Smith is responsible for every aspect of coffee production.
He hand-selects each season’s best green coffee from all over the globe, and reviews farms’ harvesting practices, from Papua New Guinea to Ethiopia to Guatemala (he notes, his college Spanish degree did come in handy). He feels single-origin coffees are laying the foundation for a more mature appreciation of refined coffee flavor profiles.
At Fonté, he holds regular cuppings with owner Paul Odom to study flavor profiles from various regions and to create a plan for the development of Fonté’s proprietary blends. He also oversees a rigorous production schedule based on a daily roast-to-order system, shipping out coffee to clients within 24 hours of roasting, always making sure that Fonté delivers the freshest product possible. He also manages the tea program, which includes importing a variety of exotic teas, supervising blending and developing new exclusive blends.
I had a brief interview with master roaster Steve, who was kind enough to answer some questions:
V. How did you get involved with Fonté?
S. My involvement with Fonté began when I met Paul, the founder, at a small short-lived coffee company where I ran the coffee program. Paul was interested in buying some of that company’s production equipment to support a set of retail stores he had begun opening and he happened into our office at a time when I was cupping several samples. I invited him to join me in the cupping, and as we talked I began to appreciate the scope and depth of Paul’s plans such that I was very pleased when he offered me an opportunity to participate in what became Fonté Coffee Roaster.
V. Please describe Fonté’s philosophy and uniqueness in just a few words, and elaborate on each?
S. Ours is a philosophy of excellence within context. Fonté is looking to share a very personal experience of appreciation for vivid and fleeting coffee flavors in virtually any context in which coffee is taken. And this underscores the uniqueness of Fonté: we are capable of providing an excellent coffee in any context, whether it be an exotic single origin espresso, a 6 gallon urn at a banquet or a cold brew martini.
V. You have been in business for a really long time now (how long exactly?) what has changed over the past several years (in the industry overall and the mentality of the consumer)?
S. We started in 1992. During the years we’ve been in business, growth has been the over-arching big deal, and the result has been that there is more of everything: more top quality coffee, more people participating in the business, more interest and venues for specialty coffee. There is also more silliness, more misunderstanding and dogmatism, and more pretenses. It’s a pretty colorful business.
V. Being both a successful roaster and a retailer, how do you manage not to compete with your customers? I guess mainly the question concerns Seattle, or other cities as well?
S. Our retail presence is so small as to not threaten our wholesale customers. I think they appreciate the fact that we share an intimate understanding of what being a successful retailer entails.
V. What makes you one of the leaders in the industry as of today?
S. Our determination to continue to put coffee flavor above trendy lifestyle expressions.
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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.