Food Startup Q&A: Carrboro Coffee

Carrboro Coffee president Scott Conary caught up with us between his extensive travel, judging on the barista championships, and running Carrboro Coffee.

Carrboro Coffee president Scott Conary caught up with us between his extensive travel, judging on the barista championships, and running Carrboro Coffee.

Carrboro Coffee is a premier small batch artisanal roaster located in Carrboro, North Carolina. It is dedicated to building sustainable direct relationships with coffee farmers and their communities. 

Why did you decide to launch Carrboro Coffee?

It all started with a love of coffee and wanting to know as much about it as possible, and eventually have as much control over every step as was reasonably (some would say unreasonably) possible, as is my nature. I wanted to be able to answer any questions people might have about the process and what it actually takes to grow, roast and make exceptional coffee. All the while making as equitable and fair a scenario for all parties that would lead to a truly, long term sustainable scenario.

For too long has the coffee farmer been taken advantage of and I wanted to find a better way that did not rely on commodities markets and the overvaluation of price over quality.  We turned that on its head and LEAD with quality first in all things and then worked through the other parts.

What have you learned from judging at the World Barista Championships?

So much i couldn't possibly capture it all here! The competitions have created a community of coffee industry professionals that arguably would never have existed any other way, and it is through this that we get greater discourse occurring, than if we artificially stuck them in a room. So called "competitors" end up forming bonds and supporting each other, and learning from each other. This sharing leads to better practices around the world which means better coffee and the whole industry gets better! As much as I teach and guide, I also inevitably learn or have my mind opened and am able to explore thoughts and ideas I may not have had on my own, and can in turn share these with others.

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 3.15.48 PM.png

What business resources have been the most helpful and how have you used them to grow Carrborro Coffee?

Honestly, we are pretty self motivated and have had little in the way of standard business help. I would cite our industry trade organization, the Specialty Coffee Association of America - SCAA, as a great touchstone for learning and advancement, as it was meant to be. Like many before me, I started by taking classes with them to learn current best practices, and moved on to volunteer, and eventually be the instructor over the years. Now I am heavily involved in course/workshop content creation, along with my work on the Competitions Committee as Chair & Current Past Chair. I still volunteer quite a bit for the World Coffee Events (WCE) too and act as an instructor for these classes and Certifications around the world. The SCAA is designed to keep learning and developing to keep our industry on the cutting edge of what is currently true and what is possible going forward. This is both a benefit to members and to the industry as a whole. While i spend time consulting for others in development of their projects, from cafe to roastery, i also find I never stop learning, even as i teach!

What did you learn from your customers that surprised you?

Not surprised at all but in the number of people who care about what we are trying to accomplish in a global sense, while still being a regionally focused Roastery in a small town.  its good to know that our efforts at creating a better system for real long term sustainability in the industry resonates with enough people to allow us to not only try it, but accomplish those goals too!  you never know until you try!

What individuals did you lean on the most when growing from idea stage to pilot stage?

The stages very quickly ran into each other at certain points...I would say there was a pretty big learning stage ( that never really ends, thankfully!), that for us very quickly went from idea to implementation with no real outside help.  WE had a lot of good input in the learning stage and to single out individuals would be difficult ( though in the industry, Tracy Allen of Brewed Behavior Consulting is counted as a great friend and resource....), and of course had the SCAA as a touchstone for reference.

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 7.33.04 PM.png

What are your future plans for Carrboro Coffee?

We will continue to work toward smart growth and careful partnerships with clients who are as passionate about what we do as we are, and who want to share the efforts and stories of our farmers, as well as their coffee  - being a part of the entire relationship fabric we are weaving.

What advice do you have for food entrepreneurs who are just getting started?

Never stop learning.  it is vital to us in our age old industry to take nothing for granted and continually reach for better and best.

Find those resources in your own industry or reach out to another's and see what parallels there may be can can spark ideas for you.

What are some of the hurdles facing coffee companies ahead in 2014 and how do you foresee yourself overcoming them?

There are continual, and seemingly never ending crisis within our industry when it comes to supply/demand and pricing, since the majority of the industry runs off the "C" market and has no connection to quality, just lowest price possible - our Direct Relationship model was a partial answer to this- an 'end-run' around the  bad practices of the corporations who have no vested interest in quality over price or the livelihood of the farmers who grow the coffee.  

Likewise such things as global climate change and increased pests/disease will & do have a huge impact on our industry and we will continue to struggle for answers to these potentially devastating issues in coffee farming that will impact not only the quality of our coffee but the volume possible worldwide.

Anything else you would like readers to know?

Our Model is very unusual and called Direct Relationship, because our goal is to create longstanding and mutually beneficial relationships with the farmers we work with.  We look for farmers who care about what they do and are incentivized to maximize the quality of the coffee itself and want to be bale to understand the process such that they have control over it and can replicate it from year to year.

Passionate farmers whose fist question when I visit is "do they like my coffee", are the types of invested families we want to take the time to build a relationship with - and it does take time, like any good relationship!  There are hurdles - some historical, some cultural, some from past experience, that we need to work thru until we get an understanding of our needs and theirs.

Ours are fairly simple in some regards - the highest quality coffee, year after year. Of course the devil is in the details! Then we work with them to find out what they need in order to accomplish this...not once, or by accident; but intentionally and year after year. This is laborious and time consuming work, and is an added expense in travel, and cost of coffee, and I wouldn't do it any other way.

We look to extend this relationship building fully thru the value chain - integrated vertically from the one we develop with our farmers to the relationships we develop with our clients, so that we can share the info & story with them and then they can further that connection to their customers in a fully transparent and connected way - developing and building on that relationship throughout, from farm to cup.

We are very active in Industry events around the world, from regional and national competitions in the States, to National and World level competitions in which I represent us as a Head Judge, coordinator/WCE Representative and Judges trainer.  Included in this are my actions as a judge in the Cup of excellence programs around the world (  While at all of these we have a chance to learn more in our industry we are also there to give back in the form of teaching and education to the best of our ability.  As a volunteer, there is a large portion of altruism involved as well as a desire to be part of the "greater good"... a way to advance our whole industry as well as better ourselves and our own businesses.

After 20 years in the industry we are considered experts and wish to serve in that role of educator and believe fully in the idea that a rising tide raises all boats.  Thus we take on these roles even in our business model, where we apply it in our approach to sourcing coffee at the farmer level in our Direct Relationship program.  Here, we make sure that the effort is much more than simply a purchase by taking the time to ensure a two way communication with the people who work so hard to grow the coffee and find ways to allow for that transmission of info by personally visiting in the countries we buy from.

We are part of a unique industry in specialty coffee.  Unlike commercial coffee we have a drive to consider and care about all aspects of the coffee chain, from seed to cup, and we ourselves are in a unique position to be involved in every aspect of it.  This allows us to better understand the process and where we can have positive influence as well as control for quality.

I can think of very few industry's that have this drive and insight and the willingness to do good things, regardless of what it might mean to the bottom line.  Thus our countless volunteer hours and my many travels, time & money spent simply to make the whole industry a better one for everyone involved instead of just a business run by numbers.