It will never be “the right time” to take a big leap in your coffee business. Making big moves always involves risk, whether that’s moving from coffee truck to brick‑and‑mortar cafe, or launching a roasting operation. The trick is managing that risk—easier said than done.
We recently interviewed Jean Brillman, owner of White Horse Coffee, in a webinar. Jean revealed how she took the leap, transforming her humble coffee truck into a thriving, multi‑location business. She shares valuable insights and practical advice you can apply to your coffee business to make a lasting impact in the specialty coffee industry and set you up for long‑term success.
Meet the Speakers
is the Product Marketing Manager at Bellwether Coffee
and has a deep background in the coffee industry (LinkedIn
Key Takeaways from the Webinar
Now, let’s go over the most critical takeaways from this webinar.
Taking that next step in your coffee business involves timing, researching, and sticking to your niche.
Knowing the “right time” to take that next step in your coffee business can be extremely challenging, whether opening a brick‑and‑mortar café or expanding to roasting your own coffee.
Going straight for a brick‑and‑mortar coffee shop might be feasible if you're already very familiar with the coffee industry. However, if you're new to the industry, you should do your due diligence and create a solid plan before diving in headfirst. It’s common to hear people suggest to aspiring business owners that’ve never worked in coffee to get a job in an existing shop for six months as a barista to see how it all works behind the scenes.
Jean recommends starting small and taking baby steps – this might look similar to her path of starting with a coffee truck, then slowly working up to a café, roasting independently, and opening a sustainable marketplace.
“Don’t get over your head in too many things, and keep your niche small. So, if you’re going to roast and do a café, maybe don’t do as much food at first. Try to keep it contained and a bit smaller at the beginning because there are so many things you don’t realize that you have to do until you start running a café.”
Jean also stresses the importance of being intentional about the location and space when opening a café. She recalls counting cars and talking to people walking by to learn more about the area before committing to a lease.
She also researched extensively to find the right coffee wholesaler for her needs and hired a graphic designer for their website, menu, and logo.
When is the right time to expand to roasting independently?
Before even considering roasting coffee, being excited and committed to the roasting journey is essential. Learning about the process and researching beforehand is critical to see if you want to commit to roasting.
Jean encourages looking into a roaster like the Bellwether Roaster
, especially for beginners who might be nervous or unsure about how to start. Bellwether’s Automated Roast Control
offers a user‑friendly touchscreen interface, making it easy for anyone—regardless of their level of roasting experience—to create a high‑quality batch of craft coffee. Ultimately, you need a strong interest in roasting and a solid understanding of the process before starting.
She knew that sustainability was of utmost importance, so this meant aligning her green coffee bean selection, roasting practices, and packaging with this mission in mind. The electric‑powered, zero‑emissions Bellwether Roaster enabled this for White Horse:
“One of my goals in coffee is to have my own niche of being the most sustainable coffee you can find. So, we are USDA organic, roast all electrically, and package in all compostable packaging.”
When White Horse Coffee began roasting, they were roasting, bagging, and labeling in their small café space. She recalls people buying more and more bagged coffee to the point where they couldn’t keep up with demand.
At this point, opening a second space to serve as their roastery was only fitting. If you find yourself in Jean’s shoes, where space is your limiting factor, this is a fantastic indicator that you might be ready for another location.
While initially daunting, roasting your coffee can be incredibly beneficial and rewarding.
Before Jean began roasting independently, she worked with several wholesale roasters, but the quality and consistency weren’t up to par as time passed.
At this point, it was only logical for her to create her own branded roast, so she had the utmost control over the coffee quality and roast profiles.
Although she attended various roasting seminars and thoroughly researched, she acknowledges that roasting felt quite intimidating for someone who didn’t have much experience.
However, she discovered the all‑electric Bellwether roaster, which fit her sustainability goals and was far easier to use than traditional gas‑powered roasters. It helped decrease the steep learning curve associated with roasting, making it more attainable for those with minimal roasting experience.
The next step in this process was finding a green coffee supplier aligned with their sustainability mission and budget. Jean recalls that finding their own organic green coffee was quite complex.
Sourcing green coffee can be challenging and expensive because of the potential risks involved, such as time‑consuming logistics or receiving beans whose quality took an unfortunate turn during overseas shipping. Therefore, it’s vital to research potential suppliers and completely trust who you're purchasing from.
However, if you're looking for a more straightforward solution, consider Bellwether's green coffee marketplace
. Our team of expert green coffee buyers sources exceptional specialty coffees that are pre‑vetted for sustainable farming practices and quality standards. Moreover, every green coffee comes with ready‑to‑use roast profiles that you can use to roast coffee on your Bellwether from day one.
Once you’ve established your green coffee buying and roasting process, what are the long‑term benefits of doing it yourself?
Differentiation From Other Cafés
Customers appreciate the novelty of a café that not only sells coffee but also roasts it on‑site, which can help set you apart from other local competitors. After all, customers want something unique and special — bonus points for locally‑made — and an in‑house‑roasted coffee can deliver precisely that.
Jean recalls the advantages of having a café to promote and showcase their coffee when they were first starting. She stresses the importance of having a reliable outlet, such as a café, to really get your branded coffee out there to more people and increase sales:
“If you’re just roasting, it can be hard to get your product out there…So, I think having the café, then roasting our own coffee, was a really good journey for us.“
More Ownership Over Your Product and Brand
While working with an established wholesale coffee roaster can be a good starting place, roasting on your own offers you much greater ownership over your product. Jean remembers wanting more from her coffee – she wanted more opportunities to tailor the roasts to her and her customers’ unique tastes and preferences:
“It felt like a really good fit for me, being a creative person and wanting to take ownership of this brand. It just felt natural that the next step was to create my own coffee for my brand.”
It's understandable to feel apprehensive when transitioning from a well‑established wholesaler to starting your own roast brand. However, Jean urges entrepreneurs to tap into the same spirit that inspired them to begin their journey in the first place, to take the leap and embrace independence.
“A lot of people that have cafes, restaurants, or want to roast have that entrepreneurial spirit in them. And a lot of entrepreneurial people have to have that thing inside them that tells them to jump first and look later, to a point.”
Independent roasting gave Jean total command over her roast profiles, enabling her to develop exceptional and distinct profiles that catered to her customers’ unique preferences.
To do this, she explains that she started with Bellwether’s base roast profiles — which are created by roasting industry veterans and provided to Bellwether customers to use out of the box — and tweaked them based on the type and origin of coffee. This approach allowed her to understand which coffee was best suited for different roast profiles to achieve the desired final product.
The most tangible benefit of independent roasting
is business growth. Jean told us how White Horse Coffee started selling significantly more bags and cups of coffee in their café once they created their own branded roast.
“I definitely think our margins improved. We’re selling more in general, too – we probably increased our sales overall last year (2022) by about 40%.”
Improving their margins and sales meant they could invest back into their business, employees, and equipment. Jean could step back and concentrate on marketing, wholesale relations, and coffee consulting at Coffee Fests.
And, obviously, having a little extra cushion in your margins certainly doesn’t hurt for business!
Put in the work to grow your wholesale brand and create a branded product you’re proud of.
Once you start your roasting business, you can also expand to wholesaling. Jean emphasizes the importance of networking to build a community of potential buyers
for your coffee brand.
She warns that finding new wholesale clients might be challenging initially but encourages newer roasters to keep at it.
“You’re going to get a lot of no’s. You’re going to get a lot of people that are going to turn you down. You have just to put your nose to the grindstone and keep plugging away.”
Depending on your niche and target market, finding wholesale clients will look different for everyone.
Jean suggests wholesalers should connect with businesses that align with their brand and mission for a higher chance of success. This involves reaching out to potential clients in your area, such as cafes, restaurants, and other coffee shops.
For example, since White Horse Coffee Roasters prioritizes sustainability, they’ve connected with like‑minded businesses that share these values, such as refill shops. With organic and environmentally‑friendly coffee, White Horse’s coffee fits perfectly in these shops, where customers can bring their own bags to fill with coffee, reducing packaging waste. This concept later inspired White Horse’s second location, their Sustainable Marketplace
Forging new business connections can occur in any setting, so keep an open mind and take advantage of every opportunity.
Professional Branding and Packaging are Critical for Long‑Term Success
Another element in building a successful coffee brand involves creating high‑quality packaging and a professional brand identity.
Your branding should be cohesive across all business collateral in the physical and digital world, including your website, café menus, and packaging design. Jean believes branding is a significant part of becoming a successful independent roaster and wholesaler.
“I believe that professional brand and design is super important in having people take you seriously.”
Jean mentions that when they were private labeling from another roaster, they had little control over the packaging and branding.
So, for Jean, switching to sustainable packaging was a top priority when launching her own coffee brand. By utilizing Biotrē coffee bags
with fully‑compostable labels, she could fully embrace her commitment to sustainability.
To develop a high‑quality brand identity, Jean enlisted the help of professional graphic designers. Her branding extends to the White Horse Coffee Roasters website
hosted on Shopify, where customers can purchase coffee and other gear.
Shopify is a reliable and widely used ecommerce platform
that simplifies order fulfillment and website updates.
Regardless of the size and scope of your coffee business, implementing professional branding can significantly contribute to its growth and success in the future.
Webinar Honorable Mentions
Further Reading to Help Grow Your Coffee Business