Welcome back to a feature series on Sprudge, Going Somewhere Solo, in which we profile the people behind the new wave of so-called “nano-roasters”, the tiniest of new coffee concerns pushing quality and entrepreneurship in a big way. These are seasoned coffee pros who’ve struck out on their own (often in unexpected places) to launch roasting enterprises outside of the traditional coffee shop format, instead growing their businesses within collaborative spaces, home offices, garages, and of course, online.
This week’s spotlight is on Alex Burbo's Littlefoot Coffee Roasters in Chicago, Illinois.
Hi! Tell us what your roasting business is called and where you’re located.
Hello! I’m Alex Burbo, Director of Coffee and Co-Owner of Littlefoot Coffee Roasters. We are currently roasting in Chicago, Illinois, and have been fortunate enough to roast out of Metric Coffee as we grow and build our business. We are extremely grateful to Metric for allowing us to use their space to jumpstart our brand, and our long-term goal is to move our operation to Detroit, Michigan as early as Summer 2018.
What equipment are you currently roasting on?
We currently roast on a 1960s Probat 15-kilo. It was rebuilt by Darko Arandjelovic and Xavier Alexander, co-owners of Metric Coffee. We also run Cropster along with that as a way for us to track our profiles and keep our roasts consistent.
Who else is involved in the business right now?
Littlefoot Coffee Roasters is currently made up of three partners. Rosie Quasarano, Mary Quasarano, and myself. The three of us met in Chicago but all hail from the great state of Michigan. Rosie is the owner of Cup & Spoon in Chicago’s Humboldt Park. She has successfully operated her cafe for three years. Mary has a background in sales that she couples with barista skills and coffee knowledge. These women are such a powerful and positive driving force in my life, they lift up everyone around them. I wouldn’t be here without them. The three of us come from different backgrounds in coffee and form a formidable team.
What's your background in the coffee industry?
My coffee experience began in 2008 at Intelligentsia, and I ended up working there for eight years total. I spent just over a year working in production packaging coffee. I then spent six years roasting and two years on the green buying team while there. Since leaving Intelligentsia in October 2016, I have been roasting for Metric Coffee.
How are you currently sourcing your coffees? What do you look for?
Our first two coffees we sourced were brought to us by Jose Rivera of Peru. He works alongside me at Metric. He and his family own several farms, and they have some of the finest coffee I have ever tasted from Peru. We are also currently working with Olam and Royal Coffee importers on bringing in some new fresh coffee. We want to cup through as many samples as we can to select the very best coffee to showcase. We will go through many different channels to find those coffees. We look forward to making more direct connections to origin as we grow and expand.
While selecting new coffees we look for really clean and sweet coffees, ideally with a nice complexity of flavor to go along with that. A clean, sweet cup is the most important thing. I’m a big fan of Kenyan coffee so I prefer an in-your-face citric, juicy, and really sweet cup. I can’t always drink that though so I have an appreciation for a sweet clean and subtle flavor profile as well. You need an everyday and all-day drinker.
What—or who—inspired you to go out on your own with roasting? Is there a coffee (or other) company you admire and would love to grow up to be like?
From the moment I learned to roast I’ve dreamt about starting my own company. It was something I didn’t think was a possibility for the last six years. I met Mary while working at Intelligentsia and we had a shared dream of roasting coffee in Detroit. Mary and Rosie inspired me to believe that this dream was possible. Our mutual love of our home state of Michigan made the decision to partner up and plan a move very easy. Their drive and skills made this dream a reality.
There are a lot of companies I look up to and that inspire me. I think the obvious answer is Metric Coffee and Xavier and Darko. Xavier and I worked together at Intelligentsia and the way he and his business partner Darko have built Metric is something to aspire to. I hope to bring the kind of quality that Metric produces to the good people of Detroit.
What kind of risks have you taken in striking out on your own to launch an independent roasting business? Did you make any unusual decisions?
Thanks to Metric, at the moment our risks are pretty low. Opening their home to us has taken a lot of early stress off of us. I think opening in Detroit and helping build the coffee community there will be challenging. It is always a risk to start your own company. It’s a lot of work but it also makes the work more gratifying.
How are you reaching customers without a retail cafe? Do you plan to have one someday? Where can people buy your coffee?
Right now we’re lucky to have retail visibility at Cup & Spoon. They’re frequently featuring Littlefoot coffee on drip, as well as carrying our retail bags and merchandise. We plan on searching for multi-roaster cafes and wholesale accounts to serve our coffee, and down the line we would love to open our own cafe. It is a lot of overhead and risk to try and open a retail space when starting to roast, but once we are stable and build a good customer base we would love to have a permanent space to showcase our coffee. In the meantime, you can buy our coffee at littlefootcoffee.com/shop.
How will you stand out from others competing for shelf space in the world's decreasing multi-roaster cafes?
One thing that I hope will help us stand out is our work in the community. Our goal of moving to Detroit is to help educate the public on specialty coffee, host events, and find ways to support the people in our local neighborhood. We want to serve the very best coffee in Detroit, and I think we have the skill set to achieve that. Being that we all grew up in Michigan, I believe we will have a reach that can expand across the state as well. We have so many friends and family sprinkled throughout the state that want to share this dream with us and their communities.
Lastly, how would you describe your vibe in general? Is there a kind of music you like to listen to when you roast, do you wear lucky shoes, etc.?
I am super laid-back when I roast. I enjoy joking and laughing with the people I’m working with. If I listen to music it’s really all over the map. It could be reggae, pop, classic rock, hip-hop, and anything really. I also listen to podcasts. Cashing In with T.J. Miller has been cracking me up for awhile now. As far as attire, it’s always a Michigan-based flat bill cap, mostly flannels and hoodies. I’m not a fancy dresser when I roast. I don’t trust a well-dressed roaster. If you are working hard you can’t wear nice clothing.
Going Somewhere Solo is a feature series by Liz Clayton for Sprudge Media Network. Get more stories here in our Solo archives.
Liz Clayton is the associate editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.