A Brief History of The Coffee Plantation – Part 1

2010 March 11
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It seems wise at this point to talk a bit about The Coffee Plantation, a small chain of coffeehouse my partner, Tim Peelen, and I started in 1989. Why you may ask? The Coffee Plantation experience is what started my love affair with coffee roasting and coffee, in general. Furthermore, with the original store on Mill Ave. (Tempe, AZ) closing last year, after a 20 year run, the story should be told before it vanishes from the public consciousness. It may go the way of “Legend City” amusement park and “Green Gables”, the mother of all themed restaurants: glorious in their day, now long forgotten. It is interesting to note that though there is a new vitality in the local coffee scene, there was a day before Starbucks entered the market that a vibrant coffee scene already existed.

The Start: Home Roasting

The Original Coffee Plantation Logo

Tim and I started out as simply interested in “gourmet” coffee. We wanted to learn more about it and found The Village Roaster on the Tempe/Scottsdale border in the phone book. Visiting, we saw for the first time that coffee is roasted and that it starts out as a pale green bean. The owner used a Sivitz roaster and chatted freely about coffee and roasting. He told us that we could roast at home using a hot-air popcorn popper. Well, I immediately bought some green coffee and then bought a popcorn popper. In our kitchen, we did our first roast, which blew chaff everywhere and set off the smoke detector in the house. Messy – yes, hooked for life – yes. The lights went on. Tim and I had wanted to start a business together and this looked like fun and captured our interest.

Planning a Business

Having studied at Stanford, I spent many hours in coffeehouses. I was familiar with espresso based drinks and the whole coffeehouse scene. As we started home roasting, I wondered why there weren’t any in the Valley. The answer was obvious: it is too hot in Arizona. We decided to look around the state a bit and found Bentley’s in Tucson plus Macy’s in Flagstaff. Visiting both, we were totally blown away by the lines and crowds in both places. We did the math and could see that they were doing some serious volume. Maybe, just maybe, the reason why there were no coffeehouses in the Valley was because no one had done it yet!

We started developing ideas for a coffeehouse. We are wired to (1) be the best, (2) never compromise on quality, even if it is difficult, (3) to go deep in the process (know as much and control as much as possible) and (4) enjoy people and relationships. We knew that we needed to learn much more, so we did a couple of “scouting tours”.  The obvious choice was the Bay Area. We visited numerous coffeehouses and roasters, noting what they did well and not so well. Our minds were swimming with the possibilities. The very best one we found was the Los Gatos Coffee Roasting Company. The owner, Teri Hope, was exceedingly kind to tell us much about the business. She roasted in-house in a beautiful Farina roaster she had gotten from Mr. Espresso. There was a gorgeous espresso bar, a retail section and lots of seating in a warm, inviting renovated brick building.

We also visited LA and San Diego. We met Martin Diedrich whose brother, Steve, builds roasters and is from a coffee growing family. He told us even more about the details of roasting. We went to the Pannikin (several locations in San Diego) and learned more about the retail side of the business and space design. By now, we knew we were going to roast, have an espresso bar, and a coffee retail section. Furthermore, we would offer baked goods and kitchen food to make sure people were in the building at all hours of the day. Finally, we wanted it to be a place where people could hang out and that would appeal to a broad range of people.

Finding a Location

At the time, we all lived in Chandler, so we looked at Chandler locations. We also began looking at downtown Phoenix, the Biltmore area and Mill Avenue. Some doors began to close early on. It became clear that Chandler did not have enough foot traffic to support what we wanted to do. Our visit with the landlord at Biltmore Fashion Park was met with a rebuff and a suggestion that we take a “C” quality location at Town & Country, a certain death in our opinion. We found a great corner space in downtown Phoenix across from Patriot Park in a brand new office building on Central. The landlord was excited about our idea.

We were not anxious to look at Mill Ave. in Tempe because we thought that we would have to deal with a lot of students and there would be late hours. It seemed not to fit well with our suburban lifestyle. However, one day I went down Mill Ave. and noticed a huge swath of land from Sixth Street all of the way to University had been demolished and a chainlink fence with a picture of the planned development surrounded it. I got DMB‘s phone number. A short time later we met with the partners for Centerpoint and showed them our business plan. They liked our idea but wanted us to take a “B” location on Sixth Street. We refused and insisted on the prime corner at Sixth and Mill. Thankfully, Mark Sklar had the foresight to take a risk on two novices with a good business plan. We signed a lease for 2,700 sq. ft. of prime retail space at Centerpoint.

Designing a Store

We had come up with a few possible store concepts and names to match the concept. One was to do a true Viennese style coffeehouse and another was to do a traditional Italian espresso bar. A third concept, which we called “The Coffee Plantation” had two variants: a Central American version and a Jamaican version. We decided to go with “The Coffee Plantation” because it would be more inviting to people and the cost of build-out would be much less. The Central American version was nixed because we felt people would think it looked like a Mexican restaurant, which are ubiquitous in the Valley. The Jamaican version would offer more chance for color and music, so we went with “The Coffee Plantation” Jamaican variant.

The space we had leased was nice and tall and while the front windows were parallel to Mill Ave., the rear windows undulated in a stairstep fashion. This added plenty of interest to the space, but had some design challenges. I started reading a book called “Jamiacan Style” and started tabbing images, textures, patterns and colors I liked. It seemed to me that we could build a Jamaican structure within the building and also a roasting “shack” while having the seating area be “outdoors” under palms. We took our ideas to Habitat in Tempe and the helped us design the place. They were fantastic to work with and came up with many creative solutions. We also had a friend of ours, do our logo to kind of match the feel of the interior.

Roasting Coffee

Having decided early on that we wanted to have control over our coffee from green to the final cup, we were committed to roasting. Even if it made no economic sense, we would have done it. We enjoyed it and we wanted to share our wonder at the transformation of coffee with others.

Martin Diedrich had impressed us greatly, so we decided to buy a used Diedrich roaster. Martin taught us how to roast at his store in Orange County. We spent a couple of days with him and practiced. A few weeks later, our roaster arrived at the Johnston Family farm (now Agritopia). We didn’t have a gas line, so we hooked up propane (using a special burner jet) and started roasting in our barn. It took practice, but we finally got fairly good at it.

The Mill Ave. street fair in December, 1988 was approaching and our store was being built. What better way to advertise our coming than to have a booth right in front of the store? Crazy us, but we also decided to run the roaster there and do street roasting! Wow was it crowded. We roasted and sold much more coffee than we ever dreamed: $10,000 in two days, more than we would ever sell again in any store in the same period. Our spirits were buoyed.

The Coffee Plantation: Mill Ave. Store

After interviewing 110 people, we hired our first staff of 40 people. Illycaffe sold us a lovely LaMarzocco two group espresso machine and their technician, Mark Romano, taught us how to make espresso drinks. Intensive staff training followed and then pre-opening parties.

We opened for business in February of 1989. The business started a bit slow, but we were very slow at making drinks, so that was a blessing. Every week the business increased. Soon the weekends were starting to get lines every evening. It kept growing and growing and the number of daily regulars was staggering.

A great mix of people became regulars. It was a nice balance of 1/3 students, 1/3 business people and 1/3 locals. I was in charge of roasting and retailing and he was in charge of foodservice. We both did store management. We were open from 7am to 11pm weekdays and 2am on weekends. Tim did the morning shift (open – 4p) and I did the late shift (2p to close).

During the first year we instituted Happy Hour from 2pm-4pm with half-priced drinks and live music. We also added a second espresso machine as volume increased and also negotiated additional space (800 more sq. ft. for a total of 3,500 sq. ft.) for a larger kitchen, storage and additional seating on Mill Ave. More outdoor seating was added so that we could seat 100 inside and almost 150 outside. We also leased space underneath the Mill Avenue Theater for office space, storage and packaging. The story of expansion continues in Part 2.

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33 Responses
  1. March 11, 2010

    Joe,

    Thanks for sharing this valuable piece of history. It truly is a story worthy of being told about enormous growth of a great city.


    Derek

    • March 11, 2010

      Thanks, Derek. We enjoyed building community on Mill Ave. I know you are all about community building Gangplank. Best wishes in the creative process!

  2. March 11, 2010

    Fun to get “the rest of the story.” We moved here from Oregon in 1998, by then the Coffee Plantation had a store on Gilbert and Baseline where all of our friends hung out regularly. Spent many hours and dollars there!!

    • March 11, 2010

      Thanks, Wendy. I helped build that store after we sold the company. That will come in Part 2 and Part 3, though.

  3. March 11, 2010

    This is really fun to see. It’s interesting to watch the transformation of the space in Downtown Tempe as it happens around me–I was too young for it to have as much of an impact, but it’s clear that it’s lost some of its charm (and a lot of its music scene) from the early days of CP but I remain hopeful that more original and engaging places will open and make this a place of more than just bars.

    • March 12, 2010

      Hey Chris! I am very optimistic about the future of Mill Ave. Before Centerpoint, Mill Ave. was in pretty bad shape, but Mayor Mitchell had vision and took action to make that change.

  4. March 11, 2010

    Who needs Starbucks when you have the Coffee Plantation! Seriously! Here’s to a (hopeful) resurgence in local coffee houses. Many good times there on Mill and at the Biltmore!

    • March 12, 2010

      Thanks, Tara. I do think there is huge opportunity for independents. Maybe more opportunity than there has been in quite a few years. When we opened CP Mill Ave., there were 20 Starbucks stores, all in Seattle. For the last decade, it has been the age of Starbucks, but that is now changing.

  5. March 12, 2010

    Great inside on how to build a successful coffee company. I actually dreamed about
    being in the coffee business here in the USA one cold afternoon drinking coffee at
    the Mill ave store. Thank you for the inspiration.

  6. March 12, 2010

    Joe – thanks so much for sharing this! The remaining two Coffee Plantation’s in Scottsdale have recently come under new ownership and management and we are trying hard to bring back that unique, community-centered feel to both locations. I’m the manager at the Frank Lloyd Wright store and am so excited to be able to share the history with my customers now! Looking forward to reading parts 2 and 3!

    • March 12, 2010

      Thanks, Megan. I do wish you the very best in recapturing the essence of the brand. After we sold, a series of owners slowly stripped details out of The Coffee Plantation until it was a hollow shell of its former self. I did not even want to go there. Please focus on both unflinching commitment to coffee quality AND loving your guests. Most places do one or the other. To really be the place I think you want The Coffee Plantation is cannot be EITHER/OR, it must be BOTH/AND. I can chat with you sometime, if you’d like more detailed info.

  7. March 12, 2010

    This is fantastic, I love the old photos too!!!…and Joe the ‘stache is second to none! Can’t wait for Part 2.

    • March 12, 2010

      Well, Chris, I think you will enjoy the next few parts. Wild growth, crazy volumes of customers, and the sale.

  8. March 12, 2010

    Seriously Joe… love this blog! You are doing an amazing job. Love the historical aspect of this post especially. Looking forward to the next parts.

    • March 12, 2010

      Hey, Adam! Thanks for the encouragement. I am enjoying writing it and it is helping me stay on track and solidify my thoughts. I decided to do the CP sections to help people see where my crazy drive for roasting and coffee comes from AND to tell people that independent coffeehouses are NOT a new thing that just happened last year (consider that Lloyd’s of London started out as a coffee house!). We all tend to think that people in the past were not as smart as we are and that we know “the truth”. In fact, I have been studying old coffee roasters. They had some great ideas that may not have been commercial successes for reasons unrelated to the quality of the concept. Often, they were just a smaller company or the manufacturing costs were higher. Anyway, I hope that you enjoy both the historical perspectives and the promise of the future as I try my best to make the best shop roaster that i can.

  9. March 12, 2010

    I loved sitting on the patio and hanging out on Mill Ave at Coffee Plantation.

    • March 12, 2010

      Thanks, Greg! The patio was definitely a busy place. You may recall the live music and then the addition of the outdoor espresso bar and the misting system. In Mill Ave.’s heyday (when they closed down the street on weekend nights) the patio had hundreds of people sitting and wandering about. It was quite a cross-section of society.

  10. March 15, 2010

    Hey Joe,

    THANKS for taking the time to share your inspirational story. You were clearly a visionary and the beginning of the “third” wave back in the day!

    best…..David

    • March 15, 2010

      David, thanks for the comment. We did try to focus on quality. For instance, we made in-house two different chocolate milks: one for iced drinks and one for hot to adjust for melt strength and flavor profiles. We also did toddy, we had 5-gallon buckets brewing all over the place!

  11. March 15, 2010

    I spent many a day & night in the Mill Ave. location while attended ASU in 89′ thru 93′. It was a much needed oasis for everyone in downtown Tempe, especially students. Loving hearing about the history of one of the Valleys great haunts.

    • March 15, 2010

      Thanks, Scott. I worked that store daily! I still remember many of the regulars by sight and run into them frequently. It was a great place to see a slice of society in general and yet hang out and study.

  12. March 15, 2010

    My husband and I used to drive from Maricopa to the Coffee Plantation in Ahwatukee at Warner and 48th every Friday evening. That was the beginning of my love affair with coffee! I remember them explaining their cold brewed coffee and thinking that was so bizarre – cold brewed?! I have learned so much since then, but it will always be a special place to me.

    • March 15, 2010

      Thanks, Stefanie. I helped design and build the 48th+Warner store after we had sold the company (you’ll hear more in parts 2 and 3). It is now Hillside Spot which is a great place you should try. We did do toddy (24hr cold brewing) from the start because it tastes better and still do it today at Liberty Market.

  13. Tina Merrell permalink
    March 15, 2010

    I miss the original CP so much!! I loved going over to the CP on Mill Ave when I live in Scottsdale in the early 90’s and the then later the Biltmore store. I spent many of hours on both patios; I even planned my wedding on the patio of the Mill Ave store. Like many, CP was my first introduction to great coffee. Great times!! Wonderful article, I look forward to the next ones.

    • March 16, 2010

      Thanks, Tina. The Tempe store was quite a place. I do know many people who met for the first time there and got married. The patio was a great place to watch the world go by with friends or just as a sole observer.

  14. Don permalink
    March 18, 2010

    This is a great story and I can’t wait to hear the rest. Coffee Plantation is such a part of my own personal history having been a teenager when you started. Many of my fondest, youthful memories center around your coffee shops throughout the valley.

    Looking forward to the rest of the story.

    • March 18, 2010

      Thanks, Don. We served a lot of people and I have heard many great stories of how the CP impacted their lives. It was, as we used as a tag line “where the world meets”. Lots of people from all walks of life. I truly enjoyed it and I’m glad you did, too.

  15. Jason Casale permalink
    March 19, 2010

    I think the history of CP is very cool as well.
    I think you know I admire you on a personel and proffesional level.
    I think it is very neat what you have accomplished with CP Joes BBQ Liberty and farm grill.
    I am also excited for the new chapter with the roaster development and with Liberty Market.
    I think LM is the closest concept you have done that envelopes the spirit of Coffee Plantation with a modern twist.
    I also have been to the Mill store and gilbert stores all though to be fair I believe it was after they where sold.
    So the quality was not what it used to be it sounds like.
    None the less they where both neat stores.
    I wish you all the best in your future endevors.
    If I can help in any way I am always happy to give back to the coffee community at large.

    • March 19, 2010

      Thanks, Jason. I do think that in their heyday The Coffee Plantation stores were exceptional. We had a great staff and tried very hard to focus on people and quality products, not money. The Liberty Market does capture some of the essence of CP and in many ways is better. Our attention to detail in the espresso bar is even better, the baked goods are all done in-house, and the Brigade is even better.

      I appreciate your input as a coffee man. You have challenged some of my assumptions and given me much helpful info. I look forward to letting you give the new roaster a try!

  16. Neil permalink
    January 4, 2011

    I used to work for you guys starting back in ’91 or so. Back when DaLon was managing, Lance, Lee, Jeff, Lara, Justin Fambrough, Otto etc. were working there. Quite the cast of characters we were, and also the customers that hung out were wild.

    Michael Stipe from REM, and Mike Morello from Rage Against the Machine were regulars.

    We all loved working for you and Tim. It’d be fun to reconnect with everyone.

    I still drop coffee knowledge on people I learned while working at your store and doing Coffee Corps classes. That was one of the great things about working for you and Tim was it was a very deep education into coffee as well as college employment. It was like a family away from home there.

    Good times…

    -Neil Davis

  17. Melissa permalink
    November 11, 2012

    My husband and I first met at Coffee Plantation back in 1990. We have since lived overseas and were so sad to learn it had closed. Something I am wondering about is what has happened to all the recipes you used for your baked goods? A muffin that I will never forget, the “Honey Oat Bran Muffin.” So big, moist, and delicious! I’m thinking of the First version of the muffin not the later smaller version. Any ideas for where I can get the recipe?
    Thank you for years of good memories!

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