A Brief History of The Coffee Plantation – Part 2

2010 March 18

The Tempe store started off with a bang and continued to grow and grow. It tracked with Mill Ave. having a rebirth and truly being see at the epicenter of street retail/pedestrian activity in the Phoenix area. Evenings became busier yet and we added an outdoor espresso bar with another 3 group LaMarzocco. By this time we had three 3 group machines in the store. On weekend evenings, the City of Tempe would shut down the ends of Mill Ave., converting it into a massive pedestrian area. It teamed with people and there were stages set up in the street for live music. It was a wild time and our business was strong right up to the 2am closing time. We continued having happy hour on weekdays with half-off drinks from 2p to 5p and had live music. By 1992, we were serving 1,000,000 people a year in the Tempe store (later, Starbucks insiders would tell us that our store was the busiest coffeehouse in the US).

Our staff had grown to over seventy people and we instituted a comprehensive barista training program, culminating in Master Barista rank. Our roasting volume increased dramatically and I started training two additional roasting apprentices. At the same time I was thinking about expanding to a second location and we added some of our first wholesale accounts: a handful of restaurants. The wholesale started to grow rapidly and we were honored to have our coffee served at the top restaurants of that era: Christopher’s, Vincent’s, Eddie Matney, The Boulders Resort and more.

The roasting schedule was growing rapidly, as well. Our biggest seller was Plantation Blend and Espresso Milano, but we roasted many varietals. Our sourcing of green coffee got better and better. We became the exclusive Arizona roaster for La Minita (we visited Costa Rica several times) and roasted seasonally Jamaican Wallenford Estate Peaberry (in a huge wooden barrel). We roasted coffee daily, pretty much all day. Our dining area became more and more of a storage area for green coffee in large burlap bags, which took away seating space. This forced us to start thinking seriously about building a roasting plant. The day we had 120 bags of green coffee in the store (18,000 lbs or one half of a standard shipping container for coffee) was pretty much the deciding factor, so we started looking for space and buying a larger roaster.

Our Second Store – Scottsdale Fashion Square

I’d been looking at Biltmore Fashion Park for a  long time (even for our first store). I kept approaching them and they’d propose poor locations with bad rent economics. Every couple of months I would try again. The locations got a bit better as we got busier in Tempe, but still not “A” locations in the mall. Scottsdale Fashion Square was just going through a huge remodel, combining two malls into the giant one that exists today. We tried to get a good location there, but again struck out. One day, I was walking through the mall and noticed a round planter by the stairs in front of Nieman Marcus. I told the leasing agent I wanted to do a 300 square foot round kiosk where the planter was. That way they would get rent and we would get prime space. They went for it!

We designed this store as a circular counter with a latticework canopy, all in a tropical style. The front half was walk-up service and the back half was a full service counter with a separate drink menu with some very unique drinks and drinkware. It was modeled after some of the best European espresso bars. The espresso machine was on a center island and the store was made of mahogany and copper. The craftsmanship was unbelievable.

The store opened during the Christmas holiday and was immediately swamped. We had to lease more space in various closets in the underground parking structure for refrigerators, supplies and a micro-office.

A New Roasting Plant

With the new store and wholesale accounts, we were bursting at the seams. We decided to lease  4,500 square feet at 48th St and Broadway (about 5 miles from the Tempe store) as our new roasting plant. We bought a 1 bag Farina roaster (150 lb. roasting capacity) from Mr. Espresso. It was  a gorgeous red Italian machine from Milan. We added an afterburner to reduce emissions and a pneumatic loader to blow the coffee into the machine. It had an advanced controller on it and we also used an Agtron analyzer to check every batch. Our roasting quality was much improved as was our consistency.

We also began selling and servicing  FAEMA espresso machines as well as grinders, brewers, and tea makers. Our customers were throughout Arizona and we added AJ’s Fine Foods as our largest single customer. At the roasting plant, we also added our administrative office and training center.

Growth Continues

I’d been checking on Biltmore Fashion Park for a third location. The opening of Scottsdale Fashion Square sucked many of their tenants away and they were starting to become realistic. Now was our time to deal. In part 3: the Biltmore Store, the sale of the company, and the epilogue.

12 Responses
  1. March 18, 2010

    I had forgotten about the weekend closures of Mill Avenue until I read this. It was nearly two decades ago, but the memories come back into focus after reading this essay. Mill in its early ’90s heyday was not only a place for coffee and people watching at your place, but also a place where one could always have a choice of live music acts within walking distance of one another. Of coures, things started to change soon after and Mill has had its ups and downs since then. I still think the district has many intrinsic strengths, as well as new ones like access via light rail. With proper stewardship, it can be what it once was.

    Another thought: I remember going to the SFS Coffee Plantation shortly after it opened. I sat at the circular counter and the two customers next to me were decades older than me (I was in my 20s at the time.), wearing flashy clothes, and holding huge brick phones (during the brief era when a big phone was status symbol). I remember looking up from my latte and thinking something like “Toto, we’re not in Tempe anymore.” Still, it was a brilliant way to bring the Coffee Plantation to SFS, for all the reasons you have mentioned above.

    • March 19, 2010

      Thanks, David. Yes, both places were very different, but adapted to their markets. I still love Mill Ave. and if I were not firmly rooted in Gilbert would do coffee or restaurants there in a heartbeat. I would have redeemed the original CP space on Mill Ave. and fully updated it. Mill Ave. is down, for the moment, but will return.

  2. March 18, 2010

    Eatin’ it up over here, Joe. Looking forward to Part 3…

    Ha, these stories are like fertilizer for the entrepreneurial spirit!

    And yet I have some questions forming, but I’ll wait until you finish your story to see if they’re still relevant.

  3. March 19, 2010

    The memories of Scottsdale Fashion Square/Camelview Plaza…when I was a teenager visiting AZ for the first time before I decided to go to ASU. I think my favorite location of all though was the Biltmore store…can’t wait for the next chapter 🙂

    The design of the SFS store is similar to what Starbucks did at PHX Sky Harbor’s Terminal 3 kiosk (less the Plantation theme). Such a pioneer!

    • March 19, 2010

      The Biltmore store was the last one we built prior to sale. I think you will enjoy the story. It ended up being very nearly as busy as the Tempe store. As for the SFS store, I loved it! The store did more sales per square foot than any other place in Fashion Square. The fabrication of the kiosk and customer bar stools was done with fine furniture-like craftsmanship. It is sad that they tore the whole thing out a year ago and replaced it with tile. Probably so the crazy high-end shoe store could have a clear view of its sign. After dealing with Westcor, I decided I would always own my real estate in future ventures.

  4. March 20, 2010

    Really enjoying the restrospective, Joe. I frequented CP for many years and never knew the stories behind it. I’ve enjoyed the snippets you’ve shared in person, and look forward to hearing the rest of the tale here.

    • March 22, 2010

      Thanks, Jeff. I’m enjoying writing a bit about the history of The Coffee Plantation. When we started the place I was 32 and had just left a career as an engineering consultant. I remember the first day and the first ringing of an order. When I was handed a $1 bill (coffee was $0.94 plus tax to a round $1), it was SO strange. I had always been paid via a paycheck or billing for services. The directness of getting a dollar from someone for a product we served on the spot was foreign to me. The whole wild ride from one store to four stores + a roasting plant, then selling, and building almost 20 more stores in 3 states over a 6 year period is interesting to relive. I like my current life and pace of development much better, but that new way of thinking came from the learning experience of the previous 6 years.

  5. Dave B permalink
    March 24, 2010

    My first ever premium cup of coffee was at the Coffee Plantation soon to be followed by my first espresso drink, and iced espresso drink. Within a month I had tossed out my Flogers can in favor of a stovetop espresso moka and CP Espresso Milano. Back then every Saturday began and ended at the CP. To this day I have never found a suitable replacement to my beloved ICM.

    Glad to see that the same kind of magic is still happening at places like Coffee Cartel and Lux.

    Thanks Joe. Can you go more than 3 parts? Maybe a book?

    • March 25, 2010

      Thanks, Dave! You can get a reasonable facsimile of the ICM at our espresso bar (the E61 Bar) at Liberty Market in downtown Gilbert. Also, you should try Lola’s, particularly the one on 3rd Ave. and Roosevelt. Daniel Wayne used to work at The Coffee Plantation and then went on to study in Italy, founded Lux in Seattle, founded Lux in Phoenix, sold it, and now has the two Lola Coffees. He is a talented roaster and has a great eye for design. You will love his spaces.

      As for a book, I can barely type! This blog is taxing enough for my typing skills!

  6. March 25, 2010

    Hi Joe!
    I never new the history of The Coffee Plantation…really interesting!
    I am going to be exhibiting my artwork at the Plantation on Frank Lloyd Wright starting next Sat. and running through the month of April. Learning the history of The Plantation brings that much more meaning to my having the honor and pleasure of my artwork being shown there. To see a preview go to my website at http://www.amytuso.com
    Amy Tuso

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