Have you ever dreamed of turning your foodie passion into a business? If you reckon you’re the world’s greatest waffle-maker, you’re a dab hand at falafel or you love nothing more than testing out your latest home-brewed ale on your friends and family, chances are that at some point you’ve pondered the idea of making a living (or a bit on the side) from your culinary interests.
Tara Brown turned her passion for artisan coffee into a sustainable enterprise when she founded Cora Coffee in January this year. In just ten months, she’s built a small business that provides shoppers at her local farmer’s market with freshly-brewed coffee twice a week, and sells her own hand-roasted beans to customers near and far.
In this installment of Follow Your Arrow, Tara tells us how A-Camp helped her find the courage to get things off the ground, what a coffee-seller’s weekly routine looks like, and the joys and challenges of face-to-face business.
Tara Brown, Founder/CEO/Roaster/Intern, Cora Coffee
25, Tacoma, WA
Describe your business in a paragraph. What’s your mission? Who do you serve?
Cora Coffee is a small coffee roasting company dedicated to roasting great coffee and sharing it with our friends and neighbors in Tacoma, Washington. We brew coffee using a Chemex Pourover at two of the most vibrant farmers markets in town, and deliver coffee wholesale to businesses in Tacoma. Our coffee is also available to customers throughout the continental United States via our online store.
I started Cora Coffee in January 2015, and I’m currently a sole proprietor.
How would you describe your approach to business? What personal qualities inform your approach?
Oh, my gosh. I was such a planner before this year. To a degree that was a little absurd. My plans have a way of not actually working out, however. In the best and worst of ways. At this point I am about 80% winging it.
How many hours a week do you spend working on your business?
20-25. I also work 15-20 hours a week at the reference desk in a library.
What does a typical day look like for you? Do you have a routine? What kind of things do you actually do?
Every day is a little different, but I do have sort of a weekly routine. I roast on Sundays, which takes a few hours. The rest of the day I take off. Monday and Tuesday, I let the coffee “off-gas” and I work in a library. I sell coffee at farmers markets on Thursdays and Saturdays, so those are pretty busy days. I run errands, do quality control, deliver coffee, and take care of other miscellaneous business things (like accounting!) on Wednesdays and Fridays. Sometimes I work all day on Wednesdays and Fridays and sometimes for just an hour or two — it really depends on the week and what needs to be done.
I spend a surprising amount of time loading pretty heavy things in and out of my pickup truck. Like, probably four hours a week doing that. It’s a good workout.
What is your workspace like?
I’m all over the place, which I like. I roast coffee in a big, airy warehouse and sell coffee at a couple of farmers markets. I also visit wholesale customers and deliver product all around Tacoma, often on bike. I do computer stuff on my couch, but that is a pretty small percentage of my time.
‘Cora Coffee’ is a beautiful name! Where does it come from?
Cora is my grandmother’s first name, and I borrowed it when I started Cora Coffee as sort of a shout out to the strong, smart, and all-around incredible women in my family.
I also like that “Cora” sounds like courage, because starting this was a big leap of faith for me and I hope my coffee will inspire people to be brave in large and small ways every day.
When did you know that this was what you wanted to do?
I don’t think there was ever a moment where I felt like this was the only thing I could be doing that would be right for me. In late 2014 I decided that it was the best option for me to pursue in order to continue building the kind of life that I want to have.
Did you drift into this or decide one day, did it take years of building before you could quit your job…?
The idea has been rattling around in the back of my brain since about 2010. I’ve been passionate about coffee for a long time, and have gotten to know great people in the industry all along the supply chain. I had the idea when I was living in Guatemala and working with coffee farmers in a specialty coffee nursery. Eventually I bought a small home roaster in order to dig even deeper into what makes a cup of coffee great.
A-Camp was sort of a turning point for me. Everybody I met was incredibly supportive and believed without a doubt that good things would happen if I pursued this dream. My cabin and our sister cabin were sitting around one night talking about building a year-round Autostraddle community and it was decided that I’d be the coffee roaster. I was like, “Well, guess I better get good at this coffee roasting thing.” You can’t have mediocre coffee in a queer commune. I’d just be so embarrassed all the time. I started actually writing a business plan the next weekend.
I was fortunate to have a job with lots of opportunity for overtime, so I spent the last four months of 2014 working 50-60 hours a week and saving money to fund the business. I work part time at a job that I really like, and that covers most of my bills. It took about six months for me to recover my initial investment and start actually being able to pay myself a reasonable amount for the work I do for Cora Coffee.
I still feel like I’m in the early days of Cora Coffee. I’m fulfilling my early goals now: I sell coffee at farmers markets, I have a great time, and I actually make money doing it.
What makes you spring out of bed in the morning? What’s the best thing about the work you do?
I love coffee and I love feeling rooted in a place. Being a part of the farmers markets in Tacoma has allowed me to get to know so many awesome people in this town. I also have amazing food in my house all the time from trading with the other vendors at the markets. I really enjoy how much variety there is on a day to day basis.
I’m not trying to please everybody: different people want such different things from a cup coffee and I’m not going to connect with everybody’s tastes or desires. Being able to handle rejection gracefully is a skill I’m always working on, in business and in life. But this beautiful thing happens when people do connect with what I’m trying to do: their faces light up and they start flagging down other people and telling them to try my coffee and it makes me so, so happy. People come up to me and tell me they came down to the farmers market just to buy my coffee because a colleague or friend had told them about it the week before. It’s fantastic. I used to have this sense that I needed to be special or “the best” at something in order to be happy and successful, but I don’t feel that way anymore.
And the worst?
Hm. Let’s get a beer sometime and I’ll tell you more about some of the silly things people say.
What are the key challenges you face in your work?
I’m on my own in the business and I sometimes feel like I’m not good enough — at roasting, or at marketing, or whatever. Sometimes I also get very, very cynical about capitalism and while I think those feelings are valid I have not found a way to make them useful.
The business model that I have is exactly the lifestyle that I want have right now… but it is also part time and pretty seasonal. Scaling the business up to a point where it could provide a steady, full-time income for myself and others is a big challenge because growth is often nonlinear and hard to accurately predict.
What are your tactics for overcoming these?
I have people I can talk to when I’m feeling stressed out or just in a negative headspace. My former supervisor — who is also an incredible mentor and friend — is a great resource because he has experience running a business and because he probably has the best sense of my strengths and weaknesses in a professional context. I also had a business partner when I started Cora Coffee, and although he’s moved onto other things I know that he really believes in the company and in me. Both of them are pretty great at talking me down from the ledge.
I’m always thinking about ways to grow the business, but I’m not in a huge rush. I’m just trying to focus on roasting coffee well and making good connections. I’m trying to stay open to the possibilities that arise from that.
How do you approach time management and work/life balance?
I have plenty of time to do everything that I think is really important to me and to the business. I could definitely spend more time cold calling potential customers or aggressively pursuing growth but I just… don’t.
Work and life blend together a lot more than they did when I was working a 9 to 5, for sure. I don’t get weekends, really, although I feel like I have plenty of time off. My time off just happens at weird times. Sometimes I walk into a bar on a Friday night and everybody knows me from the farmers market and that is fun and also weird.
Has your social life been impacted?
Yes, definitely. But in a really positive way, I think. You have to get outside of your own bubble as an entrepreneur and Cora Coffee has definitely forced me to do that. I’ve met some pretty great people through the markets and through the networking I’ve done in Tacoma.
Where would you like to see yourself in five, ten years’ time?
I really want to be growing grapes. I want to be able to walk outside my house and pick grapes and then eat them. When it comes to what the rest of my life will look like — and where I’ll be with Cora Coffee — I don’t really know. I’m feeling pretty okay about that, though.
How do you market your business?
The main thing is word of mouth marketing through networking and farmers markets. I’m the worst at social media, but I’m also not convinced that it is super important for my business model? I’m probably just in denial about that, though. Does anybody want to be my social media marketing intern?
What’s the most valuable tool in your kit?
I buy great coffee and I roast it well.
How does being LGBTQ impact on your business (if at all)? Do you mention it, make a big deal out of it, hide it, not really think about it…?
Being queer played a big role in my decision to start Cora Coffee. A-Camp sort of lit a fire under my butt, and other members of my cabin were literally the first customers. They found the website and started ordering before I even had a chance to create a Facebook page for Cora Coffee.
Some pretty crazy stuff happened in my personal life shortly after I started the company and I actually seriously considered abandoning the project entirely in order to focus more fully on my own sadness. Though I have incredibly supportive friends and family, it was actually somebody on the Autostraddle team who helped me clamber out of the hole I’d sort of fallen into and refocus on what is important and what I’m trying to achieve.
I don’t think that my most of my customers in Tacoma really think about my sexual orientation at all when they buy coffee from me, and I’m definitely okay with that. There are a lot of adorable lesbian couples at farmers markets, though, and they know what’s up.
What three websites, blogs, books or people do you rate for business advice or ideas about your work?
I really like Riese’s This Business of Art column. I look up to the Autostraddle editorial team a lot.
What’s your hot tip for queer women who want to start their own business?
Can I say “You Do You?” Is that cheating?