When Counter Culture Coffee co-founder Brett Smith was in business school, he would laugh when entrepreneurs talked about vision statements.
“We always viewed it as sort of touchy feely,” Smith said, “and we didn’t think that was really what business was all about.”
More than 20 years later, his own vision statement is painted on a ledge in his Durham warehouse, printed on job applications, mentioned during employee evaluations and before most speeches. The reality is, he said, it is important as it centers on people, being on the same page and fostering culture.
“The vision statement has been this third party in the room, that is saying ‘Get this right,’” said Smith, 49, of Chapel Hill, who celebrated Counter Culture’s 20th anniversary last month.
Over the years, Smith and his team have built a small company that’s consistently ranked among top roasters in the U.S. and a trailblazing model on many coffee fronts. From the beginning, the business founded by Smith and Fred Houk implemented what were then new practices of direct and fair trade with farmers, while only selling wholesale to restaurants and specialty stores across the Triangle.
Last month, Smith and Counter Culture celebrated the 20-year milestone with a public concert at Durham Central Park. The real action, however, occurred near San Francisco where Counter Culture unveiled its second roastery beyond the one at its Durham headquarters.
“It is a huge accomplishment for the entire company,” Smith said.
The move marks an ongoing push for Counter Culture to distribute its coffee up and down the West Coast and a new challenge to maintain the culture it raised in Durham.
‘A gifted vision’
Caroline Cahan, coffee and tea manager and buyer for Chapel Hill-based Southern Season, said Counter Culture has been a pioneer-turned-coffee-influencer.
Cahan, who has worked for Southern Season for 22 years, said Counter Culture’s vision was “born fully formed” under the influence of Houk’s passion for the environment and his vision of appreciating coffee like a fine wine, not just as a commodity.
“He had a gifted palate and a gifted vision,” said Cahan about Houk, who died in 2007.
The now-prevalent use of terms, such as fair and direct trade, were just nuggets 20 years ago when Counter Culture embraced them, Cahan said.
“We are talking about 20 years ago, getting specialty coffee into restaurants and bringing it to the public not only through stores like ours but also elevating the restaurant coffee experience,” Cahan said.
Other unique practices include Counter Culture producing annual reports on how much they pay their farmers per pound of coffee and their sustainability efforts.
Now the company sells more than 2 million pounds of specialty coffee annually. About 95 percent of its revenue comes from coffee. Brewing equipment and classes cover the rest. Counter Culture sells to consumers online, but that makes up about 5 percent of coffee sales. The rest comes from wholesale.
Counter Culture started with a meeting between two strangers.
In the summer of 1994, Smith was finishing his masters at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler business school and looking for an opportunity in the coffee industry. He met with Houk, who was then a wholesale manager of Broad Street Coffee Roasters in Durham. Smith said he was hoping to invest in Broad Street, but he walked away from the meeting on a path to build a company.
“Fred said he would love to team up with me and go for it ourselves,” Smith said.
Counter Culture’s first sale was in April 1995.
The goal, Smith said, was to build a good company, one that has relationships with people in the supply chain and a place where people wanted to work.
They had a choice, Smith said. They could push the farmers every year to give a better price, or they could build and leverage relationships to implement sustainable and transparent practices that yield a better tasting bean.
“It’s not about being a do-gooder by any means,” he said. “It is good business.”
Unlike most of its peers in the industry, Counter Culture decided against selling retail because it didn’t want to compete with its customers.
Smith bought Houk’s part of the company in 2001.
“We had reached the point where it felt like it made sense for one person to take the reins and run,” Smith said.
At the time, the company was selling to restaurants, coffee shops and specialty grocers in the Triangle and Charlotte.
Houk’s wife, Virginia, said she watched Counter Culture go from a handful of players to a company with influence on the national stage, but she wasn’t really surprised.
“Not really,” she wrote in an email. “When a company is established on – and committed to – principles that strive for the greater good, how is it not a win-win?”
Expanding the model
The company, Smith said, was lucky to be raised by a Triangle culinary scene that was ahead of its time. Then it matured in the early to mid 2000s coffee scene in which independent coffee shops were popping up everywhere in Starbucks’ wake.
“That is when we really started spreading our wings,” he said.
Counter Culture opened its first satellite location in Charlotte in 2005 and stocked it with espresso and other machines to help restaurants and baristas there to pull the right flavor out of the beans.
That location, which is closed, was the first experiment in building a model the company would use to spread across the region.
First, a salesperson moves into a market and sets up a customer base. Once profit levels reach a benchmark, a training center is built.
Counter Culture repeated that model in Asheville, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago and New York, he said.
Over time, those satellites evolved into eight training centers, which offer formal classes and certifications for professionals in the specialty coffee industry.
Counter Culture opened its ninth training center at the Bay Area Roastery, just outside of San Francisco; two more will open in Charleston S.C. and Los Angeles in coming months.
Around 9 a.m. Wednesday, cinnamon and coffee smells poured out of Counter Culture’s Durham building.
The day after an order comes in, beans are roasted, then crackle as they spill beneath twirling cooling systems, packaged and shipped.
“Freshness is really critical to us,” Smith said.
In another room, roasters Kyle Tush and Ben Horner and coffee buyer Jeff McArthur dip spoons into brewed coffees, slurping them up and spitting them out in a process of sampling whether the roasts taste as they should.
Daryn Berlin, 46, of Durham, who was Counter Culture’s first employee in 1995 and is now the company’s sales manager, said the company’s expansion has been thoughtful and purposeful.
“We don’t want to be the biggest and all things to all people,” he said. “We want to be the best that we can, I think it is overwhelming and exciting and it makes me very happy.”
What is specialty coffee?
The Specialty Coffee Association of American defines specialty coffee in its green stage as coffee that is “free of primary defects,” and properly sized and dried. In the cup it is free of “faults and taints” and has distinctive attributes.
Counter Culture’s vision statement
Counter Culture Coffee is a relentless pursuit of coffee perfection. Counter Culture Coffee is a dedication to real environmental, social, and fiscal sustainability. Counter Culture Coffee is a commitment to creating cutting edge coffee people.