Intelligentsia and Union Hand-Roasted Coffee discuss managing growth

Intelligentsia and Union Hand-Roasted Coffee discuss how implementing new digital systems and processes helped them scale their coffee businesses over the last decade.

Growing a business is never easy. First, expansion is expensive and takes significant financial resources and investment to carry out effectively. And following an increase in business, new systems and procedures need to be put in place to ensure operations continue to run smoothly and effectively. In coffee roasting, there’s the added challenge of maintaining consistency as batch sizes and numbers go up and customers develop certain expectations of your product.

American roaster Intelligentsia Coffee was founded in 1995 in Illinois, and over the past 25 years, has grown from roasting on-site in one Chicago café to 15 coffee bars, two roasteries, and two training labs across five states. It also has a nationwide wholesale business and ecommerce channels.

Sam Sabori, Intelligentsia’s Director of Coffee, joined the team in 2011. He tells Global Coffee Report Intelligentsia’s biggest challenge at the time was establishing a formal buying plan.

“One of the biggest things we had to get better at was making sure we have the right coffee for every blend and profile we want to release,” Sabori says.

“Through trial and error, we refined our expectations for everything on our menu.  Though this took some time, this has enabled us to present dynamic offerings that are profitable for us and our partners, and more enjoyable to our customer base.”

Intelligentsia largely avoids this situation by using information from its past coffees and roasts stored by software solution provider Cropster. The roaster began using Cropster to track its cupping, roasting, and quality control information in 2013. All of that information from the past nine years is still available to Intelligentsia.

“We can go back to 2013 and look at a coffee – the approach we had, what we were thinking, and what it tasted like – and use that information for something we release today,” Sabori says.

“It’s allowed us to make better decisions with our coffees. If we zoom out 20 years and look at the wider coffee industry, there will be a split that is essentially ‘pre-Cropster’ and ‘post-Cropster’. We can now track our coffees in real time, and prior to that, it was all pen and paper or Excel spreadsheets.”

Every cupping Intelligentsia conducts is recorded on Cropster, which Sabori says occurs two to three times before it’s purchased, two to 10 times on arrival with sample roasts, and at least once on a production-sized batch before going in an Intelligentsia bag. Adding to this sample evaluation data is the information presented and gathered via the Cropster roasting interface.

“Pre-Cropster, everyone was only looking at the colour change throughout the roast. There were no other significant markers they could anchor to beyond visual cues and basic roast metrics like time and drop temperature,” Sabori says.

“Cropster lets people see where the turning points are and that you need to hit peaks at certain times, and it allows for more conversation to happen regarding heat absorption and how you enter post-crack development.”

Knowing how past coffees from the same origin and varietal reacted during and after a roast makes developing blends or single origin roast profiles much simpler for Intelligentsia.

This real-time and remotely-accessible information makes communication easier between its roasteries in Illinois and California. Purchasing decisions are also seamless, since roasters can compare samples to what green bean buyers are tasting on the ground at the same time.

“Last year, I was in Beijing and needed to approve a container to ship from Nicaragua. I was actually in a taxi and pulled my computer out and logged on through a VPN to figure out what coffees we should approve. Without Cropster, I wouldn’t have been able to see how those coffees performed,” Sabori says.

“Having that information there, waiting for us to dig into has been a critical tool for us in terms of how we make coffee decisions remotely pre-, during-, and post-COVID.”

Across the pond, Union Hand-Roasted Coffee in the United Kingdom has also experienced a quick trajectory since its founding in 2001. A focus on quality coffee and ethical sourcing has helped Union win numerous awards, including a Specialty Coffee Association Sustainability Award in 2019 and Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development in 2017.

It has also allowed Union to expand its wholesale business and other channels, entering the supermarket segment with Waitrose in 2015. Managing Director Violeta Stevens says this growth required rethinking how the business operates.

“Systems and processes that were in place when we were a team of 30 wouldn’t work now that we have more than 70 people working at Union and the business is more than double,” Stevens tells GCR.

Like Intelligentsia, Union uses Cropster to track sample evaluation and roasting data, and has done so for almost a decade. Before Cropster, Union would record this data on a Microsoft Access database, which had to be done manually and could not track the roasting curve. Stevens says this has reduced human error and made sure consistent and detailed data is available to all Union employees.

“Cropster allows us to manage stocks better, monitor the quality of coffee, and provide on-time reporting data. It is at the centre of our green and roasted coffee management,” she says.

“People within the business use Cropster in different ways and for many different purposes. The roasting, quality control, and green coffee buying teams are using it on an hourly basis. In my role, I mainly use Cropster for reporting and management planning.”

As part of its commitment to ethical sourcing, Union shares much of the data it generates through Cropster with its producing partners, strengthening those relationships and ensuring the best result for both parties.

“It’s very important that we are well calibrated and aligned with our coffee partners. Sharing cupping scores with Cropster is simple and easy,” Stevens says. “In Cropster, we keep record of all green coffee inventory by lot, country of origin, producer partner, quality score, flavour attributes, and roast profiles. This allows us to better manage the quality control at every stage of the coffee journey – from origin to cup.”

The next step of Union’s relationship with Cropster is to integrate the platform with its enterprise resource planning (ERP) system so it can import its sales forecast into its production planning.

“Currently, we keep all coffee data within Cropster with the exception of landed price. The platform doesn’t offer this functionality yet, therefore when it comes to coffee cost management, we plan to use our ERP system. Integrating the two systems will save time and complexity,” Stevens says.

This integration service will provide Union with access to more in-depth reports of what is successful, history of best practices, and faster learning curves. In addition to the savings in time, stress, errors, and complexity that Cropster already provides, Stevens says this will further allow Union to manage its continued growth.

“Cropster is an excellent tool for many reasons – it’s simple to use, its flexible, but most importantly, it helps us recreate quality roasts time and time again.”

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