Royce: How did you and Tom meet?
Maria: It was more than 25 years ago, in art school in Chicago. We are graduate students at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. I was getting a master’s in sculpture and Tom was getting a master’s in photography. We had known each other and have been together since that long ago. After art school, we moved out to California briefly. We both had different little jobs. Then I got a job at an art museum in Columbus, Ohio. And he followed me there.
Tom really couldn’t find a job in Columbus that he liked, but he had worked in coffee before, so he’s like, “oh, I’ll do this, I’ll start a little business.” And so he started Sweet Maria’s in Columbus in 1997. And honestly, he was, I can say this truthfully, he was rather incompetent on the business side of things. I would always joke about how his filing system was if he paid a bill in a certain month, in a certain year, he put it in that box. And I’m like this is not a filing system. I went to art school, but I knew what a filing system should be, and it’s not that. I jumped in and started doing the business side of the business, and was doing all the customer service and the order processing in those early days.
We didn’t want to stay in Columbus. So I quit my job, and we looked for a place to move. And that’s, that was moved out to California in August of ’02. And then I was I’ve been working full time for the business. Mostly Tom does the coffee side, and the website (he really did the website originally) and I did the business side – the customer service and order processing. And slowly we’ve added staff and right now we have about 20 employees. And it’s still pretty much that I’m concerned with the business side and Tom is concerned with the green coffee side.
Royce: What do you think about the business being called Sweet Maria’s because Tom thinks it’s sweet how you pay the bills at home and at work?
Maria: Well that’s the funny thing. It has always been a funny thing for him to have the business named after me. And to have it be “sweet,” because I am not always sweet. Sometimes I’m grumpy. I’m just human, right?
But personally, I am more comfortable being behind the scenes. So around ’03 – ’05 I started stepping back from just fielding all the customer service emails. So that I’m not as present in terms of like those direct customer interactions. But I think I enjoy being the person who would balance the checking account. I know how much money we spend I know how much we’re paying everybody. I know what everything costs. That’s kind of like the role that I’ve settled into at work. I’m pretty key to the business. Right? I keep everything running.
Royce: What sort of coffee do you like?
Maria: Being mostly on the business side of things I have a very different perspective. Tom is the person sourcing coffee, and he is sourcing coffee that appeals to a lot of different people’s tastes. I’m not concerned about that. I am only concerned about my own tastes because I am not the person buying coffee for other people. My own particular taste is pretty much wet processed Ethiopian coffee.
A couple of days ago at the shop I asked one of the roasters, “so what are you going to roast for me? I want to have a really delicious espresso.” And they’re like, “what do you want? We have this blend.” And I’m like, “no, I don’t want the blend.” We had a really amazing Burundi espresso single origin and they’re like, “do you want to try that?” And I’m like, “well… yeah. And how about if we tried this? And what if we tried that?”
I have a very particular taste in coffee. And anything that’s dark roasted I can’t stand. So that is the difference between Tom and I. He’s kind of buying coffee to suit a lot of different people’s taste. And he tastes things that would suit them, and see different aspects of coffee and not focus on his own particular tastes.
That’s the thing with some people they really love this herbal, sage flavor that comes out in some varieties of coffee. And I taste that and all I taste is stuffing. It tastes like a cup of stuffing. Why would I want to have a cup of stuffing? I don’t have to supply people with that particular taste.
All I do is focus on my own tastes.
Royce: What tips do you have for home roasters?
Maria: I guess for me, because I’m a baker I approach it like baking. My approach generally to like baking is that I’m not a real recipe follower personally. I can’t. I am always making like some alteration to it because I’m tasting it myself and I’m going towards my own taste.
So I think if there was a piece of advice, that I would give people is to like, trust your own taste and your own experience.
And to not be like, “oh, somebody else said this is the best coffee.” What does it taste like to you?
Keep things as simple as possible. Simple in terms of like, starting with the single origin instead of blends so that you can say, “okay, this is what I’m tasting in the coffee.” And you can kind of narrow down what you like, or what different things taste like. If you are interested in having always a different range, or if you’re interested in a particular flavor, like you said you like fruity coffee, then you could explore the fruity coffees. And you can explore what does fruity coffee mean in Central American coffees versus Ethiopian coffees.
And those are the big things to me: keeping things simple and trusting your own senses. There’s no such thing as what’s right. It’s what’s tastes right to you. And people’s tastes are so individual.
Developing your own tastes I think is important so that you taste like different fruits, or taste different sugars. Some of that is sensory training, where you’re just like going out to taste different coffees together. You can train your sense by tasting two different wines together, or two different juices. Just spend a moment, thinking about the flavors in them. So that you can start to develop your own palate and develop your own sense of, “oh I can taste the difference between these two things or can taste the difference between these three things.” Spending time developing your own palate is definitely worth it.
When I was doing all the customer service emails, people would say, “I want this to taste the same every time.” Well, you probably want more of a standardized product. It’s not really an experience home roasting is going to give you. If you want the same chocolate chip cookie every single time, buy Chips Ahoy. They make billions of them and they got it down. So that every single time you taste Chips Ahoy it’s exactly the same.
But if you’re making chocolate chip cookies at home, sometimes the butter is a little softer, sometimes it’s a little more humid, sometimes like you use margarine instead of butter. There’s all these different variables. You can experiment sort of. Like, “actually I refrigerate the dough before I put it in the oven. That makes it comes up with a certain consistency.” That’s what experimenting is about. And that’s what home roasting is about.
Royce: Tell me more about how you and Tom started the coffee business.
Maria: I don’t know if that’s how business people go into things. In terms of small businesses, I think we definitely see ourselves in that niche of a mom and pop shop or the small business tradition where it’s like, “I can do something. I am going to try to make some money doing this.”
Not having this necessarily as the correct way to do business, but what makes sense to me.
What do I want to do? Who do I want to see every day? Who are the vendors who I want to deal with? Over time you get a certain intuition for it.
Trust is key with vendors and employees. If I can’t trust you, you shouldn’t be working for me. Sometimes, the decisions that get made in corporate enterprises, like I can’t quite understand them, because I have to bring it down to like a very practical, “What are you doing? What are you saying?” I don’t know. The way small businesses operate. makes sense to me. I think sometimes it gets lost when it becomes a bigger business.
The thing for us too is you do have a job description, but in a small business you end up pitching in and doing a lot of things that aren’t technically in your job description. It’s not like something comes up and everyone’s looking at each other and everyone’s like, Oh, that’s not my job. It’s like, hey, the toilet just overflowed, and we know it’s not your job to mop the floor up, but we have an emergency. That’s much more of a small business thing, and it’s like we have got to deal with this right now.
Royce: Since you are the business side of Sweet Maria’s, maybe you can tell me a little bit about what’s next?
One thing that is exciting is that we are working with someone to develop a small air roaster. That’s our new thing and I think there’s a possibility it will be ready for Christmas of 2019 if not early 2020.
It’s basically a small inexpensive air roaster. We’re going for a stripped down model. Not high end, but stripped down. I can’t really talk about details. I don’t know them off the top of my head. It’s basically like kind of a step up air popcorn popper. We are aiming for just a notch above popcorn popper. There is some control, but still, there is no hooking it up to a computer or tracking roast profiles. It’s just a stripped down air roaster. This thing roast coffee. That’s it.
Royce: So what do you think is next for the coffee industry, and what do you think the 4th wave of coffee is?
Maria: Because I feel like coffee roasting is this tiny little polyp on the side of the coffee industry, I don’t know what the coffee industry is doing. From a cynical point of view, I’d say the fourth wave is corporate consolidation down the chain. Personally, that’s what I would say, because these big corporations are buying up all these like, small, formerly independent third wave coffee places. That’s a cynical perspective. Nestle Holding is buying up these different companies.
I don’t know what is next for the coffee industry. I personally think that like, going back to that point that I made about what is best for the home roaster, what advice I have for them, it’s odd to me that in the “coffee industry” there’s not more emphasis on tasting the coffee.
Starbucks basically sells milk drinks with a lot of sugar in them.
I don’t know if Peet’s does that too, but it’s like, do you even like coffee? Basically you become a fast food franchise. It’s basically about real estate and people needing a drink. It’s not really about the coffee. So I don’t know, I think that if people can actually develop their taste and getting involved in what they are tasting and what they would like, what tastes appeals to them, and learning about that, and learning about the process of coffee production, the growing side, and also roasting and brewing side, I think those are good things. But I can’t really say about what the “coffee industry” will do next. Because it’s so huge, and I don’t actually think coffee is that important.
Royce: Well, Maria, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. I really appreciate that. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. And again, just thank you for taking time out of your day to share with me and share your passion.
Maria: I really appreciate it.