Is it possible to be significantly different, but still have the comforting familiarity of being the same? Consider the story of PT’s Coffee – similar to others in the coffee industry, but then again, not. Our journey continues to both guide and motivate us to succeed every single day in Topeka, Kansas – where we’re based – an unlikely location for a specialty coffee roaster.
When I came to Topeka in 1991, I combed the town in search of a better than average cup of coffee only to eventually admit such a thing did not exist. I was working as a professional photographer for a daily newspaper with a reputation for launching careers of young, energetic photographers, and I desperately needed a great cup of coffee to wake me up in the morning and to fuel my passion for my craft.
One Saturday, as I sat on the couch watching a baseball game, my yearning for a better cup of coffee was interrupted by a life-altering idea: If no one else would offer an amazing cup of coffee, why couldn’t I?
But wait – I was living in a cheap downtown apartment where I harbored my dreams of climbing mountains in exotic locations to take photos for National Geographic. I had no intention of switching careers, but soon began formulating what seemed like a simple plan. I would open a small coffee shop .
My roommate at the time, Fred Polzin, worked as manager for a national sandwich chain, so he could be my business partner and run the place, and I would help out whenever possible. It seemed like a plan to me.
After a bit of gentle persuasion, education and good old fashioned arm twisting, I convinced Fred to join me on this adventure to open a coffee shop in Topeka. Our goal was to make great coffee, plain and simple – nothing more, nothing less. That’s pretty much where our dream ended.
We searched for locations but soon had to admit we were hampered by limited resources and a glaring lack of business experience. Potential landlords gave us every excuse imaginable not to rent to us, the most outlandish being “I don’t want the smell of coffee in my building.” Downtown Topeka offered interesting sites, but we didn’t have the resources for the remodeling that would be required. It soon appeared we had struck out and were done before we even started.
Thankfully, defeat was not in the stars. A local restauranteur with a failing bar and grill contacted us to see if we wanted to rent the overflow area of his business. He convinced us it could work and more importantly, it fit our budget of nothing since we hadn’t a cent to spend. We were, however, rich in ideas, so we borrowed $6,000 from a local bank and another $6,000 in total from family and friends. We promised our family and friends a 20% interest rate, repaid in full within one year. It was a promise we kept.
On February 3, 1993, Fred Polzin and Jeff Taylor (that’s me) opened PT’s Caffe Espresso. Our little “café” consisted of only an espresso machine and a few second hand tables and chairs. Taking turns working shifts and learning our craft, our store was overflowing with business within six months. We were, in our own eyes, successful. Business was booming. Time for a second store, right?
We were, and still are, an odd team as business partners, but that’s the beauty of the partnership and the friendship.
As business in our first store boomed, we made plans for a second store – one we would do on our terms at a better location, with a better design and with the right equipment. The doors to the second store opened in 1994. Business slowly gained steam and all signs were positive. Our goal wasn’t to get rich, or open a national chain; we simply wanted to offer great coffee and hopefully make a little money for ourselves. Now was the time to pause and reflect on our accomplishments, and we started by sampling our product.
I wasn’t pleased. It wasn’t good. How could we have missed such a crucial step in our process? We switched roasters, learned how to brew a better cup, then switched roasters again. Nothing, however, seemed to work. We were forced to admit our coffee was only (cringe) average. And equally distressing was the fact that I couldn’t describe to Fred, or anyone, what I was trying to find in a cup of coffee. For me, explanation was impossible. I remember telling Fred I would just know it when I found it. I’ve tasted it before and I know we’ll find it.
Switching roasters hadn’t been the answer as the freshness of the product seemed to be problem. Roasting our own coffee was the only solution.
It took us two years to save the money, but in 1997 we bought our first roaster and inventory of green coffee. This would surely make all the difference in the world. Now I could finally return to focus on my photography career because there would finally be great coffee in Topeka.
Instead, I spent the next two years fascinated and intrigued by the coffee I was roasting. Exploring and educating myself on what was required to roast great coffee had made me passionate about the process. At one point, the cost of the inventory I used nearly put us out of business. Once again we tried our coffee as if we were tasting it for the first time and compared our brew to what was offered by other local and national competitors. I know this sounds crazy, but it still wasn’t good enough. Not that it was bad, it was every bit as good as the other roasters. But it wasn’t spectacular in sweetness or balance. Not yet; we still didn’t have the answer. That’s when I realized I needed to learn a lot more, ask more questions and seek better answers.
By this time, my passion for the coffee industry had driven my photography career into the background. I knew it was time to focus, so I quit my job at the Topeka Capital-Journal and became a full-time employee of PT’s Coffee. However, I still wasn’t able roast and brew what I longed for – an amazing cup of coffee. I was stumped at the time.
I found the answer in 2001 while touring the coffee producing regions of Guatemala on a junket with the Specialty Coffee Association of America. In fact, the overly simple answer hit me like a ton of bricks: The coffee we got out of our roaster would never be any better than the coffee we put in our roaster.
I had to buy better coffee.
It was plain and simple. It’s what guides our judgments to this day. Is the coffee the best it can be? In the bigger picture, what we learned was more about ourselves than about the coffee business. We confirmed in ourselves that it was more important to both of us to succeed on our terms, not someone else’s. We learned that for neither of us was this journey about the money. We simply loved coffee, loved the people and loved the process of finding, roasting and brewing phenomenal espresso and drip coffee.
We could have sold our small business many times and retired or launched another career that would have probably made us more money. But that’s not what we’re about. We are here to make great coffee and help our friends do the same. What we learned along the way about our business is that if we focus on the quality of the coffee and succeed at making great coffee, our business thrives as well.
We warmly invite you to join us on this journey.