Coffee Barrel looks to expand

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A huge variety of blends keep customers coming back. Photo credit: Drew Dzwonkowski

By Drew Dzwonkowski
Holt Journal staff writer

The rain cloud over Michigan’s economy missed a spot – Holt’s own Coffee Barrel. Located at 2237 Aurelius, the shop caters to connoisseurs and beginners alike, and looks to expand in both hours and staff despite the tough times.

“We’ve got a new sign coming in next week,” said Shawn Brenner, co-owner. “We’re going to try the extended hours with the new sign. We need to hire a couple more people.”

Since moving to the new location on Aurelius four years ago, Brenner has established a precedent in terms of quality and customer care, a precedent that has made The Coffee Barrel a signature element of Holt.

The storefront. Photo credit: Drew Dzwonkowski

“It’s a really nice aroma in downtown Holt when we’re roasting,” Brenner said. “Everybody knows when the Coffee Barrel’s roasting.”

The Coffee Barrel competes with several nearby big-name coffee chains, but has no trouble attracting customers.

“We want to buy local,” said Coffee Barrel customer Marcia Wardell. “We love local.”

“My cousin loves the hazelnut here, so I always buy hazelnut,” said customer Terry Geiersbach. “We’re going to a baby shower tomorrow and I know everyone will just love to have this,” she said.
View Holt’s Coffee Barrel in a larger map

A few insider truths separate The Coffee Barrel from its competitors.

“Starbucks coffee tends to be overdone, over-burnt,” said Brenner. “It has a burnt, bitter taste that turns people off,” she said.

Brenner is referring to a difference in the process the two stores use to roast their coffee beans. The Coffee Barrel uses a method called air roasting, which involves levitating the beans in a temperature-controlled and time-sensitive roaster. Each bean has a specific temperature to meet before it is ready. Starbucks uses a different method, known as barrel roasting, which can scorch the beans.

A Willy Wonka contraption? No, just The Coffee Barrel's top-of-the-line roaster. Photo credit: Drew Dzwonkowski

Despite her store’s attention to quality, Brenner noted the difficulty of winning the everyday consumer’s eye.

“We weren’t ready to compete with the Biggby customers that had already drove their little cars through their automatic pilot,” she said. “Their automatic pilot didn’t stop here. So we didn’t have all the business we expected. We didn’t have the publicity that we wanted,” she said.

It took a few years of advertising, through TV ads and word-of-mouth, until notoriety led to a stronger influx of customers looking for their caffeine fix. But surprisingly, the store’s biggest source of income lies behind the counter.

“We ship out hundreds and hundreds of pounds of coffee a week,” said Brenner, revealing the store’s warehouse, which comprises about three-quarters of the location’s premises, but is unseen by customers. “UPS picks up every day. We have an account and website. The beans come from all over the world, and we ship all over the country,” she said.

High-ceilinged and stuffed with racks holding dozens of flavors of coffee beans, the warehouse is where the magic happens. There is a forklift in one corner, a small office in a corner, and in another corner… a coffee maker, strangely enough.

The warehouse moves hundreds of pounds of coffee a week. Photo credit: Drew Dzwonkowski

“That’s for the guys back here,” said Brenner. “They taste every roast. When they’re done roasting for a day – say if they’re roasting El Salvador – they’ll make a pot of El Salvador,” she said.

The Coffee Barrel is on the cutting edge of the industry, and has been for some time.

“The big thing that people want now is Arabica coffee,” she said. “It’s the new standard. People are demanding it. Maxwell House just announced that it’s going 100 percent Arabica, but that’s all we’ve ever dealt with,” she said.

Up-cycled bags. Photo credit: Drew Dzwonkowski

Brenner is working to tap into another market as well: eco-friendly merchandise. Burlap sacks that previously held coffee beans in the warehouse have now been “up-cycled” into messenger bags and displayed in the window for sale. True to the cause, the bag’s strap is made from an old car seatbelt.

Perhaps The Coffee Barrel’s success can be attributed to the family-run nature of its operation. Brenner co-owns the store with her husband, Tim, who employ their daughter, Heather. Heather, the head barista, designs drinks and is responsible for mixing the in-house music. She has just brewed up a new concoction to be sold in the upcoming week, the Strawberry Kiss Smoothie.

“What’s the ‘kiss’ part?” Shawn asks.

“White chocolate. Valentine’s Day,” Heather says.

“Mmm. It’s good,” Shawn says.

It definitely is.

Shawn Brenner can be reached at 1-800-968-5282.

Slideshow: Coffee BarrelSlideshow

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