Backstory

Backstory: Roaster brews up business to help others

kblunt@newsobserver.comJuly 18, 2013 

Bill Landahl, owner of Oak City Coffee, packs up his remaining beans as the Downtown Raleigh Farmer's Market clears out. Landahl, who began selling his coffee three months ago, is steadily growing his business by providing beans for several cafes in Raleigh and Chapel Hill and selling them at the market.

KATHERINE BLUNT — kblunt@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Tips from Bill Landahl

    •  Decide to make a change and focus on social impact.

    •  Add compassion to your bottom line, even if it means changing the operational structure of your business.

    •  Ask others in the company for ideas.

    •  Determine how to measure your impact. Making it measurable will keep you accountable.

— Every bag of Bill Landahl’s coffee delivers a big kick to the system and a small jolt to the global economy.

Landahl, owner of Raleigh’s Oak City Coffee Roasters – a coffee roasting company – measures his success by the number of lives he can change for the better.

In March, Landahl began delivery sales of his beans in an effort to create a sustainable business that helps to alleviate poverty and create job opportunities for the underprivileged and disabled in North Carolina and around the world.

“When you’re focused not on maximizing profits, but rather on maximizing impact – you do business differently,” he said. “You hire differently, and you buy differently.”

Landahl’s interest in coffee grew out of a conversation he had with a former co-worker who had grown up on his father’s coffee plantation in Colombia. Landahl was intrigued by the idea of bringing that coffee to the U.S.

In December 2011, Landahl, who was working for a pharmaceutical and biotech company, started researching how to import and roast coffee beans. Within days, he was sold on the idea of doing it himself.

He purchased a commercial machine that roasted 20-pound batches, and in April 2012 he began experimenting in an abandoned fire station in Raleigh. His first few attempts were failures; $100 worth of coffee disintegrated with every batch he burned.

Landahl cultivated relationships with coffee growers in Central America and Africa, promising to pay well above average for their coffee. He kept that promise by paying between $2 and $3 above market price for each pound of coffee. He buys the beans directly from a few select growers.

“I want to change economies,” Landahl said. “It’s a huge goal, but it’s totally possible to do that because I’m making a direct impact on (growers’) livelihoods. I could pay less and give back once I’m profitable, but that doesn’t make much sense – because I’d have kept them in poverty while I was growing my profits.”

Landahl’s roasting skills have improved with practice and tips from other local roasters.

In April 2013, he left his pharmaceutical job and began retail sales of his beans to places such as Market Street Coffee and Southern Season in Chapel Hill, and several offices in Raleigh. He also sells coffee at area farmers markets and started online sales Monday.

He moved his operations into a warehouse on West Hargett Street, behind Boylan Bridge Brewpub, in May.

“Social impact is a calling,” he said. “I was doing good work with vaccines and pharmaceuticals, and it was fulfilling. But I had a larger vision.”

Landahl receives shipments about once a month and roasts beans twice weekly. He works alone, drawing from his savings to keep the business going. He set aside a year’s worth of startup capital before he began selling coffee.

He hasn’t made a profit yet. But when he does, he hopes to invest in several business initiatives to help decrease poverty rates and recidivism in Southeast Raleigh. By the end of July, he also intends to employ several adults with autism.

Even as Raleigh’s coffee scene expands, Landahl doesn’t strive to outsell other local roasters. He’s trying to establish a different kind of business model.

“I’m doing this to prove I can pay farmers a higher amount per pound and still make a profit, and run a business that includes autistic adults,” he said. “ ... There is no competition, unless it’s competition to be compassionate.”

Blunt: 919-829-8985

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