Roasting the Fear Away | Joshua Tree Coffee Co. Founder Dispenses Coffee & Candidness

by | Aug 16, 2016

Royce Robertson and I have exchanged roughly 100 emails, 15 calls and at least 50 texts in the past year and a half and yet only met in person once. Royce is the founder of Joshua Tree Coffee Co., truly one of my favorite coffee companies. When we first established contact last year, prior to all that electronic communicating, Royce picked up the phone and called me…the old-fashioned way. His candor early on in our entrepreneur-friendship about the ups and downs of striking out in work alone actually caused me to pull over one day as I was driving to a venture of my own with a tight timeline. It was like a salve to my sleep-deprived soul as I was in the midst of seeing a childhood dream through solo: opening a store.

He exuded complete satisfaction with starting Joshua Tree Coffee Co., while he openly and ego-lessly regaled me with anxiety-inducing details of his full-time foray into coffee – like the debt he had accumulated while committing to raising this business baby full time. Royce became a part of my tribe that day and I a part of his, I hope.

Dying on a sword – a specific kind of weaponry metaphor – is something that’s recurred in many of my interviews with entrepreneurs. Cooper, you may remember, admitted his company, Spark & Dowel, lived and died by the Instagram sword as a primary means of marketing. For Royce, the owner of a wholly sustainable, no corners cut, coffee AND brick-and-mortar business, his sword is the sustainable one. He recounts that his company spends a lot more than they should on virtually every element of their business, cutting into profits to source, employ and sell sustainably. Falling on swords may seem dire and drastic, but to an entrepreneur a lot feels like life and death. It’s a scary enterprise, no matter how glamorous from the outside.

This Joshua Tree born and bred guy epitomizes the statement “the real deal” by my subjective standards. He’s conflated two businesses, really: coffee and consumer sustainability education. He admits that his company is almost more cause- than profit-based, but he does have the acumen to make it work, and profitably. The ingredients are organic; all cups compostable; the refrigerators all American-made, and the coffee roaster is a precedent-setting kind, invented and manufactured in California. Education is baked into the space his company occupies and all the packaging.

Following are pieces of my conversations with Royce:

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What’s your background before founding Joshua Tree Coffee Co?
I ran an IT company – electronics repairs, etc. I grew up in Joshua Tree, born and raised. It’s a mythical creature. It’s like what people think it’s going to be and what it is are two very mythical things, kind of like the Sunset Strip! It’s an idea and a concept of what it represents to people. Joshua Tree is like a Hollywood that delivers. There’s so much more than what’s represented and more to explore. There’s adventure, and a lot of substance. There are bizarre clashes: a huge welfare population with somewhat expensive shops. There is a small, core group of people that are artists, musicians, members of the council here. These core people want to make it a community, but for some people it’s just a place to survive because it’s inexpensive. But there are those of us that are here to see it through. Realities have to start as ideas.

Well, you know how much I love Joshua Tree. It’s heartening to hear about it through your long-time lens. So, IT to coffee…
I grew up eating organic and always tried to explain to people around me the importance of it, but a lot of people rely on empirical data – show me, otherwise I don’t believe it. Like in the case of coffee, there are over 25 million farmers producing over 13 billion pounds of coffee with no dust masks, lots of pesticides, DDT in the soil, etc. Coffee is the second most heavily  traded commodity on earth, second to oil, so growing it organically is a huge step forward. Before we got our roastery open in the heart of Joshua Tree, we roasted close to 17,000 pounds out of our home kitchen. We’re making a little wave in our own right, which is of course is a drop in the bucket. But if nothing else, we’re educating people. Apart from the revolutionary roaster we use, we’re making a positive impact.

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Locally and organically roasted coffee is still a relatively new concept; very few people were aware of the importance of organic. When I started out at the farmers market in late June 2014, I remember having a conversation with the farmers market manager; I told her it’s just an eccentric hobby of mine, probably nothing more, and she was the first person to suggest it was more. At the time, I was roasting two pounds of coffee a week in my house. The market here was critical to what happened next.

Where do you get most of your beans? How do you guarantee they’re organically grown?
We get our beans from Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, Papa New Guinea, Flores, Brazil, Ethiopia, and every other origin imaginable, all USDA-certified organic place. From day one, every single pound has been organic, as I founded the company specifically to offer specialty grade organic coffee and raise awareness about its importance. Not only is the coffee certified, but we use an importer which has imported organic coffee for over 40 years, and actually visits the farms and maintains relationships with them. Also, we try to insure that we’re sourcing from farms that have offered organic from 2000 and earlier to guarantee that the soil and/or trees aren’t contaminated from previous non-organic crops. The only way we could offer a more absolute guarantee is if we grew the coffee ourselves, which we’d love to do but don’t have 1,000s of acres of land or the climate to support it here in the states. We’ll just have to be content with sourcing and roasting some of the best coffee in the whole wide world for now.

Do you think the explosion of boutique coffee companies could be the turning point in organic, anti-mass awareness?
Everyone having multiple, locally roasted coffee options is good as long as we can all pay our bills is the first thing I’d say.

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When we first spoke last year, you were very candid about all the risks, everything you had to lay on the line to start this company. What advice have you given people looking to start a business since you opened your doors?
A lot of people like to recite that around 97% of all small businesses fail within the first year. In  regards to these abysmal stats, I like to raise them, because no matter how successful big companies are now, they were once small businesses, and that is still the backbone of the country. The fact that for most people starting a business means renting things (location, equipment) is a huge impediment and challenge. I did this myself through some capital I raised and my own money while I struggled with permitting issues. The risk was immense, and we almost lost it all before we ever got off the ground. There’s all these things that you can’t see coming, and how you handle them is crucial to your success – what your company really stands for.

What part (s) of the business come naturally to you? Which are more of a challenge?
I’m a coffee lover, a people lover and a dreamer. Anything involving sourcing, roasting, brewing, the technology, the technicalities and art of a perfect brew are what I love. When it comes to sitting in the office and doing paperwork and ordering supplies and the nuts and bolts of the business, I sit dreaming of doing the things I love. I’m greatly looking forward to a point in the hopefully not too distant future when everyone in the company is able to focus on a little niche that they excel at and love so no one has to feel that way. We’re just grateful that we have the support we need to keep paying the bills and payroll and are taking baby steps towards expanding. The dream is to create more jobs, an amazing community spot and artist mecca, donate to and create charities, and more. The challenging parts are made bearable by dreaming of the positive impact we can have on the world if we keep moving in the right direction over the years!

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In 5 years from now…?
We’ll have a 4000-square-foot café space with a wall telling of real farmers and the impact of not working with pesticides. We recently won a big contract for Marriott in Palm Springs, and it helped us get a commercial delivery vehicle that’s now wrapped with our logo. We’d love to have more of those, more ways to market ourselves naturally.