Why Modest is a question we get asked a lot. So after 10 years, here’s our best answer.
11 years ago I started roasting coffee in my kitchen on a popcorn popper after being exposed to some delightful single origin coffees from Ethiopia roasted by Scott Marquardt at Open Sky Coffee at the Brookfield Farmers Market in Illinois. He told me the coffee tasted like purple and it did. I ended up buying 2 bags a week from Scott for the entire summer. The market ended and so did Scott’s open air roasting season. At that point I was hooked and going back to “regular” coffee was simply not an option. While searching for Scott’s contact info, I found this link on his website https://www.marquardts.org/Coffee/popperroasting.html describing how to modify a popcorn popper to roast larger volumes of coffee. Shortly after reading this article, Jenni found an air popper at a local thrift store. I made a less ambitious modification by drilling a hole in the top for a thermometer and then started roasting coffee sampler sets from Sweet Maria’s https://www.sweetmarias.com/green-coffee-sample-set-regular.html
I absorbed all the knowledge I could from Sweet Maria’s and participated in the forums trying to learn everything I could about roasting theory and practice. I started charting and graphing my roasts by hand so I could “watch” what was happening and fell in love with the multi sensory experience of roasting coffee. The coffee I was roasting was so much better than anything I could get at a store and for less money, but it was time consuming and smoky when roasting indoors. When I didn’t have time or didn’t feel like roasting I would buy single origin coffees from Intelligentsia. This was before Peet’s (JAB) purchased Intelligentsia and would be considered peak third wave coffee. It was delicious but also more expensive than I could afford to buy regularly, especially when you factored in shipping costs. I lived in the suburbs of Chicago and they were not selling the good S.O. coffees in any stores near me.
It didn’t take long before I started selling to friends, family and coworkers. In 2013 I found a used coffee roaster named Precious, a bright yellow 5 Kilo Ambex, a commercial machine made for small coffee shops. We saw the same problem existed for affordable single origin coffees and, at the same time, we felt this exclusionary attitude every time we went to so-called “specialty coffee” shops where baristas acted like gatekeepers of some esoteric coffee knowledge.
So we started Modest Coffee to solve two problems. We would make single origin coffee more accessible on price by keeping our overhead costs low and passing along our savings to the customer. No cafes, no crazy marketing budgets, just exceptionally high quality coffee sold in brown paper bags. Second, we felt that by offering single origin coffees at a lower price we could compete with more traditional brands and possibly convert people into specialty coffee drinkers. We wanted to bring more people in, so the name “Modest” was a direct push back of where we felt the industry was at the time. I think it is much more inclusive now but there is still quite a way to go.
A lot of good can come from specialty coffee. Buying more expensive coffee translates to higher wages, lifting farmers and their workers out of poverty. It funds schools, healthcare programs, municipal projects, water, roads and infrastructure. It also encourages environmental restoration and preservation of natural resources. These practices also produce higher quality and better tasting coffee. Thoughtful sourcing of specialty coffee has the opportunity to create a virtuous cycle of prosperity, increasing the quality of life for both consumers and producers. It is that ideal that keeps me going.
I love roasting and creating coffees that bring people joy and delight. I love it when people try our coffee at a market or a tasting and stop what they are doing to come back and buy a bag of beans to drink at home. It happens so regularly that it is no longer a surprise but it brings me joy every time. I was one of those people who had to stop what they were doing to go back. The world is moving faster than it ever has and it is nice to be able to create something that can make people stop and just be in the moment.
In a way, I have been chasing that first sip of coffee that tastes like purple. I am so utterly grateful for our customers that allow me to keep roasting and searching for that perfect cup of coffee. If I ever find it, I will be sure to share it with you. Thank you for the past 10 years.
As I reflect back on the last 10 years, the first thing that comes to mind is how difficult it has been. I think a lot of small business owners, creators, and visionaries that are trying to just do what they love and make a living at it can relate. It gets hard to see the trees for the forest. It’s hard to remember the wins, the accomplishments, the fact that we’re still standing. To remember we should be proud of ourselves, even if we’re not yet where we want to be.
As I was going through photos from over the years for the segment following this writing, I stopped to see the trees. The ways we’ve grown personally, professionally, in our relationship. The ways our kids have grown, and grown up as a part of Modest Coffee. The ways the business has grown, from logos and packaging, to roaster size, space, and locations. The one thing that has never changed is our commitment to our values and our principles. Our goal was always to roast excellent coffee that is accessible to everyone and that uplifts the global coffee community. I am proud that despite the pressures of growth we have never wavered. Even though it’s hard, I sometimes ask myself if I would have it any other way, and I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing. And looking back, I can’t believe how far we’ve come.
Thank you for being a part of this journey with us!