A Brewed Awakening
Troy Griffis’ business is full of beans
by Holly Hungerford
In 2003, Troy Griffis and a co-worker launched Awake Coffee, an organic, fair trade coffee company. Now Griffis and his wife, Danielle Cox, own and operate the South Starksboro business, which has increased fourfold since it began, and doubled in size since 2005, when his original partner left the business.
Tucked into the hills of Addison County not far from Lincoln Gap is a coffee-roasting facility run by Troy Griffis. It’s located next to his house in a building little larger than a garden shed, and serves customers throughout the state with coffee from around the world.
Awake was conceived in 2003 by Griffis, then 24, and Mark Pruhenski, the former owner of a café in Massachusetts. They were working at American Flatbread in Middlebury at the time. “We were bumping heads about what kind of business to start or how to be self-employed,” recalls Griffis. “So we just joined forces and started the coffee roasting thing.”
Why coffee? Because there was money to be made in coffee, Griffis says, “and I was passionate about the organic industry.” The two worked together until 2005, when Pruhenski left the business and Griffis became the sole owner, a situation he says he enjoys. “It’s really challenging with a partner. It’s two mouths to feed, two families to support. It’s a lot of stress on a new business.” Now Awake needs to support only Griffis and Danielle Cox, company president and his wife of 18 months, who, at press time, is a week from their baby’s due date.
Troy Griffis, who had no coffee background when he started Awake, studied roasting at the Idaho headquarters of Diedrich Manufacturing, the company that made his original roaster.
An avid skier, the New Jersey native started college at Green Mountain and transfered to Castleton State. His first job after graduation in 2001 with a degree in biology was with the Nature Conservancy, where he worked on the eradication of water chestnuts, an invasive species threatening to choke out native species in several areas of Lake Champlain.
Although he loved the work, he quickly discovered that to move ahead as a biologist, he was going to have to earn a master’s degree. He did consider that for a while, going so far as to gain acceptance at Humboldt State in California to pursue a master’s in botany; but instead, Griffis took up organic gardening, selling produce to local restaurants.
Eventually, he was hired by one of his customers, American Flatbread in Middlebury, where he worked full time while continuing to farm. It was there that he gained focus and discipline, he says. It was also where he met two of his closest mentors, Rob Downey and Paul Sayler, the restaurant’s owners. “I learned a lot about business and growth and money from them,” he says.
Since he came into the coffee business without any coffee background, Griffis attended roasting school, courtesy of Diedrich Manufacturing, the maker of his original roaster. For a week in 2003, he hunkered down in the mountains of northern Idaho learning his new art.
Awake coffee is organic, fair trade coffee, says Griffis. “Organic has just been a belief that we have; the fair trade is something I think is very worthwhile to support. I’ve been to these countries, and these people need all the money they get.”
Times have been tough, he continues, for small organic farmers who have historically been underpaid because the commercial, non-organic coffee companies pay less for the product in order to give consumers the low prices they seek.
The five brands of Awake coffee come from around the world. Central America, Sumatra, Peru, Bolivia, and Mexico are represented. Griffis explains that each country grows a different tasting coffee, depending on the altitude at which the plant is grown and the soil in which it thrives. Most of the coffee is shade-grown.
The five brands of Awake coffee come from around the world. Griffis orders, through a broker, about 2,400 pounds of current-crop coffee a month, which he roasts and blends.
Although Griffis doesn’t know, on a personal level, the farmers from whom he buys beans, he has visited a farm in Costa Rica that supplies him coffee and hopes to visit more in the future. “If money weren’t an issue, I would just travel and hang out at all the coffee farms. That would be really fun,” he says with a smile.
Part of the reason Griffis doesn’t have a personal relationship with the coffee growers is that he does his buying through a coffee broker. It would be too arduous to have to contact coffee farmers in numerous countries, Griffis says. His coffee broker takes care of that part of the business for him, freeing him up to do the roasting and selling of the product.
Each month, Griffis orders about 2,400 pounds of current-crop coffee, the freshest on the market, which he then roasts and blends. Most of the coffee will go to wholesale accounts at restaurants, co-ops, and grocery stores, such as City Market in Burlington and Healthy Living in South Burlington, where his product will be sold to consumers in bulk.
He also sells to general stores and some cafés, but not direct to the public. “I think someday when the Internet is set up and our website has a shopping cart, we definitely will,” he says.
Griffis knows his customers well, because he alone makes the weekly deliveries to those within driving distance. Raechel Barone, the owner of On the Rise Bakery in Richmond, has been selling and serving Awake coffee since opening five years ago.
“Someone we know in Bristol recommended that we try Troy’s coffee and we loved the flavor,” she says. “Plus, Troy is the company — you place your order with him; he delivers it. It’s just so much more personal than a big company.”
It took Griffis time to build his customer base. Many potential outlets wanted to know his was a viable product before giving it valuable shelf space. The first were a few general stores, a gas station in Bridport, and the Middlebury Inn. Over time he established himself and, by word of mouth, added to his customer base, which now stretches throughout the state.
He pays a little over $3 per pound for his coffee, which includes the cost of internationally shipping the beans to his roastery. He sells the coffee for about $6.50 a pound to his wholesale customers, who then add their own markup.
“You always have to keep your prices low enough for the retailers to get their margin,” he says. “It’s nice in Vermont — they recognize small business and take a gentler margin.”
One of the challenges Griffis faces is cash flow. He has 30 days to pay for the coffee he orders, and his customers have 30 days to pay him. Any hiccup in the terms becomes a problem, as Awake does not have investors injecting capital. Griffis hopes that will change in the future and that investors will want to buy into the business.
“I’m very confident that we have a very strong product and marketed properly, this could be a national business,” he says with pride.
It’s certainly a growing business, having increased fourfold since it began and doubled in size under Griffis’ sole ownership.
Having no outside employees helps keep overhead down. Griffis does the roasting, takes and fills orders, puts stickers on bags, delivers and ships orders, does the banking, and pays the bills. Cox takes care of the bookkeeping, and after their baby is born, plans to take on marketing.
Awake does employ an outside accountant who keeps everything tidy. “Our numbers and our percent profit are as strong as or stronger than a lot of successful businesses,” says Griffis, adding, “This is a tight, saleable operation.”
Away from coffee roasting — the aroma of which he confesses he no longer enjoys — Griffis can be found doing carpentry projects around the house, mountain biking in the summer, and skiing in the winter.
He doesn’t intend to stop at wholesaling and roasting coffee, although he is well into plans to start a café in Burlington with a friend. The financial backing is in place, so it’s a matter of waiting for the right time and right location. •