Inside Track: Schuil finds specialty coffee industry to her taste
Leaving behind a career in the finance industry, Greta Schuil helped take her parents’ company to a new level.
When Greta Schuil came back to Grand Rapids in late 1989 to help run Schuil Coffee Co., a specialty roasting company started by her parents, Garry and Gladys Schuil, in 1981, she soon saw how open the gourmet coffee market was.
At the time, specialty coffee shops and roasters were few and far between, and the Schuils were expanding their facility into the Schuil Coffee and Tea Shoppe.
She attended an early Specialty Coffee Association of America convention, where she said there were probably fewer than 60 attendees.
Thousands will attend the California-based association’s 27th annual exposition in April 2015, called simply “The Event.” Trade Show Executive Magazine named it one of the 50 fastest-growing shows in the nation.
According to the Specialty Coffee Association of America, coffee which scores 80 points or above on a 100-point scale is graded "specialty." Specialty coffees are grown in ideal climates and are distinctive because of their full cup taste. The unique tastes are a result of the special characteristics and composition of the soils in which they are produced.
Schuil said for her to enter the specialty coffee industry at that time was exhilarating, as it was still practically an unknown in the world of consumers.
“I honestly think I take after my dad with his entrepreneurial spirit,” Schuil said. “It was something new that nobody knew. It was fun being on the ground level. I fell in love with gourmet coffee.”
That passion came as a surprise to Schuil, who spent a decade following graduation from Calvin College at a financial start-up in Boston.
She was hired by two men who were starting their second company. They had run their original business for 17 years and were looking for a new venture. As their first employee, Schuil helped hire, train and manage the operation.
She then helped the company go nationwide, living in cities from San Francisco to Dallas to Cincinnati to set up satellite offices, all while maintaining the Boston office. She would find the office space, hire workers, train the new employees and make sure the office was running smoothly before moving on to the next site. She did the same with a London office when the company expanded into the United Kingdom.
Following her return to Boston from London, she felt she was ready for a career change.
She had memories of going home for the holidays in college — her parents believed she should have an on-campus experience, even though they lived in Grand Rapids — and her father talking about how he wanted to open a specialty coffee shop. He had been a specialty food importer for more than 30 years. As she was packing up to leave for Boston following graduation, her parents were getting ready to open Schuil Coffee Co.
Ten years later, although reluctant to leave Boston, Schuil said her close relationship with her parents finally won out, and she returned to Grand Rapids to help them with the expanding business.
Still, she left some of her things in Massachusetts, hoping to return someday.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” she said. “I had the operational background, and they needed help, so I decided I’d come back and help. I’m not sure I would have gotten into it if it was now.”
Schuil Coffee, 3679 29th St. SE, was the first specialty roaster in Michigan, and part of the first wave to compete with the dark-roasted coffee brands that had been popular for decades.
Now, West Michigan is seeing a surge in specialty roasters, including Rowster and MadCap in Grand Rapids. Ferris Coffee & Nuts, which has been roasting beans for more than a century, is now involved in the discussion, as well, and has a recently remodeled coffee shop.
At one of those early Specialty Coffee Association conventions, Schuil ran into a group of Italians who were there to sell Italian-made espresso machines. The machines were still a rarity in Middle America.
She ordered one and assembled it, following the instructions in Italian.
“I muddled by; Italian isn’t that hard,” she said. “My family has always had a global view, with my dad’s background,” she said, referring to his years as a food importer who met with clients from around the world.
The decision to buy the espresso machine paid off; Schuil’s was one of the first shops to have one in West Michigan in 1992. Most customers who came in didn’t even know what an espresso was, she said.
Those first years were heavy on educating the consumer, she said — a commitment the business still maintains.
Schuil said she tries to make at least one trip a year to visit a farm from which the company sources its coffee beans. Often, it’s difficult to organize such a trip, however.
“Sometimes business is rockin’ and rollin’ and I can’t make it work,” she said.
“We’ve been in business for decades and have a lot of relationships. And cell phones and technology make it a lot easier,” she added, meaning that farmers and roasters now can connect more easily than before.
Schuil said technology and the Internet has made educating consumers a lot easier, too, as anyone can find out whatever they want at the touch of a button.
These days, with decades of experience, Schuil said the business has streamlined its processes, such as supply chain management and its roasting technique, which helps keep coffee prices competitive even with the lower-quality coffees found on grocery store shelves.
“We are committed to the product and the people,” she said. “That’s the compass for how we do business.”
Schuil Coffee has two roasters at is roasting facility: a drum roaster for darker roasts and an air roaster for cleaner roasts. Many coffee roasters use a drum roaster for all their roast variations.
“A lot of people focus on dark roasts,” she said.
“Dark (roast) is destroying the properties of the coffee. Medium roast is like a wine — it brings out the nuances and characteristics of the bean.”
Coffee shops tend to have a high turnover rate since profit margins are low and it’s a complex industry with all sorts of moving parts, as well as a long supply chain from coffee farmer to coffee cup.
And then there’s the final product. Schuil said movies and TV shows have romanticized coffee shops. There’s actually a lot of hard work that goes on behind the scenes to ensure a good, consistent cup of coffee.
“People want something they can count on,” Schuil said. “You don’t want variations in lattes.”
Talking to customers is one of her favorite parts of the business, she said, especially when they come into the shop and sell her on her own coffee.
Schuil Coffee is growing its business right now, in particular on the wholesale side, she said.
“There are specialty stores all over,” she said. “It’s just exciting getting (Schuil coffee) into those. That’s when we’re hitting our stride.”
The company also is working to expand its retail market, including at Meijer stores.
The industry has come a long way since Schuil’s parents started their company in the early 1980s, and the recent wave of new roasters is helping the industry, as well, she said.
“There was the first wave of people getting into the business because of our passion for the product,” she said. “The third-wave shops have that same commitment.”