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25 October, 2022

Roasting Great Coffee with Mike Ayars

How do you make great coffee? That's what we asked Mike Ayars, owner of Turnstile Coffee in Belmar, New Jersey.

In this week's episode, we delved into the world of specialty coffee and how you run a specialty coffee shop and roastery. Mike shared his coffee secrets and how he uses amazing coffee to bring customers back day after day.



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Learning To Roast Great Coffee

You've been in business for 11 years. How has that been? What have you learned?

Yeah. And, in specialty coffee 11 years is kind of mature. When I got into it—I live about an hour outside of New New York City, in Midtown Manhattan specialty coffee hadn't even arrived yet. It was in Brooklyn, and of course, it was in a lot of west coast cities, but, it not only wasn't in the suburbs, but it wasn't even in Midtown Manhattan yet.

So 11 years, is kind of meaningful. What have I learned? I had run a business prior and I kind of applied those theme things in this business. And I try to create an experience for customers and, uh, that's kind of what we live by.


How did you become interested in roasting coffee?

I had a prior career. I had a software company for 25 years, and I sold it and worked for them for the new owners for a couple of years. Along the way, towards the end, I had never even tasted coffee, and when 9/11 hit I was travelling a lot. I always liked to get to the airport early anyway, but the delays got very long.

And so, you know, you're reading a book for an hour or magazines or studying and I got bored and saw a line at Starbucks and I got in the line and never had tasted coffee and got a double espresso. 

It changed things for me. I'm sensitive to caffeine, so the caffeine felt good and I was into craft beer, and really, the more of the imperial stout taste, the darker taste.

So espresso kind of reminds me of that. So I started tasting espresso here and there. And then when I ended up selling my company and I had time to visit coffee shops. And then one shop I visited, they were roasting. And that's what started the interest in it.


How did you learn about roasting?

But when I ended up leaving and going to coffee shops and saw roasting for the first time. I took a few classes and travelled the country. I had time, I had money. So I travelled the country visiting coffee shops. I took five or six classes over the course of two years, and all the time was roasting coffee in my garage and buying beans from good roasters online. And cupping, comparing their coffee to what I was roasting and learning how to cup, creating good coffee. 

It's, it's really about tasting good coffee. So if you're a roaster, you need to learn how to taste. And, that's what I did for a couple of years before I opened.


How did you find those classes?

Just went online. I started with one right in this, in New York City. I didn't even know there was an industry of specialty coffee. And that's the class that kind of opened my, my mind up to what specialty coffee is. And that was in the basement of a very popular cafe at the time in New York City, Brooklyn.

Then there I took a class up in Vermont. A roasting class. And then on the west coast, I took three classes, one tasting class, a roasting class, and another kind of combination of the two. That was over the course of two years. 


What was it about the roasting part of it?

So the passion for coffee, there are two aspects of it. One is tasting. Like, for example, I'm into craft beer. I have no interest in making beer, but I love to enjoy it. Good. On the east coast here, we have this style called New England IPA. It's a hazy IPA. It's so delicious and it's all about the hops, different hops and how that influences.

But I have no passion for brewing beer. But in coffee, I have this passion for tasting coffee from great roasters, but I also have a passion for creating that coffee and roasting and learning how to take a bean and, get the best you can out of that bean. Then there's an advantage if you're roasting and you have a cafe.

I mean, one, you're paying less for the beans. So you can spend a lot more money on beans and create a great product. But you can also then sell wholesale to other cafes, which we do as well, and sell beans online, which we do as well. So you get, we've really got three businesses going there.

But if you're just a cafe, it doesn't mean it's not gonna have great coffee. If they're buying beans from a great roaster, it's gonna be a wonderful cafe.


What are the differences between running a cafe and running a roastery?

It starts with tasting, and you do tasting through blind cupping, meaning, you're gonna brew coffee, several cups of coffee, but you mark the bottoms of the cups, so you don't know which is which. And you mix them around and you learn how to taste which coffee is better. And if you can't do that, then really, there's no sense in roasting cuz anybody can brown beans, just put them in the roaster and brown them.

But with coffee, it's not like a cake where you turn it to 400 and set it and forget it. It's, you're controlling the heat all and the airflow all through the process. To create the best, best tasting. So you need to learn how to taste coffee first and then learn the proper way to roast it to get the most out of the bean.

So if a cafe just buys any raw beans and just browns them, you'd rather go to a cafe that's buying from a good roaster. So a good roaster's gonna source the best beans they can buy the best raw beans they can get the most out of them through the roasting process.


How do you source quality beans?

If I was a younger guy when I got into this, I probably would've travelled to all of the countries. I probably would've gone to Ethiopia and into the mountains in Columbia. 

At this point in life, I don't want to do that. I've been to the best farms in Panama.

Panama has literally the best coffee in the world, and there's this certain varietal that grows in Panama. I think last year the winning coffee sold for $1,200 a pound. From this farm? Yes. So, I have been there. I spent five days there with a consultant, and my daughter and I went. But in general, I'm not travelling.

What I'm doing is I'm relying on importers who are doing that work. But some of the best roasters in our country here are travelling, are doing that. Travelling and making relationships with individual farms. I'm not doing that, but I'm buying great beans from importers that are doing that. So there are dozens, if not hundreds of importers.

There were some very large ones, and I, buy most of my beans from a large, one of the largest ones. But I also buy from time to time if I see something very interesting from whatever import, but most of the beans are coming from one. I rely on the salesperson to guide me and they'll send us samples and we'll try them and make sure, but in general, that salesperson we're very aligned with and I can rely on.


Do you do all the roasting? Or is it someone else on your team?

So 11 years ago when I started I was doing all the roasting and about four years into it, my nephew was visiting from Florida at Thanksgiving and he never went back home. 

He saw the cafe and got interested. And then within a few months, he was roasting. And I taught him what I learned from those classes and he's taken it even further. So he does all the roasting now. 


How do you keep up with the latest information in the coffee industry?

So like many industries, specialty coffee has a very strong association, a worldwide association. 

I came from the pest control industry. I sold software to pest control companies and the association was everything. I mean, you had trade shows that you went to and learned everything.

It's the same in specialty coffee, so it's a very strong association. They've got online resources, but they also have this wonderful annual trade. Where the best vendors, manufacturers, and importers come to. And it's an amazing three days of learning. So that's one way. And then, of course, supplement that with online during the year.

Lots of YouTube, and podcasts. And so it's pretty, pretty easy to keep current.


Teaching Customers About Specialty Coffee

How do you educate your customers about specialty coffee, and how it's different?

So sometimes you can be ahead of the curve, or you can be too soon with something. And I'm in a suburb of New York and we were kind of ahead of the curve and so it was a little slow in the beginning. People didn't understand what we were doing. Today, a lot of people understand it, and I have a lot more competition around here. Now there's a lot more, but the level of awareness has risen so much that we're much busier, even though there's a lot more competition, everyone knows. In the beginning, I did a one hour–I was used to giving presentations in my prior career.

I would often speak at these annual trade shows, and I put together a one-hour presentation on specialty coffee. I would charge them a nominal fee to attend and give it right? I had an overhead projector and fly, you know, slides. And at the end of the class, I taught them enough that we presented them with three cups of coffee.

They were marked on the bottom, and they didn't know which was which. And 90% of the class could distinguish which one was from Latin America, and which one was from Africa. They were all surprised that they, you know, just by sitting through that class and talking about it, they could learn enough to get in one hour to taste that and see the differences.

So I did that a lot in the beginning. I don't do it anymore. I also found that it kind of takes the mystique away from people too. They almost walk away. Okay, now I know all about that. And it's maybe sometimes more interesting for them to just come to the cafe and just chat and get the knowledge that way.

But we don't preach in the cafe, because there's a good number that doesn't wanna know anything about it. They're there because we provide a good experience. We've got good service and we've got delicious coffee, and they don't care that it's specialty coffee, so we don't preach.

But as soon as they ask a question or if we see an opportunity, then we will teach as much as they wanna learn in the cafe. My staff, probably half of them are very knowledgeable about specialty coffee.



Crafting A Customer Experience

On the cafe side, how do you make Turnstile unique? How do you make the experience unique?

We do try to address each type of customer with the way our counter is set up. So for those that are—most coffees sold in the morning, first of all. So you've got—on a weekday morning, you've got commuters that are on their way somewhere and they want to know that they could pull into the parking lot and be in and out of there within a certain timeframe.

There, as long as it's consistent. If they know it's 10 minutes, that's fine. Ours happens to be, we staff, we overstaff in the morning to make sure we're getting those commuters. That's when most coffee's sold. So for those customers, we have a house blend and we make it in a large batch, every 15 minutes or so, we're making a new batch, large enough that when they come in, we can quickly pour them a cup of coffee and they're on their way.

But we also have a pour-over menu, a menu of higher-end coffees. Coffees that we've spent a lot more, sometimes up to three times as much as your standard specialty coffee. And they could choose from that menu and we'll do a pour-over an individual cup for them. 

Pour-over doesn't always mean that it's better. The coffee has to be better. It's just that you can make one cup. That's the benefit. The batch brewer makes delicious coffee, but you can make one cup and those people that aren't in quite a rush or are really into coffee, they'll choose that. So we're addressing both audiences with that.

And then, of course, we also have delicious espresso and very talented baristas to make espresso and the espresso drinks such as the latte or cappuccino. Then just at that register, making sure that it's, we're getting the order correct and making sure that we're delivering in a consistent time.


Selling Wholesale Coffee

Why do you think cafes are coming to Turnstile to buy their coffee?

I would likely sell if one wanted to open up across the street, I would likely sell to them. I would probably not have a problem doing that. They are in a sense our competition. It's been that –specialty coffee has gotten so popular that you're gonna find them several in each town.

And so it's good too, and I do try to give some exclusivity to those cafes if they're in an area, not to serve as another one. But we've built a rep in 11 years–we've built a pretty good reputation. We've gotten some very high–there’s an industry, business called Coffee Review that reviews coffees and we've gotten some pretty high scores on coffee reviews. 

And so we've built a pretty good reputation for delivering quality coffee. And we've established these relationships with our wholesale accounts, and they'll order coffee, we even deliver them cold brew and kegs. Then we deliver it to those customers.

I would love to grow the wholesale business. If I was a younger guy, I'd probably be out there pushing it a lot harder. I kind of let it come to us. And so it, it's probably 15% of the business. And online ordering. Is another decent percentage of the business.

They're coming to us. I mean, it's well-documented on our website. If they're out there searching for wholesale in our area, they're gonna see us. And then again, we've got a pretty good reputation. The area we're in is called the Jersey Shore, but. it's not the Jersey Shore from that television show. There was a television show that's in South Jersey. We're a little north of that. But it's the couple counties and, we've got a pretty good reputation in this area. So they're mostly coming to us.


The Pandemic Take-Out Window

You built a new take-out window during the pandemic. How did you come up with that?

The day it hit. We were still allowed to be open, but it was a Sunday morning. Our governor had made an announcement on Saturday. We were still allowed, coffee shops were still allowed at that point to be open and we had pushed–set up tables in front of our counter to keep, but it just didn't fee right. 

It was the first hour on Sunday morning and it didn't feel right, and so I decided to close it down for a day and a half. I'm just trying to decide what I should be doing. In the meantime. The Starbucks in town had a line of cars down the highway, so I'm thinking, how can this be I can't have a drive through window. I don't have the–it's very hard to get in my parking lot.

It couldn't configure a drive through. So I'm thinking about the Starbucks. I mean, it literally was down the highway, the line people must have been waiting an hour for, So I created a walkthrough. I did exactly what they're doing. I turned one of our windows. It was backed by the roaster.

Into an order window and then the front door. I had a customer that helped me build a kind of a temporary door. So we would open our real door in the morning and, and on hinges swing this kind of plywood, we painted it, stained it, it had a pop-up shelf, it had sliding plexiglass windows, and then we would close that in place.

So we had an order window and you'd walk out a little. So it was just like a drive-through. It was such a hit. It's such a hit that I didn't, I didn't stop it for a year and a half. I mean, well into when we could have opened back up. was kind of afraid. You know, sometimes in business you don't want to touch something, you don't wanna mess it up.

It got written up, radio stations and newspaper. I mean, the local, web newspaper type thing covered it pretty well. We've got some good articles, good coverage on that. It was wildly successful and we put a microphone at the pickup windows that we would announce and it would blast through the parking lot.

And people loved hearing their name over the microphone. Yeah it was good. It worked out very well for us.

So we closed that Sunday morning. We closed and on by the end of Monday, I'm thinking this is what we wanna do. We started it on Tuesday. And I think we opened it Friday morning. On Amazon, they had a bank teller speaker thing that we pushed through the window. So there's a little speaker.

We got the credit card thing on the outside so they could swipe their card. There's a speaker through the window, and then that front pickup window. So by Friday, I think it was Friday morning, we were in business and it took off.



Boosting Holiday Sales

What do you do to increase sales over the holidays?

I'm such a purist with coffee, much like craft beer. I don't like additives in the beer except for the four main ingredients of beer. And, I'm such a purist with coffee that we tend not to create crazy drinks. Part of it's laziness too. I should be a little bit more ambitious with that.

But we do make a pumpkin spice latte and we do have a chocolate mint, something for Christmas time or a holiday time, but it's not really what we're pushing.

But what we do have is we do a holiday blend every year that's quite popular. So we sell that by the bag or they can buy a cup. And thenwhat we're kind of known for in the area, we create these gift boxes. It started with gift baskets, but gift baskets are very hard to wrap.

And, again just watching other businesses. Gift boxes are fantastic. We get this beautiful box designed and with a little packing stuff in there, and then you just put everything in and close it and it's just, it's so easy to make and so easy to ship. So we do a great gift box business.

We have two sizes. And, we'll have businesses order some for their customers, or we'll have individuals buying them for local and for also for shipping out. So that's our holiday approach. And it ends up turning out to make December. 

I'm in this shore area where we're very close to the ocean, summers are by far, are busy. July and August are generally twice as busy as January, February. But December's a big month just because of that. 


Hiring For The Shop

What’s your biggest challenge running the shop?

Well, it's probably the same as anybody's gonna say these days. And it's staffing. Even in my other business it was never customers. It was always staff. And it was at probably a different employment market back then. You know, hiring programmers. Well, who am I talking to here?

You must know hiring programmers has always been a challenge, right? Making sure you're getting good quality. And so people, programmers are staying. So now it's a little different. A lot of times the jobs in a coffee business, it's transitional. They're generally, the staff is on their way to somewhere else.

They're between degrees, they're between moving somewhere. And I think a larger percentage of the staff are transitional. That's a bit of a challenge. 

I happen to have two daughters working in the shop. I have my nephew in the shop and I've got a couple of employees that have been there quite some time. So that helps to have a good core of people that carry through.

And then in the summer, we're much busier in the summer, but that's when college students are around. So it's easy to hire then, and students are off the school. It works out okay. But I've had other coffee shop owners come in to ask opinions before they've opened.

And I remember one, about a month after they opened, or maybe it's a couple months, call me and ask “How do you, staff it?” I said, “You need to have more babies you need to have more family.” 

I think, in general, my hiring approach in a way hasn't changed from when I had my technology company, and that is when I'm talking to someone,I don't really care as much about what experience they have in this business. As I do care “do I think they're gonna care about my business?”

And do I think that they'll stay for a reasonable amount of time so that if I'm investing in them? I get to recoup some of that iinvestment and if they're gonna, treat our customers good. I think, whether I'm consciously doing that or not when I'm interviewing, I think those are the things that are going through my mind.

Is this person, gonna be around and are they gonna care about the business? So I think that should be the priority versus did you work in a cafe before? You know, we could teach that, right?


Advice for Coffee Shop Owners

What advice do you have for someone that wants to open a coffee shop?

My advice, it's gonna be very strong about the coffee side, about specialty coffee and about learning what it is and how to taste it. Because that is going to be, certainly, you're gonna do good service but everybody should be doing good service, right? Everybody should be trying to create that experience.

Not everyone does it, of course, but, but that's kind of gonna be a given that you're gonna do, You're gonna deliver good, good service. But what you can distinguish yourself is understanding what good coffee is, because whether that person coming through the door knows that it's called specialty coffee or not, it's still gonna taste.

And when they get in that car in the morning, the car is gonna say, “We're going back to that place.” Because I know that that coffee was good. Whether it's a conscious thing or not, they know it. And if you don't know how to taste coffee and you don't know what good coffee is you're never gonna have that aspect of it.

And that's what can distinguish you. Because there's a lot of competition out there from every other shop. So it's understanding what specialty coffee is and learning how to cup, learning how to do that blind cupping and being able to figure out which coffee is better. I would start there.

Picture of Amin Yazdani
Written By: 

Amin Yazdani is the CEO and Co-Founder of Craver, a fast-growing mobile platform for restaurants, helping them grow and retain a loyal customer base.

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