Next month will be the 15th anniversary of Sweet Maria’s. One feeling I have can be summed up as follows: Whew.
When I look back, it does seem like both a long time and not much time at all. I remember lots of high points, like moving to California and buying our own building. And we remember lots of low points, like moving to California and buying our own building. That is the thing with owning your own business; there are lots of highs and lows, and often those happen at the same time. It’s sort of like childbirth, just not as messy. The move to California was the same way – big and wonderful and terrible all at the same time. It was exciting to buy a building, but it was also terrifying because of all the problems and responsibilities that come with it..
When we think of how we started, with Tom scooping beans in the basement of our house in Columbus Ohio, it is amazing to think how far we have come and how we have grown. Things that used to be scary, like doing phyto-sanitary certificates for export shipments, are now routine. Just this week, with over 750 Sweet Maria’s orders to fulfill on a Monday – I just can’t believe how busy we are, how many customers we have. Part of me wonders, “why?” But then the answer is obvious: we are doing something right.
It sounds like a cliche, but the best parts of owning the business have been our customers and our employees. We can think of so many great customer stories, both folks who have walked in and chatted with us, and great emails from folks. Like the home roaster who works on a boat laying undersea cable traveling across the ocean at 5 mph. Or the single day we shipped one order to Nome, Alaska and another to a person at a research station in Antarctica; Sweet Maria’s spans the globe! Since we are a mail order business, it is probably no surprise that we have a list of great customer names and email addresses that have caught our attention over the years. When customers walk in, we don’t recognize their faces as much as their screen names.
And we have had a lot of great employees both current and long gone, who are near and dear to our hearts. Even in their not so great moments. Like the employee who came to me and informed me that the toilet was backed up and what was I going to do about it? Ever handle a plunger pal? And we still chuckle about our first-ever employee Jovan (who currently has his own coffee shop in Columbus) who did not come to work for a week when Y2K happened. Or how cold the storefront in Columbus was since Tom did not want the heat up too high since it would dry out the coffee. The coffee was happy but the humans were grumbly. It is all water under the bridge now.
That is the thing about a small business: you realize pretty quickly that you cannot do everything yourself. Yes, for years (and still) we were more likely to do things on the cheap rather than hire a contractor, even when we should. So many of our co-workers have to become both specialists and generalists; specialists with a tape gun and packing peanuts, specialists in making a big bag into lots of little bags, handling the volume of emails we get, getting the orders out on time.
Not every job here is rocket science, and not everyone can be a cupper. That’s a general issue in the coffee trade: there is not a lot of opportunity for the most skilled jobs. But we do the best we can to involve everyone. (Hint: when Tom comes downstairs and calls out “everyone taste this” there is equal probability it is really good, or a really seriously defective coffee). We appreciate the workhorse employees, who come in and do the repetitive work each and every day. That takes great dedication. Maria still gets handed the phone when there is a customer service problem that is especially sticky, so there is a buck and it does stop somewhere.
Sweet Maria’s has never had a goal to grow, but we have. When other folks would talk about how home roasting was poised to be the next “Big Thing”, how it would catch on and everyone would be doing it, we were always nay-sayers. It’s not just because we are negative people (guilty as charged), but because we have seen interest in home roasting ebb and flow. Heck, who has not taken up a hobby, and then found a year later that you have not touched the stuff in months? Or when things in life get in the way and there just isn’t time for a hobby, even one that takes 15 minutes? We have seen this happen in our own lives with hobbies that we no longer have time for. And I have talked to customers who have been through the same thing with home roasting.
We have had Sweet Maria’s for fifteen years, and will continue to have it, because we don’t get bored with it. There is always something more or different to keep us engaged in it. The job is sometimes as exciting as taping up a cardboard box, not one of life’s great pleasures. We imagine it would be the same work if we sold nuts or widgets or whatnot. But it is coffee, and as such it is challenging and changing, a business that keeps re-inventing itself. Sometimes it seems in ways both silly and serious simultaneously. In any case, we like it a lot.