Interview: coffee pro Ed Schultz (Honolulu Coffee Company, Kaldi’s Coffee + LatteLand)

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Former investment banker Ed Schultz bought LatteLand in Kansas City in 2004 and later joined forces with Kaldi’s Coffee Roasting Co. before building a third coffee company in Hawaii, Honolulu Coffee Co.. This man clearly has a thirst for specialty coffee. We met in Honolulu at Chef Mavro last October and spoke by Skype on April 27, where Schultz shared several caffeinated insights.

Was it a given that you’d work with coffee for a living, or did you consider other careers?

No, actually, I started as an investment banker in New York, and it was just one of things that called out to me. I enjoyed it, liked coffee and food, and I have an entrepreneurial calling and coffee was, at the time, an industry that nobody knew anything about. Starbucks was starting their growth a bit, but you go to the SCAA show, there were hundreds of people, not thousands. For me, it was a way to get involved with food without having a chef’s background. I didn’t want to do the restaurant business, didn’t want to be working in the evenings. It was a daytime and morning business, it let me be in touch with the consumers and I didn’t want to be behind a desk.

Was Kaldi’s your first?

LatteLand, which is in Kansas City. I actually started there. I grew it to the point where we had six coffee bars, but we were not a roaster. When I had three coffee bars, that’s when I met Josh and Trisha and the guys at Kaldi’s. We got along for years and saw eye to eye on the industry. When you’re growing a business, if you can find good people to work with, that’s really important. We ended up buying Honolulu Coffee, from a guy we met at an SCAA show. He wanted to sell to people in the industry, not just somebody in the Hawaii. We have LatteLand, Kaldi’s and Honolulu, our one family of companies.

Have you had any coffee mentors?

When I first started in the industry, Jeff Taylor at PT’s, he taught me pretty much everything I knew from the get go, about single origin coffee, about brewed coffee, and about to be a barista.

What’s your favorite aspect of operating a coffee roasting company and cafes?

I love the interaction with the customer, being able to take something that has a unique story to it. It can bring the world together…and bring it to the customer at a price point that is affordable really drives the industry on the specialty side. You can have the best coffee in the world, say it costs $7 or $8 a cup, and if you take that and compare it to the finest other beverages – wine, single malts, sake – it’s not an attainable thing for 90% of the population. It’s really cool that we can be so in touch with such a wide range of customers, which is what makes your café interesting. You talk to people from all walks of life in one place, and that doesn’t necessarily happen at a fine dining restaurant.

Why was it important for you to roast your own coffee?

I think you start to put together a complete story, and you start to be able to tell the story. It’s the same people. Roasters go to origin and meet farmers or try and do direct trade coffees. You put together a story that is unique for your customer and that people enjoy. To just be a coffee bar, it’s a lot less complicated to just focus on a green coffee, than buying green coffee, and distributing it to yourself and run cafes, but if you do it well, it’s a great customer experience, because baristas have direct access to a roaster who may have been to a farm and then that translates what the barista is able to talk to the customer about. Again, I relate it to other more mature industries, because coffee’s still evolving and growing, a sommelier in a restaurant or a really nice wine shop, the experts all want to go back to the actual wineries, rather than just read a piece of literature that the winery puts out. They know wine better, and they can tell the customer who’s interested. The barista becomes much more knowledgeable if you have the process from A to Z internally.

Is it easier or harder to accomplish your goals with so many other specialty coffeehouses?

I think no matter what, there will always be competition in industry. That’s how you know it’s a healthy industry. Certainly, it forces you to do a better job in all aspects, and then at some point, there might be a new place, but if they don’t do a good job, they’ll come back. And to a degree, customers become pretty loyal. You have daily interaction with the barista and customer, and if you do a good job, the customer feels a bond with the barista, café and the coffee. You don’t get much hopping around, unless somebody else is doing a better job than you are.

Describe a typical coffee consumption day, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep.

When I get up in the morning, I generally tend to have coffee that I have found on the mainland, in Hawaii. African coffees are not allowed brought in, so I typically have an African coffee on my Tecnovorm. I take the kids to school, head to the office and typically have an espresso in the morning, and we will go through cuppings of coffee. That’s pretty much my pre-lunch consumption. In the afternoon, it will vary, but I will generally visit our cafes and have a coffee with somebody from the café, typically a small, wet cappuccino.

Is Tecnovorm your preferred brewing method at home?

For home, Tecnovorm gets water to temperature, evenly distributes the water over the coffee grounds at the right pace. It just doesn’t blast water through it and does a good job of extraction. The key with home brews, they generally don’t get up to the right temperature, so you under-extract coffees.

If you could only drink one more shot of espresso, who would pull it for you?

That’s a tough one. I come at this from two different ways. Nobody’s ever asked me that. I think if I could drink an espresso that my daughter made, then I know that she will have found my passion for coffee, and I know our business will be in good hands for years to come.

Address: 1450 Ala Moana Boulevard, Honolulu, HI 96814
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Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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