Longtime coffee professionals Trish Rothgeb and Nick Cho conceived of Wrecking Ball Coffee Roasters while they were still in D.C. The partners both have distinguished backgrounds that include seats on the World Barista Championship board of directors and leadership positions with the Barista Guild of America. Rothgeb is a licensed Q Grader and Cho founded dearly departed murky coffee. Yes, they have more illustrious credits to their names, but let’s focus on Wrecking Ball, which features Rothgeb roasting in the South Bay and Cho operating a café on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, in a former firehouse. On February 7, we met at the Wrecking Ball café, where Rothgeb and Cho both shared caffeinated insights.
How did the two of you end up partnering on this project?
Cho: We got drunk and made out. That’s a true story.
Rothgeb: We’d been friends before we were an item. We met through the coffee industry. I was pretty sure that I wanted to stay on the West Coast and live my life, eventually. Nick wanted to start a coffee roasting company. He wanted to work with me on it. We talked for years about if that would ever happen, and always just assumed it wouldn’t happen. The die was cast when we became a couple.
Did a retail experience always factor into your plans?
Cho: Yes. It’s maybe the most important part. Coming from a retail background for me, in the shops in D.C., serving people coffee, that for me is coffee business. Nowadays, people are really obsessed with sourcing and all these different things. Those are parts leading up to the coffee business, but the experience at the bar and serving people their daily coffee, that’s what coffee is. The rest of it is support mechanisms.
Rothgeb: As a roaster, I am only happy when I can see that whole circle. A lot of roasters, they’re happy to be a wholesale roastery. For me, even though I’m not here every day, and it’s not my game – I don’t do that part – I did when I was a kid, now I’m all about the green coffee and the roasting coffee. I hand it off to Nick, but it’s not a complete package for me unless I have this happening as well.
Where are you roasting, and what roaster are you using?
Rothgeb: We’re doing the thing that a lot of small roasteries are doing, which is holding back from building our own roastery until A) we have the funds and B) until we have the volume, until we need to do it. For us, that means more retail stores and building up to that. We’re doing the thing that a lot of small bakeries – or people who rent time in kitchens or people who want to do start-ups – we buy time on someone else’s roaster. That’s a small roastery on the Peninsula, which is a guy who’s not in same niche as we are. He does office coffee and private labeling. He doesn’t have retail, and he has a lot of extra time on his roaster.
Cho: Handsome did a similar thing when they got started, at LAMILL. We kind of gave the hint, that’s a great way to get started. I don’t think they thought about that before as a viable opportunity.
Tonx is doing that too.
Cho: Yeah, there are a lot. It’s sort of a thing now.
Rothgeb: You hear about bakers doing it, or people that make their own pickles. They don’t need a whole kitchen, they just need to build their business and eventually make it work.
What does a coffee have to be for you to buy it and feature it?
Rothgeb: It doesn’t have to be the most esoteric, crazy cup I’ve ever had for it to make the cut. For me, if I’m tasting a whole table of Colombias, for example, my first priority is always going to be, What has the greatest potential for sweetness? And how much I can finesse the acidity to become part of that sweet story. We were telling these guys that just showed up, sweetness is sweetness and a good, complex coffee flavor. People talk a lot about balance…I want people that when they come here, they’re getting a good coffee flavor and something they recognize and want to come back to. That doesn’t mean the weirdest thing they’ve ever had, or the most rustic thing, or something they’ll ever have again in their life.
Cho: I think there are two important components about that. One is Trish’s philosophy about coffee, and now mine, is pretty different from a lot of what you hear out there, in a fundamental way. There is sort of this idea out there that you can’t add any value to green coffee quality. All you can do is preserve the quality that’s intrinsically in coffee. That’s a really great philosophy to have, to a point, but when you take that too far, what that really functionally means is that your entire job, as far as quality control, begins and ends at green coffee selection, vetting, and then sourcing. Everything else that happens after that is, “Don’t mess it up.” I would say that Trish’s philosophy is different. The roaster actually does add value, in terms of the way that you’re crafting flavors and developing those things. The same thing for the barista that’s brewing. There’s value added constantly. What that lets us do is relax on the green coffee side, a little bit, to where this is a great starting point. A baker doesn’t taste the flour and go, “I’m only going to ruin this flour. I’m never going to add any value, so I need this perfect heirloom variety of flour.” No, they just say, “This is a really solid ingredient. I know what I can make with this that’s going to be awesome.” That’s how I would paraphrase Trish’s philosophy. What do you think?
Rothgeb: I’m still trying to figure some things out. I’ve been in the business for 25 years. I’ve been roasting for 20 years, and even at this point, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m trying to say. That appeals to me because I went to school for art and originally went to school as an artist, a painter. The whole idea of this entire journey never ending, and me trying to figure myself out, is really appealing. So the idea that coffee, can I create something that’s greater than the sum or the raw that was given to me? Absolutely. Can I try to do it better than anybody else who bought that same green coffee? Absolutely.
At what point did you know that you would work with coffee for a living?
Rothgeb: When I moved to Norway, because I had married a Norwegian guy back then. That was about 15 years ago. I moved to Norway and the idea was that I was going to be an artist, but I had almost a decade of coffee already under my belt, so I worked in coffee, and it just continued to be more interesting than the art world. The art world’s pretty interesting, but coffee was even more interesting. I still wanted to make things and create something, but the fact that it got consumed, I watched people taking it into their body, these are really lofty notions, but it was just a more satisfying, full circle.
Did you always plan to work in coffee, or did you have other careers?
Cho: I didn’t know what I was going to do for a career, and I started to struggle. I knew that I had a set of certain gifts and talents, but I didn’t know how to apply it, and it kept me up at night for a really long time. As things progressed, I was marketing for a couple different companies, and a little bit of sales for stuff, and I realized the thing that was most fulfilling to me was a retail sort of environment. Especially in your 20s, retail feels like a summer job sort of thing, but I really liked and appreciated the interaction with just regular people. The business to business world really bothered me. People weren’t real or sincere. I’d like to see those people in their regular clothes and interested in seeing them in their day to day. At some point, I came across coffee, and it hit a few key points for me that ultimately were really appealing.
What was the very first day for you behind a coffee bar?
My first day behind a coffee bar was actually at Starbucks. I got a job at Starbucks. I worked there for two months when I first got started. I knew I wanted to have a shop, so I got a job at Starbucks, and it was fun. I did feel a little bit like a spy, because I was in a way. I think so much of that experience and have so much respect for that company in terms of the amount of success and scale of operations and systems that it requires to get to that point, I have a lot of respect and sort of fear.
This was in D.C.?
Cho: Yeah. Northern Virginia.
What will it take for you to consider Wrecking Ball a success?