Episode 20: Alan Tolson from Carpe Diem Coffee and Tea Co.

Transcript:

Welcome to Podcast episode number 20 with the Mobile Alabama Business Podcast. My name is Marcus Neto and I own Blue Fish, a digital marketing company based in downtown Mobile. I’m the host of the Mobile Alabama Business Podcast and this is a podcast where we talk to local entrepreneurs, business influencers and business owners about their businesses and how they got started. I’d like to thank you for spending time with us today.

In today’s show I sit down with Alan Tolson. Now Alan is the owner of Carpe Diem Coffee & Tea Co. over near Spring Hill College, and in this episode I geek out just a little bit because if there’s one thing that I’m passionate about, it is a really good cup of coffee. 

So, you’re going to hear us talk about cupping, you’re going to hear us talk about aeropresses, you’re going to her us talk about a lot of things specific to coffee, but you’re also going to hear us talk about Alan’s business and how it applies to restaurateurs, how they run businesses and what the average day looks like for somebody in that industry. Anyway, I hope you find this enjoyable, also I’d like to take just a small moment and say thank you to Jared Budlong for processing all of the audio. Anyway, without further ado, here is Alan Tolson.

Marcus: Today I’m sitting down with Alan Tolson. Alan is the owner of Carpe Diem Coffee and Tea Co., which is located in Spring Hill. Welcome to the podcast, Alan.

Alan: Hey, thanks for having me today, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Marcus: Awesome. Well, I wanted to start out by saying I love your coffee. Walking in on certain days is like heaven when you’re roasting in the shop. I need you to sell me a franchise license so I can open up a location in Spanish Fort. But before we get too deep into all that and working out those nitty gritty details, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself? Tell us, did you grow up in Mobile or did you go to school here? Or, how did you end up in Mobile, Alabama?

Alan: I did, I was actually born and raised in Mobile, I graduated from Martin High School in 1998, went to the University of South Alabama, majored in business management, graduated from South of Alabama in ‘04, and love it here.

Marcus: Very cool. So, did you… I’m getting a little bit off, but did you actually work at Carpe Diem while you were going to college?

Alan:  I did. Yes, I started working at Carpe in 1999 through college and worked there part-time, but I really enjoyed the flexibility of it, given its proximity to South Alabama, I could come in… I was roasting at times, so I could come in, roast what was necessary, go to class, come back, you know, they were great in being flexible with me so I could come in earlier or work late as long as everything was getting taken care of I could… you know, help me to manage my school course load.

Marcus: Yes, that’s very cool. So I know we have… Blue Fish has some ties to Carpe Diem through the Wilbourn family, (BlueFish team member) Kara Wilbourn, Kara’s mother-in-law (Tomi Sue Rusling Mayer), used to own the shop, is that correct?

Alan: Yes, yes. Tomi Sue and Van Rusling opened the shop in 1995 and…

Marcus: So, How did you end up with the shop, was it you just… they were looking to sell? Or you just wanted to buy? How did that…?

Alan: I’d say a little bit of both. Like I said, I started working there as a part-time job in college and quickly started roasting for them, after I started I was the Roaster for about 14 years and when I was still in school, or once I graduated I was really able to devote more time to the business and kind of focus on growing the wholesale side of the business, so I roasted coffee sales to other coffee shops in the area and just the operations… I was able to kind of help develop that area but I definitely had an interest in the business so when Tomi Sue decided… when she was ready to retire, she actually approached me and I had the interest and she kind of offered a first pass at it. Absolutely, yes.

Marcus: Absolutely, yes. That’s really cool because often times… ok, I’m going to geek out on you and this is not what we discussed a minute ago, so I’m going to geek out on you just a little bit. I love coffee. We have… I don’t consider it coffee but we have a Keurig in the shop. We have a regular coffee machine. I’ve got… what’s the other one? No, it’s not aTosimo. Anyway, it’s an espresso it’s the one I’m thinking, I’ve got an espresso machine at home, I’ve got an aeropress a French press, I’ve got another espresso, we’ve got all this different mechanisms, but I recognize that all of those things are only as good as the beans that you actually...

I’m actually going to flip the questions on you a little bit because we talked about what I was going to ask you and this one is: how does one make the perfect cup of coffee? Because I get the impression that you aren’t just in this because it’s a business, I get the impression that you really do care. I mean, I’ve read God in a Cup… Yeah, I dig coffee. For those of you that are listening to this, God in A Cup isn’t sacrilegious, is just literally talking about coffee and the process by which people go out and buy coffee, and we’re talking about some of the larger names in the industry... Anyway, go ahead, how does one make the perfect cup of coffee in your mind?

Alan: That’s such an open ended and subjective question.

Marcus: You’re the expert in the room, so…

Alan: You know that’s really going to come down to the individual that is drinking the coffee, what their personal preferences are, and what they’re looking for. There’s such a wide range in coffee variables just based on origin and preparation methods, roasting levels...

Marcus: Get geeky on coffee with me.

Alan: Personally, I really like an aeropress right now. I like the extraction and the concentration of flavors that you get with an aeropress. I really like acidity and brightness in my coffee and aeropress just cracks that up.

Marcus: Pause for just a second. For those of you who aren’t familiar with what an aeropress is, imagine a plastic, almost like a…

Alan: It’s like a hybrid, almost French press/espresso hybrid.

Marcus: Yes and it has a plunger that after you mix the water and the coffee grounds together, you put the plunger on top, you apply pressure, and the force of that pressure more of the flavor out of the grains. But, go ahead, you were describing… we’re really geeking out on coffee right now, I’m going to show you just how geeky, inverted method? Normal press? How do you…?

Alan: Typically normal press, have you seen the Apple app for all the different…?

Marcus: No [Laughter]

Alan: There’s an aeropress app that actually has countdown timer for all the different aeropress methods that you can use and it’ll give you a real time timer “ok, you should be pouring for this long, you should be stirring for this long, you should begin your plunge in three, two, one...” and it’ll count down your plunge down. That’s pretty neat.

Marcus: That’s awesome; I’m so downloading that right now.

Alan: I’ve got a lot of individuals to say what the champions would suggest their aeropress recipe or preparation method, if you will, but that’s pretty neat.

Marcus: Yes. I just think it’s interesting because there’s this resurgence in coffee that’s happened over the last, I don’t know, say five or ten years and say what you will about Starbucks, but I think their popularity has kind of rekindled that, so coffee became this really big thing and people started investigating and figuring out “well, there’s other coffee that…” 

I’m not a big fan of Starbucks and I’m going to get some hate mail about that, but I don’t really care for the taste. I tried it again this past weekend, we were on vacation, I couldn’t stand it, I couldn’t even drink a cup. I literally brewed it, threw it away and brewed a whole other batch because it just didn’t taste right to me. But there’s all this… you start going to these hipster-ish coffee shops and you see bunsen burners setups where they’ve got Blue Bottle Coffee out in San Francisco and stuff like that.

Alan: I was actually there two weeks ago.

Marcus: There’s a couple of places that I’ve been in Portland and Seattle and I don’t remember the one in Seattle, but by far they have the best coffee that I’ve had. It was a Gold Cup Winner, it was just absolutely phenomenal and it’s a treat but occasionally I’ll actually order a pound just to have… and that’s no slight to you because I think you guys knock it out of the park too, I mean your coffee is just incredible. Is really hard to find somebody that roasts their own beans, period; and is really hard to find somebody that roast their own beans and does it really well and I think you all captured that. Tell us more about Carpe Diem, when you’re asked what is unique about Carpe, what do you tell people?

Alan: Well, we take great pride in the fact that we do roast our coffee in house ourselves. I think that’s something that definitely sets us apart from a good number of other coffee shops. We have a passion for coffee and that’s where, to speak to your previous statement, I think there’s an obvious difference in shops that roast and shops that truly care about coffee and they’re always striving for that next step to make things better.  Even if they’re good, what can we do to make it better? Blue Bottle is an excellent example of that, I had an espresso out there, it was fantastic. But the fact that we roast, we’re really proud of and just the overall atmosphere, we’re located in a house that is over a hundred years old, we try to make it as inviting as possible, almost like a second living room for everybody that comes in.

Marcus: Well, there’s a strategy there, right? I mean, as a business person you probably already thought of this, but a coffee shop is often times everyone’s third place, right? That’s what’s alluded to in business terms, so is not your living room or your kitchen, is a third place where you may office.

Alan: Yes, is not work or home.

Marcus: Is not work or home, is a third place that your meetings with people are going to unwind or hold a business meeting or whatever. It’s almost and strategy and you guys do a really good job of that. Tell us, how did you get started in the food services industry? Was Carpe Diem your first experience in that?

Alan: In high school, I started working for a bagel shop that was in the area.

Marcus: Wait; there was a bagel shop in Mobile?

Alan: Yes, there were actually two at the time.

Marcus: Did they make their bagels here?

Alan: Yes, actually they did.

Marcus: Water submerged type bagels? I’m learning all kinds of new stuff that they…

Alan: Well, steam oven, steam oven, not your boiled bagel, it was a steam oven process. Actually, steam jets are part of the convection process.

Marcus: Ok, because when I was in high school I worked my way through high school, but I worked at a bagel shop during high school but it was in Washington, D.C area and it was the true boiled bagel. It was amazing.

Alan: I was working there through high school, first year of college, there were two locations of the bagel shop and I got transferred to the location on Hillcrest, and at the time Carpe Diem had opened two satellite locations, one of which was the location on Hillcrest and they shared a common building where Carpe Diem did the espresso and coffee and beverage side of the experience and the bagel shop did the food portion. The bagel shop ended up pulling out of the area all together; they kind of did original scale back out of the southeast, at which point Carpe Diem kind of took over the operations and subsequently the staff of that location of the bagel shop, so I was sort of a product of an acquisition, if you will...

Marcus: I’d say that worked out pretty well.

Alan: Yes, absolutely. I couldn’t be happier. That kind of transitioned me into coffee, it wasn’t long after I started with Carpe Diem that the position of Roaster became available and they asked if I had any interest and I said “absolutely”. I mean, one of the things that I enjoy about coffee the most is the fact that you can always learn more about it, there’s never a point when you’re like “ok, I know everything there is about coffee”. It’ll change from crop to crop and year to year, and specially from the roasting standpoint, there’s always more you can learn and there’s always that curiosity factor and striving to learn more about it. It’s extremely interesting.

Marcus: If you don’t want to go into great detail, that’s fine, but if you can give us a higher view of where do you get your… do you buy your beans from a wholesaler or you’re actually going out and purchasing this from the farms? What does that look like, that whole process.

Alan: We’ve had a great relationship with a broker who handles all the sourcing, the customs, the importation...

Marcus: Yes, because I would imagine, for a small shop, that’s not something necessarily that you want to get into.

Alan: Yes, that can be a can of worms. We do participate in some programs that donate directly back to the individual farms, as far as fair trade, and so we do support some individual farms through those channels, but having a broker, for an organization of our size, having a broker is a good fit because that enables us to kind of have access to a wide, but high quality, selection from which to choose from without having to go through the sourcing and sample, and cupping process with each individual exporter. For example, our broker might house anywhere from eight to ten different Costa-Rican variables, just based on our relationship and our history I can say “what do you recommend?” one, and how are they cupping, they’ll have cupping notes on everything.

Marcus: Explain cupping to the audience because they might not know what the term means.

Alan: Cupping would be the formal process of flavor evaluation for a particular coffee, is typically done with a lighter roast, just because that highlights more if they inherit good or bad qualities that are present in the beans. But it’s kind of like a critical analysis of the flavor components that are present in the coffee.

Marcus: So, just like wine, coffee has hints of chocolate, and earth, and chili.

Alan: Oh, absolutely.

Marcus: Flour and all that other stuff. You’re talking about the formal process by which people with really good taste buds are deciding what those characteristics are, right. Ok, so you go to your distributor and get beans. So they arrive at Carpe Diem. What’s the process by which you go … in a high level again, what does roasting look like? What is that process look like?

Alan: Well, once we receive the green beans in, we have a coffee roaster itself. Ours is a gas fired, cast iron drum, we do everything manually, you load the green beans in, bring them up to a temperature in three roasting process, the coffee will go through two distinct phases, first being a first crack, that’s when the moisture inherited in the bean expands to the point where structurally the bean can’t hold the pressure anymore, and it will, literally and audibly, crack a little bit to allow the steam to escape, so that’s an important process point for us through roasting.  We’ll log that. The whole time through the roasting process we’re adjusting the temperature and airflow on the batch to kind of tailor the roast profile to match the cup characteristics that we’re trying to draw out of a particular coffee. So, once all the beans have gone through the first crack… for darker roast, they would actually go through a second popping process which definitely lets you know you passed any kind of light or medium roast, you’re getting into full city in dark roast, but that’s when the oils of the darker roast will start to draw out.  Once they’re done, open the main door of the drum, we drop all the coffee down, we’ve got  a giant perforated cooling tray and we’ll air cool the beans as quickly as possible just to kind of help the aroma and stop that roasting process.

Marcus: And also makes Carpe Diem smells like heaven [laughter]. When you sit down to have a cup of coffee, is there a particular region or particular roast or anything that you really preferred?

Alan: Personally, double espresso.

Marcus: Double espresso.

Alan: Double espresso, splash a half and half.

Marcus: Interesting.

Alan: Just enough to cool it off. But as far as coffees go, I love African coffees, again, because of their brightness and acidities. I’d say Kenyan's on the whole, are probably my life long favorite in the coffee's, just because they do have a nice body to go along with that acidity and very balanced.

Marcus: Very cool. So, as an entrepreneur, what’s the one most important thing that you’ve learned? I mean, I know that you studied business, as you mentioned earlier, and then purchased Carpe Diem, so you’ve obviously… there’s been some garnering of information here that you might be able to pass something onto another person that’s just getting started. What would be one thing that you would say to that entrepreneur that’s just getting started?

Alan: You know, for a small business starting out I’d say is important to pay attention to all aspects of your business. You might have a personal interest in say, one particular element of the overall business, but they all interplay and they each affect, any one area of the business has an effect on the rest of the business and is important to keep kind of a global perspective on the entire operation and not lose sight of any one part.

Marcus: Right, that’s really good. Is there an area of the business that you’re putting a lot of effort into?

Alan: Just recently?

Marcus: Yes.

Alan: Like a current thing? We actually spent this past summer in… we’ve got some interlace I guess trying to just make the customer experience more comfortable, we brought in a couple seating's such as love seats, chairs, kind of rearranged a little bit. We’ve been looking at new menu items to bring in, just kind of change it up a little bit. We often have a very loyal customer of men day after day after day and we…

Marcus: They want to see something new and exciting.

Alan: Yes, exactly, exactly.

Marcus: Liven it up a little bit.

Alan: So we brought in new products, and dessert, and coffees, we’ve been trying to feature a special offering at times, get one or two bags in of something very special from some very select small region, bringing a coffee of note that we don’t ordinarily carry, just a little something extra.

Marcus: It’s cool, I want to get on that mailing list [Laughter] so, tell me, are there any helpful tools, and this could be anything from a website or an organization that you’re a member of, a book that you’ve read… anything.

Alan: Oh well, there’s a lot. In my specific industry, the Specialty Coffee Association of America is a great resource, the information they have available for members, in all aspects to coffee, is just enormous and it’s a huge resource. I’ll tell you two books that kind of had a… regarding business would be Freakonomics or Tipping Point. Both of those kind of showed me, they encouraged me not only to think outside the box but also be aware of being positive or negative that and just kind of way, kind of take all that into consideration before making a decision. Look at other potential impacts before.

Marcus: Going back to your idea, paying attention to all... it’s interesting to me that occasionally as business owners, there’s an area of the business that is screaming at us but it may not be very important to address it, right? And so you’re going, you address that, but while you’re doing that something else pops up over in this side of the business, and so you go over and you address that, is always kind of this magical dance of trying to keep all the plates spinning. I just find that very interesting, I actually enjoy it.

Alan: Absolutely, but you’re right, there’s no… it’s not a compartmentalized…

Marcus: They’re all intertwined, yes.

Alan: They’re all intertwined and you might just dive head first into one particular project and as soon as you do, ten other things might pop up and it’s… that’s what keeps it interesting, no two bags are the same.

Marcus: I find that many business owners own their businesses, but they also have hobbies that allow them to stay balanced. What do you do in your free time?

Alan: Oh! Pretty much anything outside, I love to fish, love to camp, love to go to the beach, love to travel.

Marcus: Outdoor stuff? You’re in the right place for fishing, so are you in the offshore?

Alan: Pretty much inshore, I enjoy a couple of offshore trips a year, but I probably do a lot more inshore fishing.

Marcus: Very cool. So, an average day, what does that look like for you? Do you wake up at a specific time? Do you have a cup of coffee first thing? Do you look at emails? Do you go to the gym? Do you go for a walk? Take the dog out.

Alan: You know, I tend to get that done in the evening, and so seeing as how I work later, I kind of take my time in the morning, getting into it. I typically wake up around 7, double espresso as soon as my feet hit the floor, do what I need to do around the house, get into work and as soon as I walk in the door, a lot of times before I even get to work, is answering emails, returning voicemails, the important things that had come up since the previous day. From there I kind of free up and address any kind of daily issues that might…

Marcus: Yes, ordering or whatever that might need to get taken care of.

Alan: Yes, just being training or business, building maintenance, adding new menu items, prices, just day-to-day operations in the middle of the day. Then around, say four or five o’clock, I can really go back in the office and handle more of the record keeping.

Marcus: Office stuff.

Alan: Office stuff, yes.  I tend to have less interruptions later in the afternoon into the evening.

Marcus: That’s the second time you’ve mentioned, first thing in the morning a double espresso. Do you have a machine at home?

Alan: I do not. Probably sacrilegious..., I will pull it though before I leave the shop at night and take them home with me.

Marcus: And warm them up?

Alan: And refrigerate them cold.

Marcus: Still and you have them cold…

Alan: Absolutely delicious.

Marcus: I’ll have to…

Alan: If I ever go camping, I’ll fill a water bottle with espresso and some half and half.

Marcus: That’s dedication [Laughter]

Alan: But yes, that’s just been my drink of convenience and choice for as long as I can remember.

Marcus: That’s really cool.

Alan: All day long, as well.

Marcus: Yes, I would imagine you have no shortage of caffeine at your disposal.  Well, tell us where people can find you. You’ve got the location in Spring Hill, Facebook, website, phone number? Those kinds of things.

Alan: Oh, absolutely, our location, Spring Hills on Old Shell Road, 4072 Old Shell Road is directly across from Spring Hill College, Old Shell entrance. We’ve got a website that my brother actually helped us develop, it’s carpe-coffee.com, there’s a very cool online store there, as well as our food menu. Facebook, we definitely have a Facebook page, you can obviously search Carpe Diem Coffee and Tea Company, I believe the actually Facebook address is facebook.com/seizetheday95 and if you ever need to give us a call, phone number’s 251-304-0448.

Marcus: Great, well I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. To wrap up, any final thought or comments you’d like to share?

Alan: No, I just really appreciate you all having me in today and it’s been nice talking with you all and I hope to see you all soon.

Marcus: Yes, very cool. Well, I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner and entrepreneur. It was great talking to you.

Alan: And you as well. Thank you.