How I Built a Business Based on Hawaii’s finest coffees

By, Raymond Suiter, Founder, Kona Coffe Purveyors and Volcano Coffee Roasters as told to PBN intern Braelyn Wood.

I started drinking coffee as a young boy up in Seattle, but I was putting eight sugars and tons of cream in it. When I was 18 years old, I worked for a coffee bean merchant in Seattle. That’s when I started to really love the smell and the feel and the taste of coffee.

In 1991, I started Honolulu Coffee Co. with a small kiosk downtown called Cafe Vienna. I named it that because I fell in love with the cafes in Vienna.

Eight years later, I realized that I was in the only state that grows coffee and the name of my company is Cafe Vienna.  At that point, we did a gut check and I changed the name to Honolulu Coffee Co. when I opened the Ala Moana store.

The business grew over the next 9 years and people really liked our concept.  We got opportunities to open in the Moana Surfrider Hotel and at Wailea on Maui.  It eventually grew to six locations and I had roughly 100 employees, but I had really worked myself out of being close to the coffee bean.

When people from St. Louis kept asking me if they could buy the company, I made the deal to sell the stores so that I could focus on roasting coffee, which was the part I really loved.  I had even put a roaster in the Ala Moana store, but it was not sustainable to roast all the coffee for my stores at that small in-store roaster.  I really wanted to go back to that part of it.

When I sold Honolulu Coffee Co. in 2008, I started Kona Coffee Purveyors, which focuses on pure, single-estate, high-elevation Kona that we carefully roast.

My vision with Kona Coffee Purveyors was to really raise the bar on the quality of Kona coffee and still have a family business.  I wanted Kona coffee to be something people would spend $40 a pound for and understand why when they tasted it.  When I started roasting in 1999, Kona coffee was the second most recognized coffee in the world.  I also chose to focus on Kona coffee because it is hand-harvested; they pick only the ripe coffee berries and will go back 15 times to pick them only when they’re ready.  You lose something when you mechanically harvest coffee.

It’s very much a family business, which ins due to the help of my wife, Jackie, and my assistant TK Yamada.  They’re a huge part of this business’s success.

Kona Coffee Purveyors is really a very special product for us.  It’s provided mostly to speciality coffee stores around the country and sold on our website.  We want people to buy our coffee because they love our coffee, not because our coffee is cheap.

We also realize that Kona coffee is not in everyone’s budget.  We realized that restaurants and cafes downtown might not be able to afford Kona coffee, but they can afford high-quality coffee.  That led us to recently start Volcano Coffee Roasters, which is being built out of a desire to help coffee quality go up in restaurants around downtown.  Volcano Coffee Roasters is going to be coffee associated with the name.  A lot of coffee comes from places with volcanoes because the soil and the weather that naturally occur attribute flavor to the coffee. It also says Hawaii without saying Hawaii because the Big Island is volcanoes.

This will be our opportunity to go out and introduce great coffee to chefs or cafe owners with a price point that works within their budget.  There’s a culture of coffee in America and in Hawaii that’s whoever is going to give me free equipment is the business that I’m going to sign a contract with.  We’re going to change that.  We’re going to help people choose equipment for their restaurant and then we’re going to try to custom tailer a coffee for their business.  Whether it is a certain type of bean, or type of roast, we really want to create a flavor profile that they feel goes with their menu.

It will allow restaurant owners to serve coffee that’s not off a shelf somewhere; it’s actually a custom made drink for their restaurant, and that’s the heartbeat of Volcano.  Restauranteurs need to start prioritizing coffee, because what’s the last thing you taste of your dinner?  It’s usually coffee.  So, if you can have a coffee that really puts an exclamation point at the end of the dinner, then people will come back.

At Volcano Coffee Roasters, we taste the coffees before we buy them.  They, we need to tweak the roast of each coffee because every coffee is roasted differently and every coffee has a sweat spot.  Finding that sweet spot with each coffee takes roasting it different way and then cupping it.  Once we’ve found it, we can take the coffee rout to a restaurant and do a blind tasting with their current coffee.  Once they can taste the difference, I think they will realize how much it could chance.  I think Volcano has a big future in Hawaii.

Even if the focus of Volcano Coffee Roasters is not purely Kona coffee, that’s not to say we’re not going to have a Kona blend if it’s important to a restaurant to have one.  But, that’s not in everyone’s budget.

To put it this way, there’s great wine for $10 a bottle.  That doesn’t mean that Opus isn’t amazing, but you don’t always have the budget for Opus wine.  We want to provide a good coffee that people can drink every day.