Dedicated to sustainability,education and the perfect cup of coffee
Brett Smith is the President and co-founder of Counter Culture Coffee, the small wholesale coffee company with the very big reputation.
The story of the company’s start is one of serendipity. Smith’s co-founding partner, Fred Houk had been in the local coffee business already for a number of years before the two met. At the time, Smith was just coming out of business school and looking for a great opportunity to arise.
“I wanted to find a company to either buy or start, and it wasn’t because of a long-life passion for coffee,” he explains. “In fact, I knew very little about coffee. But in business school at the time, 1993-94, I went to a class called “New Ventures,” and in that class a group gets together and presents a business plan. One of the business plans was from Mail Order Coffee Company. So, I saw this presentation and it caught my eye.”
Smith had some experience working for T. Rowe Price Financial Firm in Baltimore, where he says he was exposed to the financial markets and learned that Starbucks was the talk of Wall Street. He came back to his second year of business school and got the business plan for the Mail Order Coffee Company, and was introduced to a local coffee company where he met Houk. Smith’s sister lived in Seattle and her positive talk of Starbucks there continued to help nudge Smith in the direction of coffee as an interesting business opportunity.
“I really feel like I stumbled onto it and it’s so much bigger than I anticipated, not only in size, but in scope,” he says. “Working with farmers, working with people throughout the world in interesting and exotic places, and then with James Beard Award-winning chefs. That whole spectrum is just an amazing thing. Knock on wood, but I feel like I was so lucky in stumbling upon it.”
Counter Culture Coffee sold its first coffee in 1995 to Pop’s restaurant in Durham. Today, in addition to countless mom-n-pop coffee shops, the company sells to well-known local restaurants like Magnolia Grill, Nana’s, and Crook’s Corner, as well as specialty grocery stores such as Fresh Market, Whole Foods, and Dean & Deluca. Counter Culture Coffee is based in Durham and has seven different offices, including New York, Chicago, and Atlanta.
Smith says that part of his earliest motivation was to build and be part of a company that was a great place to work.
”From the beginning, I always tried to find and tried to attract, or create a place that would attract smart people,” he explains. “I never really looked closely at résumés and looked for the pedigree of education. That’s important, there’s a time and place for that, but I think that either by accident or intentionally, the way things evolved is that we have been able to put together a collection of really bright people that might have done different things than a traditional MBA path might have been.”
Smith explains that having many employees with backgrounds in music, art, and theater have made Counter Culture Coffee’s atmosphere a very dynamic and interesting one. Co-owner Peter Giuliano sets the tone for this creative vibe.
“He’s one of the best coffee people in the country,” says Smith. “He can play just about any musical instrument that he picks up. He speaks multiple languages. He’s an incredibly bright, creative guy. So, I think that the overall group is very creative, but I really refer to us all the time as laid back type A’s. We all really want to succeed, we’re all driven by trying to get better, by trying to push ourselves, and what I’ve tried to do is encourage.”
Treating the people involved with the entire coffee-growing process fairly is a big part of Counter Culture’s mission also, and Smith explains that this approach makes good business sense.
“We sell coffee, so having a consistent supply of quality coffee is pretty important, and the best way for us to do that is to go back and make sure that the people that are growing it are treated fairly,” explains Smith. “And make sure that the people that are growing it have every opportunity to continue increasing their wages and increasing their quality of life. On one level it’s the right thing to do, but on another level, it’s the right thing to do for the business perspective as well, and I think this is truly a situation where the right thing to do and the best business decision is the right thing together. It’s not a compromise.”
Counter Culture Coffee was into sustainability long before it became a buzz word. The company has a producer relations manager, whose job is to take care of their suppliers, to visit farms, co-ops and growing groups, and work with them to create strong partnerships, many of which have lasted for years. These long-term relationships, which are rare in the industry, have allowed the farmers to reinvest in their schools and in their standard of living.
One such program that Counter Culture Coffee has started is SEEDS, which stands for Supporting Environmental Education Development and Source. A penny a pound goes to a fund which their partners can apply to with the goal of accomplishing a specific project, such as building a worm composting system. These projects contribute to the farm’s success and well-being, and ultimately to better coffee production.
In addition, Counter Culture is very open with their partners about finances.
“We sign what we call transparency contracts where every single person in the supply chain knows what everyone else is making,” says Smith. “So the farmer knows what the exporter’s making, and what the importer’s making, and what we’re making, what we’re paying. So everybody on the way gets to see the flow of money.”
Smith emphasizes that these kinds of actions establish rapport and trust and are part of building relationships that will carry the company into the future.
“It just seems sort of intuitive to me that if you treat your customers well, they’ll buy from you,” he says. “If you really treat employees well, they’ll stick around and be very productive. If you treat your suppliers well, they’ll continue supplying, and to me, treating them well is looking out and taking a long-term view. I guess I’ve always viewed sustainability as taking a really long-term view. We always talk about the fact that this is a marathon, not a sprint, and the goal is not to maximize this year. It’s to maximize the next fifty years, and you don’t get that in your first year.”
Counter Culture Coffee is well on its way to becoming a national brand, and Smith says that on days he is feeling brave, the idea of going international isn’t out of the question.
“I think that we’re in a very good place as a coffee company. We have a strong brand, and we’ve worked really hard to build a very strong foundation,” he says.
With a reputation already established in cities like Boston and Chicago, Smith says he’d like to grow the company’s sales efforts and distribution nationwide over the next three to five years, including building a roasting facility in San Francisco to service the western part of the U.S.
Social media has also helped the company achieve its ever-expanding reputation.
“We actually have had a visitor in town from Korea, and he said, ‘Yeah, everybody in Korea knows about Counter Culture.’ Which floors me, says Smith. “We are a company that is primarily on the east coast of the United States, and we’re a tiny company. I always find that fascinating, and it just floors me. It’s very flattering. I always scratch my head and smile, and say great!”
Smith says that the advice he received from his step-father to follow his passion has proven more than true.
“When I was first coming out of business school, there was the temptation to go to much higher paying jobs, and that’s fine,” he relates. “Of course, I have financial goals with Counter Culture and I think I will exceed them greatly, but the goal was to find something that I really wanted to do and I’m really, really passionate about and that’s a cliché these days but it’s so true.”
“Today I have friends that have done amazingly well financially, and that’s great, more power to them. But I have zero regrets because I wanted to build a company that I was really proud of, and the financial upside was a part of that, but the best advice was to do it for the right reasons.”