March 7th, 2017

Roasting Passion on 16th Street

by Ryan Puckett

How passion led two guys to start a coffee roasting business on the Near Northside of Indianapolis.

For a short time during the 1980s, the ever-touring Grateful Dead played a song titled “Keep Your Day Job” until their uber-passionate fans successfully petitioned the band to remove the song from its repertoire. Perhaps it was too cheesy or perhaps too ironic for carefree Deadheads.

The song was all about making sure you could pay your bills while trying to turn your passion into pay with lines such as “Whether you like that job or not/Keep it on ice while you’re lining up your long shot.

When Steve Hall decided to open Tinker Coffee Company with Jeff Johnson in 2014, he knew he couldn’t just quit his “day job.” The idea of quitting his job, starting a business, and just hoping for the best simply was not financially feasible.

“That’s a big shock,” Hall told me over a smooth cup of Guatemalan coffee on a typical Indiana winter morning.

So how did these brothers-in-law with zero experience in the coffee industry decide to open up a specialty coffee roaster business on East 16th Street between Herron-Morton and the Old Northside in Indianapolis?

“Jeff was like, ‘Do you think we could start a coffee roasting business? Do you think we could actually learn how to do it?” explained Steve. “Nobody was really pushing the industry forward like they are in other cities.”

Steve and Jeff, whose wives are sisters, were ready to try something new. Steve was working for One Click Ventures as a digital marketer and Jeff was a consultant with IBM travelling the globe. It was Jeff who caught the specialty coffee bug first. While Steve was in Indiana sucking down Red Eyes, Jeff’s itinerary allowed him to try coffees from around the world. Jeff helped Steve understand there was this whole world of flavor out there.

Just as wine and varietals of grapes and regions produce different flavors and nuances, so does coffee. Or consider how peaches you might find during the summer at a farmer’s market taste different from another local farm, or one from Michigan or Georgia. The distinctions are subtle, but unique.

They started “drinking from fire hoses” and getting more and more into the idea of roasting coffee as their day job. They had to teach themselves everything from how to roast, to how to buy coffee, to all of the operational and financial necessities of running a small business.

Tinker focuses on single-origin coffee and takes an educational approach with its business mission by highlighting the individuality of each coffee.

“We like to express those differences,” said Hall as he explained to me how Tinker is trying to create “memorable coffee experiences.” As a result, Tinker offers training to its business customers to help them better understand everything that goes into consistently delivering a quality cup of coffee.

Tinker also holds cupping classes on Sundays. The classes are equal parts enlightening, tasty and fun. (Note to the caffeine-curious: There’s currently a two-month wait.)

Tinker has even developed a small service component to its business to help cafes, offices and restaurants fine-tune their brewing equipment. It’s all part of their approach to provide their customers with the absolute best service possible. Another part of Tinker’s success was bringing in Dylan Morse who has a ton of experience in the hospitality industry.

According to Steve, “If we help [our customers] serve the best coffee possible, we will succeed.”

But how did they know they’d be successful? What made a sales and marketing guy and a spreadsheet guru think they could buy a small building on 16th Street and roast coffee for a living? What about their day jobs?

There’s no magic formula or BuzzFeed quiz to determine if you should try and strike out on your own. For Steve, the decision began with confidence.

“We thought—the thing we want to do doesn’t exist [in Indianapolis] and we really want to see it exist,” recalled Steve. “We felt like, ‘We can’t fail, we’re not gonna fail, we’re gonna do it!’”

There was also a confidence in their neighborhood and the building they purchased. With the building’s large picture windows, they hoped to remove some of the mystery of coffee roasting and have people see coffee roasting in action. The cupping classes only support that mission.

They also knew they wanted to be part of their neighborhood and opened shop on a corridor that’s made a big comeback in recent years precipitated by the opening of Foundry Provisions in 2013 (which serves Tinker coffee). Steve also notes the momentum behind craft brewing and how that taste for supporting local would apply to coffee roasting too.

But ultimately, it was passion that inspired the Tinker team to make the bold move that’s already paying dividends on the bottom line and in the form of professional satisfaction. As the chorus of the old Dead tune advises, “keep your day job, ‘til your night job pays.”

Thinking of other budding entrepreneurs with an idea for a local business, I asked Steve for his best advice?

“You cannot start a business if you do not love everything about that business. And while we loved the coffee business, we’ve grown to love everything about it. If you don’t have that real, innate passion, you’ll burn out or you’ll get discouraged. All three of us have the same passion for coffee and delivering a high-quality product. We didn’t know how passionate you could be.”