Craig Gualtiere considers himself "some lucky idiot from Amarillo" when he's telling a story of the time he rubbed elbows with Snoop Dog at the Super Bowl. But Craig is definitely no idiot. He's brewed the bean juice that fuels Amarillo for over 20 years now at several Roaster's Coffee & Tea Company locations. He went from managing the first one, to owning it, then to expanding the brand to it's current mainstay status.
Others have come and gone... and are still coming, but Roasters remains. Coffee sliced and diced a hundred new ways maybe the trend, but Roasters isn't necessarily playing that game. In a sense because they've already won it. When Steve Thatcher first opened the shop, it was on the heels of his '91 or '92 coffee epiphany. He had gone on a trip to the Northwest, and thought: Amarillo has to experience this. Heck, most of America hadn't experienced specialty coffee at that time. For reference, Starbucks had approx. 400 stores then, today they have over 7,000 in the U.S. The American espresso coffee market was young when Roasters Coffee & Tea Company opened their first location. And they do one better than the vast majority of specialty coffee shops across the nation by roasting their beans a mere 10 feet from the place they'll be ground and brewed (so does Amarillo's Evocation).
Craig says he was hooked after tasting his first mocha in '92. He managed the shop for five years before buying it in '98. While coffee has grown to meet the needs of the niche, Craig hasn't been one to jump ship on the style of dark-roasted beans Roasters was founded on. If you're not into coffee, you might not know, but its focus on variables has become similar to wine in its potential for outright geekery. In the beginning, most specialty coffee was "full-city" dark roast, think big and robust, mostly. Now you have growing fanfare for light roasted beans, think a bit more delicate on the tongue. If you need proof of this reality, just look at Starbucks. A couple of years ago they introduced a whole line of light roasted styles called Blonde. Roasters have stuck by their full-city roast guns since the beginning, but not out of defiance.
Roasters gives people what they want. Period. Light roasts just don't please their customer base and that's one thing Craig is committed to above all else. For instance, he now stocks coconut milk after recieving a couple of requests.
He says, "And it's something additional we have to stock, order, and maintain; but it's what a few people want and it makes them happy we have it... And therefore us happy to offer it."
Craig says two people have recently thanked him for adding coconut milk to the menu, and to him, that's what the coffee business is all about. He should know, too, in the last 10 years his business has more than doubled despite increased competition and one fewer store. The coffee business is about people to Craig, plain and simple. It's not about new-fangled brew methods, roasting styles, or stripped-down menus; it's about meeting each customer's needs. He knows how to do that, too. He's very observant and equally curious about people.
He laughs, "It's crazy, too, because I've been doing this 20 years now and I see kids go off to college; I've seen people meet in here and get married; I just like watching people and interacting, you know? They're funny, people are. The way they order, the way they hand their money, the things they'll say on a busy morning at the register. I just love it."
Craig loves his employees too. He attributes much of his recent success to the "best staff in my 20 years of doing this. They all just care, and they all get it." David Cooper, his GM and one of two roasters, agrees. He actually roasted beans all over the U.S. before coming back home to Amarillo to reconnect with Craig as Roasters was really taking off. Craig and David talk about the equipment they've forked over for in order to meet the rising demands. There are maybe only a handful of coffee shops across America that have the heavy machinery Roasters has deployed in order to get customers in and out as quickly as they do while delivering premium product. Everything from their state-of-the-art roaster to their 2 La Marzocco GB5s ($17k a piece) and grinder battery is dialed in for caffeine-delivery consistency and speed.
It's this focus on giving the market what it wants that's allowed Roaster's to amass their loyal following over the years. People get in fights when it comes to Roasters vs. Starbucks in Amarillo. Craig said, in his old location, there was even a divorce decree that stipulated a woman would get Roaster's and her ex-husband would have to drink coffee elsewhere so she wouldn't have to see him again.
Craig says, "People are very loyal."
It's easy to be, to a place like Roasters, where every morning for 20 years the owner works the register only because he loves it.
Oh yeah, Snoop Dog. Craig's conversational curiosity led him to chat up a guy on an airplane several years ago who happened to work for NFL Films. Long story short, for the past nine years, Craig Gualtiere, self-proclaimed "lucky idiot from Amarillo", is a member of the only press corp. with on-field access during the week leading up to the Super Bowl. One year, he actually bumped into the D-O-double-G. He says every year, he looks into the full stands, from the field, thinks about millions watching and is amazed by the simple fact he's there.
But it was just a desire to connect with the people around him that got him there. When I asked Craig if he could be just as happy running another kind of business or if his love for his job was based purely on coffee he replied, "there's nothing like coffee, even if you eat out every day, you're probably not going to a place more than once or twice a week... but with coffee, we get to see lots of our customers every day."