Longbottom's longevity: From the (coffee) ground up
Most customers at the little coffeehouse on Northwest 235th Avenue in North Hillsboro have no idea what takes place amid the stacks of burlap sacks.
Through a pair of windows, customers at Longbottom Coffee and Tea, 4893 N.W. 235th Ave., can see workers carting bags of green coffee beans around the warehouse, filling the big hoppers and bins with freshly roasted beans. The café smells of butterscotch some days, or of whichever new blend is on promotion, but the real experience is much more intimate.
The heart of Longbottom's operation, and the secret to 36 years of success amid competitors' rapid expansion, is on display just as the roasting machine completes its quarter-hour cycle.
Muffled by the rush of the gas burners, a little round hole opens in the front of the machine allowing dark beans to cascade into a waiting trough. Hints of smoke curl around the beans as they fall, nearly ready to be whisked into containers to await packaging.
The air-drying process has been a hallmark for Longbottom since opening in 1981 near the Hillsboro Airport. The business moved to its present location near Hillsboro Stadium in 2003, and while the machines have been upgraded, the process has not.
General Manager Leo Chung can control the two roasters from his office upstairs. Each roast has special settings, allowing Longbottom to chase a specific flavor and tune a blend to a customer's wishes.
Coffee is a fickle business, Chung said, bending to the will of the consumer while also carrying a burden to educate the consumer — especially as new generations of coffee roasters make their mark. To the early mass-producers like Folgers, coffee was simply a beverage.
That game has changed, and changed again.When Starbucks came on the scene with a darker roasting style, Chung said, everyone else followed. Specialty coffee was popular, but coffee could go deeper.
"If you go darker, you actually taste more of the roast process than the actual bean," Chung said.
Now, because of a new wave roasters like Stumptown Coffee, companies are starting to lighten roasts to get more of the underlying coffee taste.
"People want a strong coffee, and they tend to think strong like lots of caffeine and bold and want a dark roast, but a dark roast actually has the least amount of caffeine."
Longbottom is part of the second wave of roasters. The company focuses on blends and has a number of flavored coffees and seeks to be one-stop shopping for independent coffee houses.
Several of the employees have been with the company for decades, and Chung said President and CEO Michael Baccellieri has gotten interest from prospective buyers — only to turn them down and continue running the company locally.
Longbottom sells wholesale coffee to order, but it also helps support its customers with setup of a new location, training and management support. The model, Chung said, is about being more of a business partner than a wholesaler, and the strategy has helped Longbottom grow from a local roaster into a regional presence.
Longbottom is served in 1,000 coffee shops and restaurants across the country.
"Most of our business is in the Pacific Northwest — up to Longview, out on the coast in Lincoln City, even a little further south and in central Oregon," Chung said. "And then from there, we have customers in Texas, California, Las Vegas, New York, Virginia. From there, it's just organic. People who leave here open up something over there or know someone opening up a store and say, 'Hey, you've got to try Longbottom.'"
Longbottom has contracts with office coffee suppliers, too, and its coffee is served on the Nike campus near Beaverton. Longbottom is in its second year as a sponsor for the Hillsboro Hops.
Even with Longbottom's history and relative visibility in the area, competition is still tough, Chung said. In the early 1980s there weren't many roasters in Portland. Now, there are multiple roasters in Hillsboro alone.
"It's a tough market," Chung said. "Especially in our area, it's pretty saturated. We're trading customers with each other, and there's not a whole lot of new business activity. It's starting to get better, but for a time there nobody was opening."
Chains like Dutch Bros. and Black Rock play a role, too, forcing Longbottom to rethink its marketing focus. The company underwent a minor rebranding in the last several years and is giving more attention to coffee drinkers than in the past, but don't expect Longbottom to change its business model anytime soon.
John William Howard
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