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Brewed in recession, Roasters Coffee now perking

Roasters Coffee debuted its seventh store Aug. 5 at 22 W. Carmichael Drive in downtown Kennewick. Roasters will add more stores in the coming year.
Roasters Coffee debuted its seventh store Aug. 5 at 22 W. Carmichael Drive in downtown Kennewick. Roasters will add more stores in the coming year. Tri-City Herald

Seven years ago, when Wes Heyden opened the first Roasters Coffee in Pasco, banks wouldn’t give him the time of day. Now, they’re lining up for his business.

It’s not surprising. Heyden debuted Roasters Coffee at 2525 N. 20th Ave. in 2009 in the teeth of the Great Recession. Banks weren’t lending to longtime customers, much less startups.

“I pretty much had to max out my credit cards,” he said.

It spat out coffee and we were sort of able to cover it up with flavor

Wes Heyden, Roasters Coffee

There was no instant success. In its first year, Roasters flirted with bankruptcy and baristas worked for tips. Heyden, the baristas and the growing legion of customers persevered.

Today, Roasters is a thriving concern on the cusp of expanding beyond the Tri-Cities. Its founder dreams of franchising the Roasters concept in the not-too-distant future.

The company hit a milestone this month when it opened its seventh spot, a coffeehouse at 22 W. Carmichael Drive in downtown Kennewick, near Big 5 Sporting Goods and Kennewick High School.

Its eighth and ninth stores will open at Queensgate and in Walla Walla by the end of 2017.

Heyden is a longtime coffee shop operator who began with Dutch Bros. Coffee, based in Grants Pass, Ore.

A southern Oregonian, he’d worked for Dutch Bros. stores and worked his way up to franchisee.

He moved to the Tri-Cities to open the chain’s Clearwater Avenue location. He owned and operated the franchise for two years before parting amicably — the company’s growth plan didn’t match his own ambitions.

“All I want to do, entrepreneurially, is expand,” he said.

Heyden financed the original Roasters with personal savings and $80,000 in credit card debt.

The bootstrap approach is actually very common for entrepreneurs, said Thomas Allison, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Washington State University’s Pullman campus.

It’s all the more impressive that Heyden started in a recession, though the low cost of leasing equipment and space may have worked in his favor.

The original store broke even, but interest payments threatened its future. Within six months, he was facing bankruptcy. He and his wife lived on her nurse’s salary.

Instead of folding, Heyden doubled down. He leased the former Espresso World site, 496 George Washington Way, in Richland. He remodeled the interior himself and purchased coffee gear at recession prices on Craigslist.

Like its sister, the Richland store was breaking even, but not much more. When he couldn’t afford to pay his baristas, they opted to work for tips.

It was a learning moment for Roasters. Heyden and his staff memorized their customers’ names, their drinks, where they worked and what they did. The personal connections paid off in growth.

Encouraged, Heyden opened a third Roasters, at 2000 N. Columbia Center Blvd. in Kennewick. The rent was cheap and the building came furnished with a good-enough coffee machine.

“It spat out coffee, and we were sort of able to cover it up with flavor,” he recalled.

The arrangement lasted three years and inspired a fresh epiphany. The coffee shop operator wasn’t happy with “good enough.” He embraced the nuanced world of coffee roasting.

It spat out coffee and we were sort of able to cover it up with flavor

Wes Heyden, Roasters Coffee

He immersed himself in the world of high-end beans, learning from whatever source he could find.

Roasters began roasting beans for its shops and wholesale clients in 2011. The move to the high end of the market attracted attention. Heyden teamed with Tim Bush, a Tri-City business leader, which helped Roasters secure spots in prominent shopping districts, including Pasco’s Road 68 and at Kennewick’s Southridge.

The growing economy and busy stores transformed the business. It bought new equipment. It retired the credit card debt. It attracted banks eager to supply the established company with services and credit.

“They started to say, ‘Hey, this guy is not a fly-by-night operator,’ ” he said.

With its two newest stores, at Southridge and in downtown Kennewick, Roasters straddles its future and its past. The polished Southridge Roasters could serve as a model for future franchises.

The company doesn’t yet franchise, but Heyden is developing a program to build the business through franchises.

The downtown store is a nod to its early history. It replicated the red and black color scheme of the first Pasco store and is comfortably furnished with thrift-store finds.

“The location is urban,” Heyden said. “You see the street signs. We wanted to make it feel like something you’d find in the city.”

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell

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