Embracing an Uncertain Wave
Ottavio Siani, 29, is just a few months out from quitting his full-time office job. We sit together in Somerville on an Ikea couch, surrounded by an indoor rock climbing gym, a ping pong table, and a pop-up coffee stand. The name plate at the front of the portable counter reads “Triangle Coffee.” Siani opened Triangle Coffee on Sept. 1 inside Brooklyn Boulders Rock Climbing Gym and is relishing his new role as entrepreneur.
“I like having my hands in all of it. I like all of it,” Siani told me. He spent the morning fixing the building’s water pipe that had stopped working overnight. Triangle’s coffee stand relies on water tanks that need to be taken from under the counter and filled from a back room in the building.
The day-to-day is nothing like Siani’s previous work at the non-profit social investment fund, Root Capital, where he spent more than four years as both as a loan officer and coordinator for financial training to coffee cooperatives. Though his work in the specialty coffee industry helped inspire opening his own coffee enterprise.
Coffee is worth over $100 billion worldwide and is second, behind oil, as the highest traded commodity in the world. This in part is due to a growing third-wave coffee movement.
Imbibe Magazine’s Richard Reynolds described the meaning behind third-wave. “…the first wave represented the spread of coffee around the planet, culminating with the convenient but poor-quality freeze-dried coffee of the post- World War II era. The second wave, exemplified by Starbucks, saw the mass marketing of higher-quality arabica coffees and espresso beverages. The third wave is a response to the homogenization of the second, and its leaders are putting every assumption about coffee to the test."
The idea behind third-wave is basically to improve every part of the coffee process, from growing better coffee trees, fairly paying farmer producers, artisan roasting methods, and even latte art. It's a subset of the larger specialty coffee movement that has been growing since the 1970s.
Roasting companies like Stumptown and Blue Bottle are riding this wave as more consumers seek responsibly-sourced beans, high-quality taste, and a personal experience that Starbucks just can’t match. For example, Blue Bottle, which supplies to Triangle Coffee, shares origin trip stories on their website like this one to Sumatra, covering the experience of buying and tasting beans from Ketiara cooperative. When buying Blue Bottle coffee at one of their cafes or from one of their wholesale business partners, it's normal to have the same person both receive your order, take your payment, and make your coffee - probably using a pour over method or a Chemex, while answering your befuddled questions of how exactly the glass beaker-like device works. A company like Starbucks operates in contrast on a much larger scale, perfecting a conveyor-belt customer experience.
“In my travels for work, I found myself with buyers for specialty coffee companies like Stumptown,” Siani said. In fact, it was his time spent with industry experts from Stumptown and Blue Bottle who convinced him to open his own pop-up coffee business in Boston. Pop-up coffee refers to the temporary occupation of a coffee stand within a brick and mortar business.
“Looking around, I don’t think third-wave has hit Boston yet,” Siani said.
“In a place like Williamsburg in Brooklyn, you’ll see these kinds of businesses everywhere, but not in Boston.”
Siani hopes to bring the third-wave trend to Boston by way of Triangle Coffee pop-ups. He’s found help from his two other co-founders who, like Siani, found a professional path in their young careers through the specialty coffee industry.
Tommy McLarney, Triangle Coffee co-founder, fell into barista work after dropping out of college. Not knowing what he wanted to do with his life, he moved to Boston and started working as a cashier in a Cambridge cafe. “I knew I wanted to do something that was a craft,” he said. “Something that I could appreciate, and make people happy, but that I could also hone and grow in throughout years and years in an industry.”
That craft turned out to be making coffee when he moved from cashier to barista, later honing his skills outside Boston in Concord’s Haute Coffee. McLarney joined Triangle Coffee after answering a Craigslist ad with the opportunity to bring his skills and interest in helping grow a start-up.
For Annie Groff, another Triangle Coffee co-founder, she quit her Wholesale Accounts manager position at Blue Bottle to become a full-time barista for the start-up. “I’ve had to get used to wearing these again,” Groff pointed down to her new clogs - a style she hadn't worn since a high school restaurant job.
Siani, McLarney, and Groff all split the barista work throughout the week, serving a community of people who care about well-crafted specialty coffee. I asked all three of them if customers were willing to wait two to sometimes 15 minutes for a coffee. All three said no one has walked away yet because of the wait. It was just part of the experience.
“It’s a very passionate community,” McLarney said. “Everybody who’s in it, is in it because of their love of the product.”
According to co-owner of Brooklyn Boulders and frequent customer, Jeremy Balboni, Triangle Coffee is the best in Boston. “Coffee is about the combination of the bean, the machine, and the person making it,” he said. “[Triangle] happens to have three of the best that I’ve seen in Boston and that also makes the best coffee.”
But it’s still an uncertain market for Triangle Coffee. Siani doesn't pay himself yet – though he does pay his co-founders and hopes to break even at the end of the month. Triangle Coffee serves about 40 customers per weekday, which doubles on Saturdays and Sundays. Compare this to better known brick and mortar chains or niche cafes with die-hard patrons and those numbers can be reached in a morning shift alone. It's easy to understand why Siani is already focused on the company’s need to scale beyond the rock climbing gym. Within three months of opening, he’s already closing a deal to expand to a high-volume office space in downtown Boston.
Take a peek into Boston's coffee scene, and the city is ripe for the third-wave movement. A handful of downtown cafes like Thinking Cup, serving Stumptown coffee, and Render Coffee which serves Counter Culture and other guest roasters, have already pioneered the growing trend. On a wider scale, most Bostonians are aware of Dunkin’ Donuts now serving specialty coffee through their new dark roast and some may also know that the Boston Globe recently dedicated an entire lifestyle section to coffee in Double Shot.
In opening Triangle Coffee the three co-founders have struck a lesser known statistic: few young people take the risk of becoming entrepreneurs. While they have all worked in the coffee industry previously, the co-founders have also strayed from the majority of young professionals who seek stability over taking risks. Data analysis from the Kauffman Foundation suggests that the average age of entrepreneurs is actually rising. The largest growth in entrepreneurs is with 55 to 64-year-olds and the smallest growth is with 20 to 34-year-olds.
Furthermore, Andrew Yang, founder of Ventures for America, and author of Smart People Should Build Things, argues that too many young people chase traditional success rather than creating value. “Our culture of achievement has grown to emphasize visions of success that are, for the most part, fairly predictable,” Yang said in a Fast Company article.
While Siani navigates his way introducing a new kind of business for Boston regulators, straddling the traditional line between brick and mortar versus food trucks. Triangle Coffee is temporarily residing inside the rock climbing gym, but the whole business is on wheels and can be easily replicated free of any competition for now.
"I can't wait [to open new space downtown]. It's going to be a higher volume business but also different revenue channels, " he said. "You have a meeting and want [to serve] coffee - but you don't want a box o' joe." Siani wants to fill that space and many others with his pop-up coffee stand. As part of their mobile model, Triangle Coffee aims to be anything but predictable.
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