Bay Area business can be ruthless, with competing entities constantly trying to dominate each other right out of business.
It’s a little bit different at CoRo in Berkeley.
Bay Area CoRoasters, also known as CoRo, is a co-roaster to more than 20 separate, small coffee companies who come to the Fifth Street facility to process their beans. Including its four full-time employees, and eight part-timers, CoRo employs, or helps employ, about 50 people.
“If our roasters outgrow us, we’ll throw them a party,” says Tim Hansen, co-founder and head of innovation.
That’s not typically something Peet’s does for Starbuck’s.
“Because we’re sharing equipment among the brands we can afford better equipment,” says co-founder and CEO Floy Andrews, walking through the production area of the 4,500-square-foot space. Members pay an all-inclusive membership fee, based on the size of the roaster they use and time spent roasting.
Sharing is important at CoRo, which officially launched in 2016 and was named one of the standout new cafes of 2018 by Roast magazine. Hansen says CoRo is “the second coffee co-roasting space in the U.S. The first is in Brooklyn.”
Hansen was a project manager who wanted to try the coffee business. He and a partner moved into the building in 2012, roasting a single brand, but there was just too much space. Then his roaster quit.
That might have been fortuitous. Hansen teamed up with Andrews, who worked for a tech incubator.
“I wanted to do something entrepreneurial.” Hansen says. “I thought ‘This person can make the place thrive.’” The pair met through common friend Joan Blades, the Berkeley tech executive and co-founder of advocacy group MoveOn.org.
“The people who roast here, on a very high level, do not compete with each other,” says Hansen. “They share information.”
Specialization helps fuel the communal vibe. One roaster is a fireman who only sells to firehouses. One sells to faith-based groups. Another sells to organic wholesalers.
“There’s so many ways to sell coffee,” Andrews says. “Part of the culture we’ve created here is that it’s not cutthroat. It’s a culture of support.”
Filmmaker Lobsang Thinley came to the United States from Tibet in 2010. He took a roasting class at CoRo and now owns Berkeley’s Higher Land Coffee. He targets events like the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival and the Himalayan Fair in Berkeley.
“Higher Land” has multiple meanings, Thinley explains. One refers to the high elevations where his beans grow. Lower oxygen levels stress beans in a way that makes them sweeter. Today he and his wife, Sabrina Zheng, are roasting beans from India.
“I can’t afford to have a big roaster and, thankfully, I found CoRo,” says Thinley, pouring beans into a machine taller than him. “Here we meet people; we talk to people. I’m learning about the history of the coffee. We try to get coffee from small farmers. We want to connect with them.”
CoRo’s affiliates import their beans through the Port of Oakland. With larger quantities stored near the port, beans get delivered to each brand’s dedicated space at CoRo. Each comes in to roast about once a week.
“Our weather and our port make this a great importing spot,” Andrews says. “We have access to a huge amount of green coffee beans. We have different sized roasters. If you’re a little company, you start with the little roaster and, as you grow, you can go to the bigger roaster.”
The equipment is environmentally friendly. An air scrubber condenses smoke from roasting with water. “We’re one of the first to use the technology for coffee roasting,” says Andrews.
The operation opened its coffee shop about a year ago. Today, nearly every table is occupied by people and devices. The café, with skylights and a splash of 1920s industrial style, was designed by architect Rick Irving, known for his restaurant design. They sell four brands every quarter, rotating between their member roasters.
“People seek us out for that,” says Andrews. “They love switching brands and having different choices. It’s super high-quality beans.”
Because coffee is, by nature, an international industry, CoRo has its collective eye on climate change and working conditions in coffee-growing nations. CoRo will host a fundraiser for women coffee producers in Honduras, from 5:30-9 p.m. Oct. 1 at its headquarters, at 2322 Fifth Street in Berkeley. Every dollar raised will be matched with $1.50 from Rotary International, to provide microloans for on-the-ground business training and oversight from local finance professionals, helping give women a voice in their communities. The event will feature drinks, food, games, and music.
With its innovative approach, CoRo is deeply tied into Berkeley’s supportive business networks. Andrews is an active advisor to the Women Entrepreneurs of Berkeley, a group started by Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development (OED) to help local female entrepreneurs connect, learn and lead. The group is now a network within the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce.
CoRo was featured as Berkeley’s 2018 “Manufacturer of the Year” in the Bay Area Urban Manufacturing Initiative’s Manufacturing the Dream campaign, which captures the unique stories of people who work in the Bay Area’s 7,500 manufacturing companies. To celebrate National Manufacturing Day (Oct. 4), OED will host public tours of CoRo roastery and tasting room – among other Berkeley manufacturing facilities – the first week of October.
This story was paid for by the City of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development which helps new and established Berkeley businesses build strong connections to the community, navigate local policies, find affordable financing and real estate, and become more sustainable. OED staff help entrepreneurs, artists and community organizations feel welcome in Berkeley.