Starting A Pedal-Powered Coffee Roasting Business

Michael Russo
Founder, Firebean Coffee Roasters

Story by: Pat Walls – Founder of Starter Story
Photographs by: Starter Story
March 16th, 2019

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hey!, My name is Michael Russo and I’m a Coffee Pedaler. My family and I run a pedal-powered coffee roastery in Canada’s beautiful Yukon Territory.

We call it Firebean Coffee Roasters and what makes us different is that we use a stationary bicycle and wood-fire to roast our small batches of coffee off-grid in the Boreal Forest. We liken it to a maple sugar shack, but for coffee. It’s low tech and high Craft and we love surprising people with great coffee made with rudimentary equipment.

Our flagship product is freshly roasted Fair Trade and Organic Coffee, Particularly the BUSHFIRE BLEND FIREWEED BLEND and our DARK roast. We love doing local collaborations some of those include a beer with Winterlong Brewing, coffee soaps with Berry Blue Toes Apothocary, a coffee sour with Deep Dark Wood brewing and an espresso biscotti with Yukon Chocolate Company. This is to name a few!
We cater to a small group of local followers and also touch on the incoming tourist traffic via some gift shops, Fireweed Summer Market and special events, We are fortunate and grateful to live in such a supportive community of awesome people!

The business is paying for itself and provides a small take home to contribute to our family. We have seen steady growth month after month and we see no reason why we can’t continue to grow.

What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I’m a life-long learner.

I believe in play, and I love to create stuff. I’m a teacher by trade, turned to stay at home dad. The joke has been if you leave a guy at home long enough, he will find hobbies…and they sometimes involve fire.

Talk to a small group of peeps that are not being served in a certain way and provide that small group a really awesome experience.

So, I started hand spinning ½ pounds at the campfire and fell in love with the whole process. I had zero coffee roasting background. My roasting apparatus was made up of 2 stainless steel strainers and a hot-dog roasting pole I found in the shed, the whole thing ran me like 11 dollars and an hour or two. Total humble beginnings.

My first batch went to flames (hence the name Firebean) but I stuck with it. I did a lot of research online regarding roasting, and watched many many videos on roasting theory ect, but nothing taught me as well as trial and error. Getting out there and roasting. Under developing, over developing and finding that sweet spot. Always learning. I loved every bit of it, the sights, and smells, and sounds, the taste of freshly roasted wood-fired beans, the danger of the fire, the excitement and drama of the roast. It was hands-on, multi-sensory and I was in love…

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

We use old school technology, we are unplugged and its pretty labour intensive.

The bike chain is connected to the drum, so each pedal revolution spins the drum of beans. Spin it too fast and the beans tumble to quickly and as a result don’t get any heat, too slow and they hang out on the sidewall too long and they get too much heat. It’s a fine balance, and a constant read to get the rate of rise we want.

The woodfire is another variable that needs very close attention, drying and splitting the wood in the right way helps to create consistency in the heat. Also in the Yukon the ambient temp can go from plus 30c in the summer to -30c in the dead of winter, this comes with challenges too.

Trial and Error for the win! Like we mentioned earlier, we set our first batch of coffee on fire (and earned our name) It really is all about learning, and the creative process. Lots of back and forths, snipping and adding.

There is so much to be said for diving in and figuring it out as you go. We didn’t start wanting or expecting perfection, instead, we thought of this as a craft, and knew that after practicing we could nail it.

Now we’re happy to share the fruits of our labour. We are at the point where we can work in finely tuned windows under a variety of circumstances and obtain roasts that are within 5 degrees celsius each and every time, and considering we lit our first batch on fire, we are quite happy with that progress.

Describe the process of launching the business.

The whole thing happened pretty slowly and felt very organic. We bootstrapped this from day one with a small amount of savings and many small revolutions of beans purchases and bean sales.

We started with a 10lb sack of green beans and funneled all the revenue into a 20 lb bag, then a 50, now we order a few sacks a month (300-400lbs). Our costs are low, and I am the least expensive employee to hire, so I do everything.

This will change as we move forward, but i like for things to grow organically so I can lay the firm foundation so I feel comfortable taking the next step.

For us, starting small and being conservative with all the money coming in was crucial. We did not want or feel we needed a loan, I liked the challenge of trying to get the biggest impact with the smallest amount of financial input. As we grow and look the future, we want to keep with what works, we want to stay small-ish focus on local and stay authentic.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

To attract and retain customers we try to be authentic and offer the market the Firebean Story. We want you to be surprised by our process and so excited that you share the story, and coffee with your friends. The Yukon tourist market caters to the adventure seekers, hikers, bikers and cultural/historical buffs, so we try our best to provide something different to them.

Up to now, we’ve focused on holiday shows, farmers markets, trade shows, silent auctions and venues like that. Our ecosystem welcomes and supports small start-ups, especially food based ones. There is truly a unique culinary scene growing here (you can read about that in the Globe and Mail) and a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem through the efforts of Yukonstruct and NorthLight Innovation.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We operate a profitable business. Most of our distribution and sales are local, and we are just getting into the ecommerce game. Like any business, we want to grow, but it has to be in the Firebean way, organically, over time, tinkering and testing.

We think it would be a lot of fun to invite people in to roast their own coffee. Jump on the bike, split the wood, have the whole experience. We know the consumer is looking for more value and meaning, and we think a half hour on the bike, and the smell of freshly roasted coffee fits the bill.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

We have found it helpful to connect with other like-minded local entrepreneurs. They are a wealth of knowledge and always willing to help.

Be available to them as well. Collaborate and share!

“Mimic others. I am always looking at what Peets, Stumptown, Starbucks is up to. I say this because those big players don’t roll stuff out without a bit of research and knowledge of who they are serving.”

Countless people have used our coffee in their creations Frozen Forge Alchemy for example used Firebean in one of their bentwood rings… We draw a huge amount of inspiration from this and love to celebrate these types of connections!

We have really found Instagram and Facebook useful in connecting and promoting our roastery.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Absolutely anything by Seth Godin on Youtube, or podcast, or in print. He is a huge source of business inspiration and information to me.

For marketing and straight up kick in the ass motivation it is Gary Vaynerchuck all the way, that guy get real often and it’s refreshing to see that type of personality.

His podcast is especially motivating at 11pm with 100 bags to package. Finally Chris Gullibeau – $100 Start-Up.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

You’ve heard that you just have to start and go from there before, trust the process, try, reflect, adjust, re-do…until you get it right, share it and get feedback then act on that feedback.

Mimic others. I am always looking at what Peets, Stumptown, Starbucks is up to. I say this because those big players don’t roll stuff out without a bit of research and knowledge of who they are serving. Find who you want to be like and mimic that form. You can trust the direction they are going is trending and may be worth exploring for your business. Personalize it, make it yours.

Be yourself, be authentic and be remarkable. Would someone make a remark about you to their friends? Stand out in some way. Don’t dumb down your product and talk to the mass market (Walmart and Folgers are already doing that quite well and I cannot compete with them) (Seth Godin) talk to a small group of peeps that are not being served in a certain way and provide that small group a really awesome experience.

Collaborate a share with the other local businesses in your community. Chances are there are others just like you trying to add value and monetize passions. Connect with them and form an informal ecosystem. Bounce ideas off each other, don’t be so secretive, product mash-ups you’ll meet cool people and make cool stuff together and be able to serve the community something new that neither of you can serve on your own.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We are not looking to hire anyone at the moment. My legs are still strong and I feel like I can pedal for a while yet.

Where can we go to learn more?

Michael Russo
Founder of Firebean Coffee Roasters


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