Aug 252010
 

Superlative Coffee Roasters open on Mechanic Street

By Evan Barker

Size matters at Superlative Coffee Roasters. The tiny shop on Mechanic Street is the latest addition to Lexington’s growing coffee scene, but occupies a slightly different niche than the city’s corporate and independent mainstays.

Part of the interest at Superlative is what you don’t see: an espresso machine flanked by grinders, syrup bottles, blenders, and giant chalkboard menu. A single coffee carafe sits next to a pint of half-and-half. The real attraction is behind the front counter: a shiny red and silver contraption lovingly called “The Little Red Roaster.” Superlative Coffee is not a coffee bar; it’s an artisan roaster which turns green coffee into the aromatic brew Lexington loves.

Owners Jenny Super and Patrick Meyer speak eloquently on the virtues of being little. With at least five college degrees between the pair, opening an artisan coffee roasting business is the latest chapter of two long and decorated careers. Jenny has worked for corporate giants Sara Lee, Hershey’s and PetSmart. Patrick is a combination lawyer, MBA and financial planner. Despite years of experience running multimillion dollar businesses, Super and Meyer are focusing on building a coffee brand eight pounds at a time.

Eight pounds, incidentally, is the peak capacity of the Little Red Roaster. The machine itself is chrome on fire-engine red. The roaster is computer-controlled for the sake of consistency and capable of drawing a virtually limitless variety of traits from raw beans.

When asked how they learned about coffee, Jenny shrugs. “I’m a consumer,” she says. “I’ve always loved coffee.” They’ve been members of various coffee clubs for years, always sampling something different.

She and Patrick have a small-batch roaster at home with which they constantly experiment. When a roast piques their interest, they try to replicate it at scale at the shop, which is how several of Superlative’s varieties came to be. Jenny hints that she’s working on something special for the shop’s official grand opening in September.

For now, it’s just the two of them: Patrick running samples to prospective customers and working the Farmers’ Market stand, and Jenny working the roaster and buying the beans. The objective, however, is what Jenny terms “smart growth.”

She speaks with the eagerness of a chronic go-getter, someone who has seen several major business projects from molehill to mountain.

“This building will always be the headquarters of Superlative Coffee,” she says.

“If we expand, it’ll be into a warehouse,” she laughs. She gestures across the street at a nondescript brick building. “That’d be a good place. If we expand, I’d like to go right there so I could walk across the street.”

Her philosophy of business boils down to “fairness.” When she expands, she’ll “want to pay employees a fair wage. It’s about establishing a relationship with your farmer and with your customer. What can people expect for eight dollars an hour?”

The fact that competitor Third Street Stuff is just around the corner doesn’t faze her at all.

“They have a relationship with their supplier and I respect that.” The implication is that there’s room enough in Lexington for all of them. Superlative’s niche is to be able to roast smaller batches more frequently. A coffee club order that shipped last Monday was roasted the same day; Jenny makes no compromises about the freshness of the product.

Much of Superlative’s business comes from the Farmers’ Market. There, they set up grinders and brewers and make coffee on the spot to sample. They admit to being skeptical about the Market at first, but since their first weekend two months ago, business there has “exceeded expectations.” The market has put them in touch with a core group of downtown customers who come there specifically for quality products.

Not that running this kind of business is easy. The ability of the roaster to run only up to eight pounds per batch means more frequent roasting and more time spent in the shop instead of out selling coffee. Their beans come from distributors in Chicago, Minneapolis, New York and elsewhere – middlemen who visit the coffee growing regions of the world to personally verify the quality of the product and the conditions of the growers. This kind of business costs more and requires more hands-on work on a tighter schedule than simply selling pre-roasted coffee according to corporate recipes.

“We’re not corporate. I’ve done corporate,” says Jenny in response to the observation that she’s chosen a tough row to hoe.

Superlative Coffee intends to become a permanent part of the social and economic fabric of downtown Lexington. Jenny and Patrick say they’ll always be down on Mechanic Street, and will still walk their equipment to the Farmers’ Market. As a business owner, “you want to look back and stand by your decisions,” Patrick says.

For them, it’s about quality and fairness, at any size.