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Staying Grounded Helps Red Barn Coffee Roasters Make More Happen

As you might imagine, running a coffee business is not easy. But that hasn’t deterred Mark and Lisa Verrochi, who launched Red Barn Coffee Roasters outside Boston in 1997, and have since seen Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts and a host of other coffee chains spring up all around. For Red Barn, the secret to staying competitive has been staying true to its local roots, maintaining its unique aesthetic and focusing on a great customer experience. This strategy has served Red Barn well and will ensure its continued success.

We caught up with Mark to learn more about his business, as well as Red Barn’s secret to making more happen.

What distinguishes Red Barn from other players in the coffee space?

For one thing, we’re a local specialty coffee micro-roastery. It’s kind of like a microbrewery in that we batch-roast our coffee. We also have our own Red Barn cafés, so we control the whole process from bean to cup and can get direct feedback from our customers. Most importantly, we’re a family and locally owned business. This means we can put a family touch on everything we do. Our shareholders are my wife and I, so it’s not like we’re responsible to Wall Street or just focused on maximizing profits. We’re more committed to quality and service.

Why did you choose the name Red Barn?

We actually started roasting specialty coffee in a red barn in our backyard in rural Hopkinton, MA. It’s a real place, and the barn on our cups and signage is an artist’s conception of what it looks like. We started there before we had a name, really. Before we did any renovating, there was no plumbing or electricity, and my office was in the loft. It was never meant to be a production facility or a place to build a business — just a place to get started. We were looking for other real estate and ended up being there almost three and a half years. Hewlett-Packard started in a garage, and we started in a red barn.

What challenges you the most, and how do you handle it?

Perhaps our biggest challenge is the competition. When we opened our first café, we were the only specialty coffee place around. The choice in coffee was a non-branded regular or decaf. In the first Red Barn café, people looked at our espresso machine and asked if that’s where we roasted our beans. That was the education level of the coffee drinker in New England at the time. But since then, down the street from that first store, four Dunkin’ Donuts and two Starbucks locations have opened, there are a couple of Cumberland Farms stores that sell a Farmhouse Blend coffee for 99 cents, McDonald’s now sells specialty coffee, and so on. There’s a fairly low barrier to entry, and Starbucks can afford to pay the big rents, McDonald’s can undercut on price, and all that type of stuff. Coffee is one of those things that people can purchase for 99 cents as a loss leader. If you lose someone one day, you’ll never get that sale back that day.

That’s why we are so focused on quality and service, which has earned us a very loyal customer base. That commitment has helped us figure out ways to make more happen, whether it’s been with a partner or finding wholesale customers.

When you look back on Red Barn's almost 17 years in business, what are you most proud of?

The fact that we pioneered an entrepreneurial vision and with the help of a great team dedicated to quality and service built a legitimate business that competes head-to-head on a level with publicly traded companies. We’re now up to a team of 50 employees, and that’s a result of hard work, creative financing, boot-strapping, good old-fashioned New England values and a commitment to creating local jobs.

How does Staples help you make more happen?

Staples provides all the front and back-end office support on the administrative side, and the corrugated materials for shipping the finished coffee product to wholesale, mail-order and eCommerce customers. Staples also sells a Martha Stewart line of home office accessories that we’ve used to put spoons, forks and straws in, and stuff like that. It’s not a traditional use, but the stainless steel containers just fit our rustic industrial look. They weren’t necessarily designed for café use, but they found a niche in our cafés.

Any advice for someone looking to start or grow a small business?

You need a solid plan. Building a team is important. Financing is important. And you certainly need to be passionate about what you’re doing. Finally, you need to execute the plan, while being flexible enough to make changes. Great coffee also helps, of course. In fact, if the rest of corporate America realized it was about the coffee, we wouldn’t be in the recession we’re in.

How does your business make more happen? We want to know! Share your story with us in the Comments section below, and we might contact you for a future article.

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