Interview with Barkeater’s Steven Pivonka
We chatted with Steven Pivonka, the one-man operation behind Barkeater Coffee Roasters.
My name is Steven Pivonka, and I’m the owner and roaster at Barkeater Coffee Roasters. I do all the roasting, we also do farmers markets and events.
Q: Were you always into coffee?
I’ve been drinking coffee as long as I can remember. I think I probably was like six years old or something. It was kind of a culture in my household. I remember my grandmother, when I was a kid, would make me Cuban-style coffee. My family on my mother’s side is Puerto-Rican, so she would make me Cuban-style coffee and I remember having it very, very young and I’ve just always loved coffee. She would make a shot of espresso, you know the moka pot. Then she would add a couple of sugar cubes to that little shot and she would whip it up with a little tiny whisk and make it all frothy. And, to of course a little kid, it just tasted like sugary coffee. I haven’t made it actually in a long time, but it is very tasty.
So, one day, I was just talking to my wife and I just decided I want to do something and I just thought,
You know what, I’m going to be a roaster. Hey I’m going to go do it.
And, I did.
Q: How did you get started?
I did some research about some roasters and at first, I was thinking I’d do the smaller one, like a one kilo or something like that. I found a guy in New York State that’s the importer of Öztürk Roasters and that’s what I ended up buying. He let me come up there and roast with him and just showed me the ropes of what he’d do. He was kind enough to show me how he worked things and how he ran his business. So, he really opened the door for me, to show me what to do and taught me how to roast. I kind of just went from there.
Q: Have you helped other get their start?
I’ve helped a couple of small guys get going too. One guy in down state New York and another guy out in Massachusetts. That’s always kind of fun too. Since someone was so open with me when I got started, I feel like I always need to pay that forward and help out other people get going too.
Q: What’s the story behind the name Barkeater?
Well, Barkeaters just came about … I was going to use Adirondack Coffee Roasters as the name, and the guy I ended up roasting with, that was the name of his coffee company. That’s where I decided to go with Barkeater and I could go into that now I guess. You asked me about the origin of the Barkeater name.
My wife is from the Adirondacks and bark-eater is the nick name for Adirondacks in the Mohawk language. Adirondack means porcupine or bark-eater and that’s why porcupine is our logo, because they eat bark. It’s kind of a homage to my wife and also the bark-eater name was my wife’s idea too.
Q: Who designed your logo?
I am fortunate to have a friend of mine, who is a graphic artist, and he designed the logo for me. I told him what I was looking for and he designed a logo for me and all the font work and everything like that. He does, still to this day, he does all the labels for me, in exchange for coffee. I print the labels up, but he designs them all for me and he’s kind enough to do that for me.
Q: Is your coffee roast to order?
I would say all my coffee is definitely roast to order. As a lot of people are these days. You know, it’s kind of the thing now. Everything’s roast to order. I do always try to pick up the best beans I can. I certainly interact with my customers a lot through social media, via email. I’m always available by email and social media, to help people try to pick out things, recommend things, help them out with however they want to brew their coffee. I think that’s a lot of it for me. Customer service certainly goes a long way. I think it’s almost as important as the coffee itself. So, I always try to keep my customer service pretty high. I certainly keep it pretty high, I try to always keep it pretty high. Social media presence.
It’s certainly cyclical. I see people, they come back. You know, I’ll see them buying other small roasters and they come back and get mine again. I think it probably depends on what that person already has.
Q: How big is your operation, do you have any employees?
I don’t have any employees. It’s just my wife and I. I do have a guy that works with me here and there. He just started working with me on some events, but for the most part it’s just myself.
I do a big Saturday morning farmers market. I basically bring a whole cart with me. I have espresso there, I do espresso base drinks, I have a batch brewer there. We do pour overs.
It takes tons of patience for us to roast and it’s way more work than I ever imagined it would be. And, I thought:
Oh, you just roast some coffee and you have good coffee and people are going to buy your coffee.
It’s way harder than that. Just to get yourself established for people to find you.
You always got to keep up on social media, letting people know what you have. I definitely underestimated the social aspect of it and growing the business that way. I don’t have a retail front. I’m either only online or a host selling locally and farmers markets. So, I always have to keep a pretty good presence, just to stay in people’s minds. That’s been a lot tougher than I thought.
I’m probably doing it a full time amount, it’s just, I also have a 9-5 job. I’m hoping pretty soon to make the jump. Within the next couple of months. It’s going pretty well lately. I’m picking up a lot of steam.
Q: What was the toughest part of starting a roaster?
I was thinking a lot about that one when I saw that. I guess, probably the biggest thing was …
Learning to roast is easy, but learning to get a good, consistent product all the time and trying to strike that balance of sweetness and keeping those notes in the coffee that you do like. Floral notes, those berry notes. It’s pretty tough walking that line. I definitely used to air on the side of the lighter side when I first started, and now I’ve kind of gone a little bit sweeter, cause I find for most people they find that a little more pleasing. So, that’s probably been the biggest thing, is just trying to strike that balance all the time and getting consistency down on a regular basis all the time. That’s been pretty hard. After two years, I’m finally starting to feel like I’m getting it down, all the time. It’s moving along well. I certainly have a lot to learn. I’m always learning.
The other thing I was going to say, when you first started asking me “What’s the hardest thing I learned?” I used to take it really personal if someone didn’t like my coffee initially and I realized, maybe it’s just not there flavor palette. Maybe they used to like that particular coffee, or maybe … I used to take it really, really personally and I’ve learned to not. I always want to do my best. It’s not always a personal thing.
Q: Are there other small roasters like Barkeater in your community?
I’m in Upstate New York, right near Albany in New York. I’m just across the river in a little town called East Greenbush, New York. Albany, being the capital. It’s not a huge town, I think one hundred thousand people, something like that. I’m kind of more of a bedroom community where I live. I’m the only one at the farmers market. I am. There are a few others. The multi roastery thing is becoming a thing in our area. I know it’s been popular out west for a long time. There’s a few good shops that are doing the multi roastery thing and stores are doing that now.
Right in my immediate area there are shops. I would probably consider them smaller roasters, but they also own shops who are selling their own product right there.
The only one I can think of right where I live that’s doing what I’m doing, that’s on a small scale like I am.