Interview with Forty Weight’s Matt Marks & Andrew Ballard
Forty Weight Coffee Roasters founders Matt Marks & Andrew Ballard chat about getting started, wholesale vs. café, packaging, and corporate coffee.
On Getting Started
Matt: My name’s Matthew Marks. I am one of the owners of Forty Weight Coffee Roasters.
Andrew: My name’s Andrew Ballard. I’m also one of the owners and primary roaster for Forty Weight Coffee Roasters.
Kandace: Nice. You two started the company together, right?
Andrew: Yeah, I started it on my own for a while, and then Matt came on board.
Kandace: Can you tell us a little bit about your founding?
Andrew: I moved here from Seattle about six years ago. I had just graduated from college. I wasn’t ready to get a job with my degree. I had gotten really interested in coffee while I was out in Seattle. I had started roasting a bit.
When I moved here, I bought a 1970s camper, bought a $5,000 coffee roaster, renovated the camper and put the coffee roaster inside, and just started our company.
Kandace: Nice. Where did you come in, Matthew? How did you end up joining?
Matt: Somewhat similar. After graduate school, I was bouncing around. Some odd jobs here and there. The economy kind of fell apart in 2008. That’s when I graduated.
Andrew had started this thing on his own. We’d been friends for years. I kept in tune with what was going on. I asked him if he wanted a hand to help with some sales and crunch some numbers, just to help out. Slowly but surely, it turned into more and more things I could help out on.
I was New York City which gave us access to a much bigger market than upstate New York. I started doing some sales informally. Then, it got more formalized when we were offered a shared space, a café so to speak, in a Brooklyn location right down the street from me. I ended up running that operation and then formally partnering up with Andrew.
A Focus Wholesale
Kandace: How many cafés do you have?
Matt: We don’t own and operate any café anymore. We left that location in early 2013. It was about two-year experiment, if you will. We left of our own volition.
We pivoted and shifted gears to more of a wholesale model, which has proven to be much easier, much more lucrative, and much more versatile than just having a brick and mortar store (which sucks out all of your resources, time, you name it).
What’s in a Name
Kandace: What is the story behind the name Forty Weight?
Andrew: There’s not much of a story behind it. It’s just an old term for coffee. It’s meant to be fairly abstract. People aren’t supposed to know what it means.
I basically looked for a name for a long time and just looked for something that I loved. Eventually, the day came up that I had to get my business license and that was my favorite thing that I had come across. That’s what it landed on.
Kandace: I found an early logo, but it looks like it’s a oil can. Is that you?
Kandace: Then I found that Forty Weight was a slang that truck drivers use for coffee. Is that sort of how you ended up with the name?
Andrew: Yeah, that’s the roots of the name. That’s how it came across my desk. That’s where it comes from.
Forty Weight is a take on viscosity of oil, so that’s where the oil can came in play in the original logo. Eventually, we decided that we wanted our name of company to be less associated with oil, so we changed it to something a little different.
Kandace: We love your branding and your bags and the feel of the patches. How did that all come about?
Andrew: This is our third version of bag.
Andrew: The first one had the oil can. We have all three. This was our first packaging, which I actually still really like, but the bag quality isn’t what it needs to be.
Then, our second version, which I thought was a pretty cool bag. It was a good step for us leading to our current bags, which I really love. Coffee industry is doing really amazing things with packaging. That inspired us.
We liked our other bags, but we wanted to have bags that we loved. We decided we wanted to make as cool of bags as we could. We did. We did a lot of unconventional things with this packaging. We weren’t sure how it would come out. In the end it, not to boast, but it came out really great for us.
Kandace: Yeah, it’s great. Do you work with somebody on that? Or is that an in-house?
Andrew: Our packaging has a lot of different aspects to it. We work with a lot of different people for it. There’s a company here in New York that does our woven labels. We have a graphic designer that did the top labels. He does a lot of other work for us, even all of our website.
Then the back art and the under-the-flap art was done by one of our friends in Syracuse. He owns a tattoo shop. He’s pretty much 100% a tattoo artist, except for when he works with us. He did all of our art for the back. He does all of our t-shirts. He does a lot of different things for us.
Matt: And our tattoos.
Andrew: And our tattoos, yes.
Kandace: That’s awesome. It does feel like there are more than one hand in the design, but it works really well together.
Andrew: We have a series of five different art on the back. We wanted varying art on the bag somewhere. We toyed with the idea of just having random art on the back, having nothing to do with coffee, but then we decided for this first round that we would do hand drawn art that has to do with coffee.
In the future, we’re going to continue expanding that and keep doing rotating art on the back. It may be coffee related in the future, it may not be. We like the idea of having something cool to look at every time you buy a bag of coffee.
Kandace: I saw on your site that you mentioned you have a goal of becoming a hundred percent direct trade over the next few years. What does that mean for you?
Andrew: For us, it’s just a matter of size. Once we get to a size that we can start bringing back several containers from each country that we work with, that’s when we’ll be able. We do a lot of direct trade coffee right now. That’s when we’ll be able to take the step of becoming a complete direct trade company.
Kandace: For somebody that doesn’t know what direct trade means, what is it that you’re trying to move towards?
Matt: Direct trade is such a nebulous term just like a lot of the buzzwords in coffee and craft food in general. From our vantage point, it’s having as much direct negotiating power and relationship with the producers themselves.
We have done it on a very small scale, a year or two ago, with a farmer in Costa Rica. Talked to him via Skype. I speak Spanish and Portuguese, so I spoke with him in Spanish. Negotiated the price directly. Had a third party help with importing and exporting, and we only got four bags.
For four bags, it was a lot of legwork for us. It was a lot of legwork for the farmer. The coffee was great, but the experience was so much logistical wrangling that we didn’t do it again because it didn’t make sense for him. He needed to charge a really high price.
With what Andrew was saying: economies of scale. We can start moving several containers. We move a couple containers throughout the year. If we can start moving containers from particular origins, then you have more buying power, and then you have more negotiating power when you come to the bargaining table. The ultimate goal is to be able to negotiate prices directly with producers.
Kandace: You talked about negotiating over Skype. Is that changing in coffee?
Matt: That makes sense. Yeah, with technology, and then you can do so many things from your computer anywhere. We’re talking across the country via our computers.
So yeah, I think it will become more of a reality. As long as you are an effective communicator and you know your numbers and you know what you’re looking for. You know, and you’re trying to stay current with fresh crop offerings. I think that can work.
Ideally it’s always good to get face-to-face in any component of business, but I think that is a good way to cut down traveling costs and time away from family and shop obligations and so on.
Personality & Twitter
Kandace: Who does your Twitter account?
Matt: That’s this guy.
Kandace: You have a very opinionated Twitter account, I was realizing. Is that part of your company persona? Or is it …
Matt: Oh, no. That’s real. That’s him. That’s not a persona.
Andrew: Matt yells at me every time I send a tweet that could be perceived as offensive.
Matt: Yeah. Yeah. That’s real. I wish that was a manufactured persona, then we could hopefully manufacture it a different way, but that’s just who he is.
Andrew: It’s funny to hear you say that. I thought that maybe only Matt perceived it to be extremely opinionated.
Matt: No, I’m not the only one.
Kandace: You have strong opinions about other roasters, I noticed.
Andrew: There’s a tremendous amount of bullshit in the coffee industry. I feel like no one says anything about it. I feel like I’m eating crazy pills. No one ever calls out any kind of nasty shit that happens in coffee.
There’s a tremendous amount of bullshit in the coffee industry. I feel like no one says anything about it.
Matt: Or hypocrisy or anything like that.
Andrew: Or the fact that companies like Blue Bottle and Stumptown are big corporate chains now. They hurt small coffee roasters. No one will say that because those are big, powerful companies, but that’s the truth.
Kandace: But you definitely say it.
Andrew: That’s really funny. Yeah, I guess I do.
Kandace: That’s really interesting. What about bigger coffee companies hurt coffee? It’s an interesting thing. That’s not something that anyone’s ever said to us on this show before, so I find that actually really fascinating.
Andrew: You would agree that Starbucks hurts small business, right? In that, Starbucks opens on every corner, and then if you want to open a café there, you can’t.
They have all kinds of resources that you don’t have. If you agree with that, then other companies that are huge like that, like Stumptown or Blue Bottle, which have come from the west coast and populated New York with a trillion different cafés and taken over tons of wholesale business by offering really low prices.
I just feel like bigger business hurts small business for the most part. I definitely experience that in coffee. Maybe people don’t agree with me, and that’s why no one else says anything, but that’s how I feel.
Matt: Other small roasters have to agree, they just don’t speak up as vociferously as Andrew does. We’re small business. We do a nice business. It’s the way we live our life. The way we shop for things for our own homes and the way we look at it.
We always try to err on the side of supporting a small local business. I think those larger companies do really crowd out small business innovation. It’s not a level playing field. I guess that’s the way of the world, but we can voice displeasure with it and not be called crazy or weird.
I’m sure there’s a thousand other roasters who are super small, and then they have to compete against a Counter Culture, or fill in the blank with any big roaster, and odds are they’re gonna lose out. They’re gonna lose out because they don’t have the resources. They can’t offer the discounts, or they can’t offer the machinery, or what have you. It’s not necessarily based on quality.
Now you’re basing it on something else. You’re basing it on the size of their checkbook. It doesn’t really always pan out for the best result for small business owners and for consumers, for diversity of choice too.
Who wants to have the same coffee on every other corner in Brooklyn or in Manhattan? When I see coffee shops that have a roaster that’s a little lesser known or has a smaller footprint, I’m much more inclined to try that shop out or recommend that shop because it seems like they spent a little bit more time thinking about who they wanted to work with and did a little bit more research, instead of just grabbing the shiniest, biggest name brand off the internet.
Kandace: Is there anything else that we should know? That Ray and I should know about Forty Weight when we’re thinking about how we’re gonna talk about you or introduce you.
Matt: It’s a great question. I don’t know. It’s hard to say. To give you an honest answer without sounding either completely full of shit or sounding really full of ourselves.
Kandace: It’s okay to be proud of the coffee you make. That’s why you’re in coffee, right?
Matt: We’re definitely proud of the coffee we make. Riffing off of what you said about our Twitter accounts…Andrew and I are fairly different. Pretty different as owners can be and as best friends can be. I think that’s maybe the secret to our success because there’s certain things that each one of us values and pushes the other person.