Name: Shannon Neffendorf
Hometown: Dallas, Texas
AHD: What is your business and how did you get started?
SN: We roast coffee… great coffee. In industry terms, we are a direct trade micro-roaster. But the business itself is built upon relationships. The majority of the coffee we roast is purchased directly from a producer, with whom we have a relationship. This enables us to get a higher quality coffee by selecting special lots, we visit the farms and know how the farmer treats their workers and their land, and we make sure the producers are rewarded for their efforts. On the flip side, we work closely with our retail customers and seek to develop those relationships as well by providing great coffee to their establishment, training and education and being involved in their business.
Discontentment is how I got started. Years ago, in my former corporate job, I took a series of assignments in Milan, Italy. I quickly made some friends over there and they pulled me into their daily espresso rituals. My eyes were opened by the coffee culture in Italy. It wasn’t just the quality of coffee there, but the quantity of place that you can get it. And there’s little pretention or snobbery regarding it (although there is much opinion and care). It’s just some guy (or old lady) behind the counter doing whatever she does really well.
At this point I should confess, that I have an annoying habit that I’ve developed in my travels… when I discover something that I really appreciate about another culture; I attempt to recreate that within my own. Most of these things never stick for very long, but every so often something does. My experience in Italy led me down a journey that started with reading any coffee-related book I could get my hands on and culminated in roasting coffee beans in a popcorn popper on the stove in my apartment.
Later I moved from East Dallas to Oak Cliff and got married. Oak Cliff loves their local businesses so the atmosphere seemed appropriate. And I kept talking about trying to change the coffee culture in Dallas, but my wife really pushed me and encouraged me to walk the talk. I could not find great coffee anywhere in Dallas outside my kitchen, so the timing seemed right in that regard. So the actual initiation from hobby to business was a combination of those factors.
AHD: What first attracted you to coffee roasting?
SN: First and foremost, I love good coffee. But what separates me from someone else to who likes to buy and drink good coffee is that I enjoy creating and doing things myself. I like the idea of taking a raw product and releasing its potential to be something beautiful. It’s not simply the end result but the process that I love. That sounds very romantic of me, I know. Less romantically, part of my desire to create comes from being a cheapskate who craves quality. In general, our society gives us three options - spend a lot of money, buy junk at a big box store, or create it yourself. I fervently try to avoid junk.
AHD: What is the process of roasting like? What kind of things do you take into consideration when thinking about how you want a particular coffee bean to be roasted?
SN: The process of roasting is much like cooking a nice steak. From an external standpoint it’s very simple. You apply heat until it reaches a desired point. Internally it’s more complicated and it’s about the Maillard reaction - caramelizing sugars and releasing flavors, and then making sure you don’t over cook it (much like steak). The craft of roasting comes from the manner in which you accomplish this process.
Here’s my soapbox speech… The beans tell me where to roast them. From the time that coffee cherry is picked off the plant, everything good is already present. So from the harvesting, to the processing, to the resting, to the shipping, to the roasting, and to the brewing, all you can do to a coffee bean is mess it up. You can’t add anything to it. So my job as a coffee roaster is to stay out of the way of the bean. I just want to display everything that is already in there. So I play around with each coffee and taste it and let it tell me where the sweet spot is.
AHD: In view of this, it seems that roasting is a pretty creative process, in that your bringing coffee into something that magnifies its characteristics for the subject. Is there a correlation between aesthetics and coffee roasting?
SN: There is absolutely a correlation between aesthetics and coffee. Great coffee facilitates sensory experiences. It’s not simply a vessel for caffeine. People remember the best cup of coffee they’ve ever had or their first great cup of coffee. This is what Italy was for me.
AHD: How do you balance the need for a business to make a profit and also your desire to benefit communities that you deal with directly?
SN: I do not balance them. For me they are the same. I consider it a complete approach to running a business. A lot of what I do is borrowed from those who came before me - from my community and customers, to the coffee industry to the farmers at origin. And if I desire to remain true to my product and stay in business then it is essential that I understand the impact of my decisions upon my communities of my customers, my producers and the industry. I trust that if I produce a great product and, to the extent that I have any control, create value and trust in every business relationship, then my business will do well, and that will include making a profit and impacting communities positively. 4 years ago this was a just a big theory for me, largely developed from reading too much Chesterton and Wendell Berry. But to my surprise, this actually seems to be working.
AHD: In what ways does your faith inform your business practices and work?
SN: Hopefully in every way... I fight against our cultural inclination to segregate these aspects of our lives. Not that everything I do has an Ichthys tattooed on it, but I hope there is evidence of my faith within my business. I don’t want people to get to know my faith from my website, or my coffee bag label or the back of my delivery truck. I want them to get to know my faith by interacting with me and my business and seeing that we do things differently. Direct Trading and Social Justice for historically oppressed coffee laborers are not ‘Christian’ ideas, but there is a lot about them that intersect my beliefs (primarily the aspect of relationships); and my faith informs the reason I’m passionate about those things and the way my business carries them out. Along with that, I think that every single thing that I do, for better or for worse, reflects upon me, my faith and ultimately Jesus Christ, and so I believe that I can glorify God in making a great cup of coffee.
AHD: Where can we try some of your coffee?
SN: We work with about 25 businesses in the Dallas area from McKinney to Midlothian. In Dallas proper, check out Central Market, Urban Acres, Crooked Tree Coffeehouse, Urban Dog Coffee or Company Café to name a few.