LACONIA — "It's easy to grow from nothing," remarked Brad Fitizgerald, who began Woodshed Roasting Company in 2010 with a one-pound roasting machine and after expanding sales by 25 percent or more annually is now roasting, packaging and delivering 700 pounds of coffee beans a week.
"I'm not going to go out and become the next Green Mountain," Fitzgerald cautioned, referring to what began as a roasting operation in a small cafe in Waitsfield, Vermont in 1981 and became Keurig Green Mountain, which last year sold a 10 percent stake to the Coca Cola Company for $1.25billion, "but, business is good."
While still operating the local plumbing and heating business he began in 1984 and closed last year, Fitzgerald, with his small roaster, began by selling a handful of specialty coffees in farmers markets, but soon was vying for shelf space in supermarkets and offering his product to restuarants.
"I knocked on the doors and asked to see the manager," Fitzgerald said of his odyssey through the corporate hierarchy of the supermarket chains. "I got the name of a guy and the name of another guy and climbed the ladder till I got to the right guy," he said. "It's quite an involved process," he continued, explaining that corporate management must qualify the product, packaging and labeling. After eight months, he secured space at Hannaford, which stocks his coffees at 34 stores, and also secured space from Associated Grocers of Pembroke, which operates Vista Foods and Harvest Markets in new Hampshire. Fitzgerald said that he also qualified with Shaw's, but withdrew his coffees from that company's shelves when they failed to sell at the price Shaw's set.
Describing the business as a "wholesale roaster", Fitzgerald said that groceries and restaurants represent more than 60-percent of sales with single serving cups — "K cups" — accounting for most of the rest. Coffees are also sold on-line, at some farmer's markets and at the store at 116 Hounsell Avenue in the Lakes Business Park. "Only three or four percent of our business is retail sales," Fitzgerald said, adding that to promote the Woodshed brand and encourage retail trade he will be hosting an open house at company headquarters in May.
Woodshed Roasting Company offers more than a dozen single origin coffees, grown at a specific location or within a particular country, some of which are estate coffees, harvested on an individual farm. All are certified organic as well as certified Rainforest Alliance or certified Fair Trade coffees, which provide an optimal return to the grower. Currently the inventory includes coffees from Columbia, Tanzania, Peru, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Sumatra and Papua New Guinea. In addition, There are also seven blends, including "Fat Tire," which celebrates Laconia Motorcycle Week, and Pink Ribbon, which supports the New Hampshire Breast Cancer Coalition.
Fitzgerald said that the market for specialty coffees is growing in New England and along with it an interest in buying from local producers.
"The sky's the limit," he said while conceding the market is very competitive. In the supermarkets, he said, there may be 15 or more brands of coffee on the shelf, products from other small roasters among them. Likewise, he noted there is stiff competition for the restaurant trade. "people don't want to pay for coffee," he said while explaining restaurants can purchase premium coffee wholesale and offer their patrons a quality product for what he calculated "boils down to pennies a cup more".
With three coffee roasters, two filling and weighing machines and a machine solely for filling and sealing K-cups, Fitzgerald and his two employees, have capacity to produce a ton of packaged coffee a week, almost three times current output. "We've been growing " he observed, "but at some point we'll reach a plateau. Then we'll have to look at going into Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts. But, I'm not looking to become Green Mountain," he repeated. "I want to keep it small and family owned."
CAPTION: Brad Fitzgerald, founder of the Woodshed Roasting Company, with the San Franciscan Coffee Roaster, one of three with which the firm produces 700 pounds of specialty, organic coffees a week for grocery stores and restaurants throughout the state. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Michael Kitch)