Roaster of the Week is a series that focuses on specialty roasters and their unique stories. This week, we talk to the founder of Seven Coffee Roasters on how his Hawaiian roots have helped his company stay on top in a fiercely competitive market.
Like so many others, Sean Lee’s plan wasn’t always to work in coffee.
Originally from Hawaii, he moved to Seattle in the early 2000s to pursue a graduate programme in IT and marketing, before returning to work for a local bank.
But when the opportunity to buy a coffee stand came up back in Seattle, it was too good to miss.
“They were really big at the time,” he tells me. “I thought it sounded interesting, so I went for it. That was my first foray into coffee.”
The coffee, it turned out, would have a more powerful effect than Sean was expecting. Shortly after taking over the stand, he started questioning the direction his life was going.
“Once I got a taste for it, I asked myself: do you really want to carry on with this IT path or go into business for yourself and do coffee? So obviously I made the decision to quit my programme and go full time into coffee.”
To hone his skills and learn more about the sector, he spent the first few years working for various roasters in Seattle.
Then, when a small space became available to rent, he snapped it up and decided to establish his own roastery. He named it Seven Coffee Roasters – a name that has a particularly special meaning for Sean.
“I’m half Japanese and half Korean,” he says. “My grandmother was a big influence on all of the grandchildren, and we affectionately called her ‘Nana’. She taught me many of the values that I carry with me today, such as hard work, kindness, generosity, and community.
“In Japanese, “nana” means “seven”. So it’s a way of acknowledging the influence she had.”
From the moment Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl, and Gordon Bowker opened the first Starbucks store in 1971, Seattle and coffee have been inextricably bound.
Home to Starbucks’ headquarters to this day, it has served as the base for countless other roasters and coffee shops over the last fifty years, from Monorail Espresso to Top Pot Doughnuts.
As such, few cities in America present a more competitive playing field when it comes to coffee. So how have Seven managed to stay on top since opening 15 years ago?
“Customer service has always been a big focus for us,” Sean explains. “I worked in the service industry for a while and offering down to earth customer service is still something we hold to this day. I think it’s probably the Hawaiian in me.”
As a predominantly wholesale-oriented business, he also says that price has been a big factor: their relatively small size means they understand the small margins on which most retailers and coffee shops operate.
Therefore, when it comes to selling, they try to keep their prices as low as possible, while maintaining the high-quality expected of specialty coffee.
“Part of the value of our company is that we set our prices so that small business owners can survive,” Sean tells me.
This has not only helped Seven break into Seattle’s fiercely competitive specialty market, it’s also allowed them to grow.
Indeed, a neat way of charting their growth is through the size of their roasters: what started as a small 3kg roaster soon became a 5kg, before being replaced by a 12kg – a San Franciscan.
Today, they operate on a 25kg roaster, which is used for both wholesale and retail customers. But after several moves to accommodate the impressive growth, Sean tells me he’s finally settled down.
“This space is my final resting place,” he says. “I don’t want to move again!”
The allure of Hawaiian coffees
Since the 19th century, Kona coffee has been one of the most widely sought-after in the world.
Grown on the slopes of Hualalai and Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii, its limited supply and light flavour profile means it consistently fetches some of the highest prices at auctions.
For Sean, offering Hawaiian coffee was always going to be an important part of Seven. Having grown up in Oahu, Hawaii’s third-largest island, he understands the work that goes into producing the quality for which Kona is recognised.
“Kona coffee has a long history,” he says. “And its success has spurred on the other islands to grow their own. It’s also a very limited supply, which makes for an interesting product that people can rally around.”
Seven recently launched the Mahalo Club (mahalo means “thank you” in Hawaiian), a coffee subscription that “blends the famous coffee traditions of Hawaii and Seattle”.
It gives customers access to a range of coffees, including Hawaiian single origins and Kona blends. However, they also offer coffees from further afield, such as Brazil, Guatemala, and Ethiopia.
This, Sean tells me, has led to the formation of two broad customer bases.
“Some love Kona coffee, while others go for the more conventional coffees,” he says. “They are almost opposite ends of the spectrum. In particular, the sales proposition for Kona is difficult.
“Depending on what you’re comparing it to, it could be six to eight times the cost. On the wholesale side, Hawaiian coffee is much more limited, so we sell most of them online from our website.
“But in general we just try to ensure our coffees are as fresh as possible.”
What does the future hold?
The outbreak of Covid-19 left few coffee businesses unscathed. While many are finally on the road to recovery, many are continuing to feel its effects.
Although, as roasters, Seven’s team were deemed “essential workers” and therefore allowed to carry on roasting, the majority of their wholesale clients were forced to shut up shop.
Naturally, this has had a lasting impact.
“It was a tough year,” Sean says. “We got a loan, which helped keep our current employees on, so I’m thankful for that. But we had to shut our diner and move a lot of things online.”
As for what the future holds, Sean says that they’d like to ramp up their webshop and explore markets overseas.
“We have a lot to offer online and around the country,” he says. “And I’d love to be able to sell coffee internationally. It might not even include me; I might pass it onto someone younger. But, one thing’s for certain – we’ll continue serving great coffee.”