PORTLAND, Maine — It started in Portland’s pornography district.
Wafting among the peep shows and girlie mags, the aroma of freshly roasted coffee was an anomaly on Congress Street in 1994.
“Everybody told us we were crazy to open there,” said Mary Allen Lindemann, co-owner of Coffee By Design. “The vacancy rate was 40 percent.”
But Lindemann and her husband, Alan Spear, had a vision: bring quality coffee to the masses.
Now in its 20th year, the Portland coffee roaster has three cafes in the city, an anchor cafe at L.L. Bean in Freeport and 300 wholesale accounts. This month they take the next step; moving into 24,000 square feet of a 45,000-square-foot warehouse they purchased in East Bayside with an eye toward expansion.
“We’ve always liked the idea of not being in a flashy space,” said Lindemann, settling into her new, brightly painted headquarters on an industrial alley where trucks, not tourists, roll by.
The medium-size roastery that sells beans to gourmet stores, bakeries and offices across the country and even Japan roasts half a million pounds of green coffee a year. When their new facility is 100 percent online in December, that could swell to more than 2 million.
“These [roasting machines] will improve our business by producing a very consistent taste profile,” said Spear, who calls his new Loring Smart Roasts “the Lamborghini of roasters.”
The smokeless roasters, which cost the company $450,000 for the pair, “are the greenest roasters in the world,” according to Spear. “We won’t be sending smoke into the air or neighboring businesses. It is 80 percent more efficient.”
Inside the hangarlike space, head roaster Dylan Hardman inspects a vat of Sumatra beans that go from green, to cinnamon, to chocolate brown in minutes.
Hardman, who has been with the company for seven years, still roasts by smell, touch and sight. Now he is aided by a computer. The technology will help increase production, create a “cleaner cup” and fine-tune the roast.
Beyond a better bag of beans, Coffee By Design is stepping up its brew game as well.
They are building a futuristic cafe, which opens in early 2014. Anchored by an island bar, it will showcase the latest coffee extraction techniques. Because the coffee industry is changing rapidly, so are they.
“We want to make this fun,” said Spear. “We want people to have choices.”
Customers will be able to make their own blends, join a home-roasting club and, much like a brewery, go behind the scenes to smell, taste and sample beans as they go from bag to cup.
Garage doors are a window into the roasting floor. From the coffee bar, customers can choose their beans, the roast and the brewing method.
Customers can also “be part of the process,” Spear said. “It’s really theater, what we do is theater. We want to showcase the theater behind the stage. I view this as a central stage a la Shakespeare.”
The couple’s dream cafe, fashioned with 100-year-old salvaged wood from Maine mills and barns, “incorporates our love of coffee while reinforcing our love of Maine,” said Lindemann.
Their flagship cafe will be one of the first to debut a Modbar drip machine along with three cold-brew taps for iced coffee on demand. Bunn’s Trifecta machine and other brewing breakthroughs will be in rotation. Attention to detail is paid, but don’t call it third-wave.
“We have been doing the third-wave style since we started. But what it’s turned into is an elitist way of presenting coffee,” said Lindeman, of the specialty coffee movement in which cups are brewed individually with precision and sometimes pretension. “I want to present it in a way that everyone is welcome at the table. If you want great coffee, join us.”
Join, they have.
The company’s wholesale business, which includes mail-order sales, experienced 17 percent growth three years ago and 25 percent in 2012. This year looks “very good,” said Spear.
“Our turning point was in 2009. During the recession sales were up 19 percent,” said the president.
As the CBD brand grows stronger and resonates internationally, they are in the position to turn down offers that don’t suit them. They were recently contacted by someone in Istanbul, who wanted to open a licensed CBD cafe.
“I feel humbled by it. Honored that people are viewing our brand that way,” said Spear, who turned down the opportunity. “I’m not driven by turning it into a multinational business.”
Growing and staying locally owned has always been paramount. Remaining Maine- and coffee-centric is key. Portland’s quintessential coffee company wouldn’t think of moving.
“We could have found a building easily three years ago,” said Lindemann, who looked at industrial clusters, but “we wanted to stay here on the peninsula and wanted to grow on the peninsula.”
The company that employs 52 people will hire a few more in the coming year. The space gives them the ability to more than double their production. But, true to their focus, they are not out to complicate things.
“We’ve had many opportunities to grow the company a lot faster that we turned down,” said Lindemann. “We had the chance to expand in Boston and double in a year. We’ve seen people who grew very quickly and then were either out of business or were forced to sell.”
For Coffee By Design, growth has been organic. In every sense of the word.
To date, they don’t have a sales team. “It’s all word of mouth,” said Lindemann, who still packages coffee to ship to clients. “Every staff member is a salesperson,” added Spear.
And their new space on Diamond Street is a giant sales tool, abetted by the transparency that Spear brings to his coffee kingdom.
As in a brewery, customers can sip and watch as the beans are roasted. Hardman hopes the space will be embraced by Maine’s burgeoning coffee community and sees roasting collaborations, popular in the microbrewing world, happening here.
William Pratt, owner of Tandem Coffee Roasters a block away, is on board.
“I think East Bayside will become even more of a destination for coffee tourists. It will be interesting for people to see how two very different coffee companies operate,” said Pratt, the artisan roaster whose intimate coffee bar opened in August 2012, making this area safe for espresso drinkers.
“While having another cafe opening directly across the parking lot from us doesn’t seem ideal, overall we hope and anticipate that it will be great for everybody,” said Pratt.
That’s especially true for Coffee By Design’s wholesale customers such as Ed Wood.
The owner of Waterways Coffee Shop in Waterboro, Wood poked his head in CBD’s new headquarters recently and was astonished. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this. I’ve watched them grow. This is huge. A great improvement,” he said.
On a tour of the tech room, where brewing and grinding machines will be repaired, and the new training room where employees, wholesale customers and the public can learn latte art, he expressed two thoughts: “I want to play here” and “I want to work here.”
Those are compliments the owners have received a number of times during the past few weeks as the space has come together. Spear, who built an employee break room and a shower, thought of everything. Well, almost everything.
“I have to find a place to put my mattress and sleeping bag,” said Spear, who slept on a shelf in his Congress Street cafe early on. “That’s the only thing missing.”