While businesses of all types and sizes had to pivot in 2020 to deal with the fallout from the pandemic, Brewer-based Coffee Hound Coffee Company was already knee-deep in a fundamental re-imagining of its business model — one that, luckily, put the company on the path to success in an otherwise devastating year.
Coffee Hound co-owners Jennifer Litteral and Chris Keegan last year decided to step away from operating brick-and-mortar coffee shops in Bar Harbor and at Sunday River Ski Resort in Newry, and move toward offering their own line of Maine-roasted coffees, available both wholesale for coffee shops and restaurants, and retail for the home consumer.
The fact that their Brewer roastery opened just as millions of people began spending a lot more time at home — and, presumably, making their own coffee and many fewer trips to the coffee shop — was an unexpected boon for them in 2020.
“If we hadn’t diversified in 2019, I don’t know what would have happened,” Litteral said. “The pandemic made it very clear that we absolutely made the right choice. It certainly wasn’t easy, but we feel really fortunate.”
2020 still came with its share of difficulties. This year, Litteral and Keegan chose to permanently close their Bar Harbor coffee house, citing a dramatic drop in customers — Litteral said that 80 percent of their customer base comes from cruise ships, and no cruise ships visited Bar Harbor this summer.
They also this year transferred ownership of their Sunday River shop to the resort, which will now operate the business under a Coffee Hound license, something the pair hope to replicate with any future Coffee Hound locations that might open.
Litteral said she attributes much of her company’s success to the training she had and connections she made with UpStart Maine, an organization that works with startup businesses in the Bangor area to help them develop. UpStart this year named Coffee Hound the Bangor area’s most exciting startup for 2020, and Litteral took part in the organization’s Top Gun program, a four-month business accelerator that pairs entrepreneurs with experienced business mentors. She also was a part of its Big Gig Pitch-Off program, along with six other Bangor-area businesses.
“Oddly enough, the pandemic allowed us the time to really sink our teeth into all the resources available through Top Gun,” she said. “There are really incredible opportunities out there for small businesses, and I would say to any business owner that wants to get that kind of education and experience to just go for it and reach out to UpStart. They will make it work for you. It’s been invaluable for us.”
Litteral’s background wouldn’t make you think operating a coffee roastery was a likely career choice for her. A Pennsylvania native with degrees in marine biology and chemistry, Litteral moved to Bar Harbor in 1994 to work at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, where she worked for nearly a decade before going on to work at the Rockland-based Island Institute for another 10 years.
After 20 years in nonprofits that sent her driving all over the state, she was ready for her own personal pivot, and with her partner, Keegan, they opened Coffee Hound Coffee House in Bar Harbor in 2013, followed by the second location at Sunday River in 2014.
In 2019, Litteral and Keegan decided they needed to diversify their business, and moved forward with opening their coffee roastery in a building in Brewer’s East-West Industrial Park that’s home to a handful of other small businesses. They have since launched their e-commerce platform on their website, coffeehoundcoffeeco.com, offering an array of roasts all named for Maine landmarks, like Norumbega, an espresso roast, and the Golden Road, a light roast. Their coffee is also available at many Hannaford supermarkets and other grocery stores across Maine, as well as in K-cups, and as individually packed bags for pour-over coffee.
“We have been blown away by the response to our retail,” she said. “Our orders this Christmas are up 100 percent over last year. Home consumers are huge. And I don’t think that’s a trend that’s going to go away once the pandemic is over.”
They also began mass-producing cold brew coffee, both regular and nitro, which they keg via a partnership with Geaghan Brothers Brewing Company in Brewer. Though sales of kegs of cold brew to restaurants were brisk last year, sales were down this year due to widespread restrictions on dining due to the pandemic. Litteral said she expects the market to rebound next year once restrictions are lifted.
“One of the good things about being a small business is that you’re able to move quickly. If a corporation is some huge tanker, small businesses are like little nimble boats. We can navigate things like COVID much more quickly,” she said.