Separate Journeys Reunite Neighbors in Coffee Business

            The diverse and distant career paths of 1970s North Street neighbors Mike Caswell and Tony Tate allowed both to learn about coffee making from opposite ends of the industry and remote parts of the world, and after all these years the Mattapoisett natives are business associates sharing the common goal of great coffee.

            The Old Rochester Regional High School graduates haven’t seen each other in a decade, but their diverse areas of expertise address both the beginning and end of the process.

            Tate now lives in Hawaii and farms coffee within the only state in the country where it is grown. He supplies it to Caswell, the cofounder of New York-based Roasting Plant Coffee, which is sold in parts of the United States and United Kingdom and uses a special technology to preserve coffee’s flavor and aroma.

            When Caswell was an Industrial Engineering student at UMass Amherst, he worked weekends at the Coffee Connection on Newbury Street in Boston.

            Many years later, after stints at an MIT startup, Digital Equipment and Electronic Data Systems (EDS) as a Business Process Re-engineering consultant, Caswell moved to Seattle after he was recruited by Starbucks to lead their Profit Improvement Group.

            “They were more impressed by my early work during college at the Coffee Connection than the rest of my positions,” Caswell said. “But the work I did in business consulting won me the position.”

            Caswell later decided to become an entrepreneur, and his love of coffee and work in the field led to him becoming cofounder of The Roasting Plant.

            “After careful analysis, I realized that the only way to create an exceptional coffee experience at retail and improve profitability was through the application of technology,” Caswell said, calling it his “aha moment.”

            The Roasting Plant Javabot™ Coffee System was Caswell’s solution to providing top-end quality and at the same time increasing profitability.

            “It starts with green (raw) coffee beans and once they’re poured into the hopper on the Javabot, they’re swept through pneumatic tubes on a cushion of air to holding towers, to the roaster, then to clear-roasted holding towers and finally, the exact amount of coffee for each cup is precisely measured, ground and brewed to order – from any single origin specialty (the best) coffee beans,” he explained.

            Caswell said most coffee has a short shelf-life of around two weeks through oxidation and loses its flavor, becoming bitter. He says black coffee should not have the bitter taste that most people associate with it. His plant’s technology helps preserve it longer.

            “Also, unlike most coffee shops, we source directly from farms around the world. Our director of coffee is an amazing expert who’s obsessed with coffee, and she literally travels around the world in search of the best coffee. We’re very focused on making sure that we’re sourcing coffee that’s growing sustainably,” Caswell said.

            One sustainably grown coffee comes from Tate and his partner, Louis Putzel.

            Tate’s journey in the coffee world started in Africa, where he worked for a short time.

            “I first became interested in coffee economics when living in central Africa, a major coffee-producing region, in the 1990s. Farmers there were forced to sell their produce to government-owned parastatals, often at prices far below market value,” Tate said. “As such, a percentage of coffee was sold illegally and smuggled to neighboring countries – sometimes leading to arrests and incarceration of farmers. As a human-rights investigator, I would interview farmers and other accused in jails and prisons, detainees often held in squalid conditions.”

            Putzel’s parents moved to Captain Cook, Hawaii, the heart of coffee-farming country. Around 2012, Putzel and Tate began harvesting and selling it.

            Caswell, the beneficiary of Putzel and Tate’s hard work, says there are 15 Roasting Plant shops – 10 in the United States and five in London. The growth plan is to expand to 105 stores in the next five years, with plans of coming to Boston. He says he hopes there will eventually be shops from coast to coast.

By Jeffrey D. Wagner

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