Damn, it’s been a while since I sat down to write a blog. I'm Brice - the owner of Velodrome Coffee Company and here's a long overdue update!
Our last posts were about opening our roastery and shop in downtown Ishpeming. If you followed along on our progress, you know we did almost all the work ourselves in building out this space, it was all hands on deck for a long time. Long hours, lots of problem solving, and learning it all as we went along. Just at the start of biting into this expansion, my business partner of 4 years left the company. We adapted, the team got stronger and more focused. We got the roastery open, then the cafe but faced even more hurdles... All said, the blog took a back seat to everything that needed to happen. It finally feels like we’re settling in to our new normal now and I truly love what Velodrome has become. So much has happened and so much has changed, I feel like a little look back and an update on where we are at today is in order!
A lot has changed since opening our little 800sq ft cafe in Marquette in 2017. My wife Teagan and I planned to just run the cafe ourselves. We had one car at the time, freshly moved to the UP, I’d bike down from Negaunee early in the morning to roast on our little 2lb roaster and open the shop, Teags would join me a little later as the morning rush picked up. We added 2 employees, a couple of incredible people I will never forget. We hoped to stay small and lean into our unique way of doing things. The brand was everything to me and we really did succeed at FAST | SIMPLE | FRESH. The community supported us and we found a lot of people who cared about where their coffee came from.
I was 22 and with no business ownership experience I was making the best decisions I could. I met my business partner, first a regular customer, then employee, and soon after he wanted to buy half the company. He wanted an equal share so he would be equally motivated to help shape and grow the business. It was a tough decision to make, but shortly there after we were equal partners. So what? Well, this put Velodrome down a growth path, we were now trying to support 2 families and 2 other employees with our small cafe and it was clear we needed to grow substantially to make this happen. Looking back, I don’t think I realized how much of a key decision this would be for us. It was also more difficult than I expected to try and build a brand together when I had the idea and concept churning for years and had been working tirelessly in the coffee industry to gain knowledge and experience. I developed our unique sourcing model, roasting approach, and menu. Before we opened our doors there was thousands of our own cash spent, an unbelievable amount of time and stress, and many times it seemed impossible - I think those experiences created a deeper bond with the brand, concept, and business that my business partner didn’t have when he jumped on the ship a few weeks after our cafe opening. I certainly undervalued everything I had done up until opening. One of my first hard lessons in business is no one will ever care as much or work as hard as you, the owner. I think I assumed since I had a business partner the work and emotional load would be more equal. Sometimes I regret selling half the company a few weeks into opening, but usually I look around at where we are at now, the people who surround Velodrome and I know we could not have gotten here without the course we took.
Quickly we outgrew our little 2lb roaster and I drove down to Nashville to purchase a used 20lb roaster from a friend. I pulled it the 16 hours back with my Scion XB and a uhaul trailer… for real. My buddy Nick (the guy who got me into coffee) came to visit and we restored the roaster before installing it in its new home. We got an offsite roasting space and just grew our wholesale coffee program as much as we could. Our Director of Coffee, Riley, who still works for Velodrome came on board and since then our roasting operations have been smoothly sailing along! Having someone else to manage roasting allowed me to get out and sell.
We were able to purchase the building where our cafe located in - something I could not have done without my business partner and his family. We ran some great airbnbs and got to learn a whole new business of real estate and short term rentals. Just as we were hitting our strides in 2019 and figuring out how we’d do things, the pandemic hit. It was traumatizing to have spent years building a business to have the government force you close up shop. The Airbnb calendar cleared and there was a lot of uncertainty. Somehow we found some footing, got back open and still had a bigger year than the last in the height of the pandemic. We chased down every opportunity for assistance and just kept the foot on the gas. As we emerged from the Covid cloud we were continuing to grow… our rented roasting space was too small and there were times we could barely walk in the door at our little warehouse. We started looking for some cheap square footage to relocate the roastery and somehow we ended up in Ishpeming.
I was hanging out at Westend Ski and Trail in their original location when the owner, Spencer starts telling me about this building he’s hoping to buy. It was 11000 square feet in downtown Ishpeming. Maybe a little too big for a bike shop, so we made plans to split the parcel and we’d purchase one side. Initially we had seen the space as more turnkey, but after we bought the building and began the planning work, we realized we had bit off a lot to chew. As planning commenced my business partner and I just started butting heads more than usual. A few months later and there was an undeniable tension and distrust in our conversations and interactions. It felt like we were unable to make a single decision together but we had dozens to make in regards to the buildout. Anyway, without going to much into the details and only sharing one side of it - the result a few weeks later was deciding to split up. I purchased Paul’s shares of Velodrome and he and his father-in-law bought me out of the property at 519 W Washington.
This was certainly the start of one of the most refining times in my life. Not only was I dealing with the complicated mess of untangling our business partnership but simultaneously restoring a vacant 5500 sq ft building along with running a growing small business without a partner. 60 hour weeks were my new norm, and the amazing team that was there alongside of me through it all was literally the only thing that kept me getting up in the morning to show up.
We really dove into the build out in September 2021, we opened the roastery that same year in December and the cafe in February 2022.
Throughout the buildout process in Ishpeming something started to change… we met so many new faces and people in the community who were not only just rooting for us to open, but people would show up to swing a hammer, help with a project, or just to check in and chat. I can’t tell you how many people showed up at the exact right time. All of a sudden this location started to shift from just a good deal with a lot of square feet to the home and community we didn’t know we needed. Other business owners came along side us to encourage us and offer any help they could. Working with the city and DDA was actually a refreshing experience - it felt like everyone was in our corner. By the way, I’ve had several others say the same thing about starting a business in the Westend, it’s a unique place (shameless plug to bring business to Ishpeming.)
It’s been an incredible 5+ years since we opened our doors in 2017 and I could have never plotted out the journey we have taken, but I’m incredibly thankful for our community, our customers, and our dedicated team. It’s been an a bit of a roller coaster discovering who we are. In the past few years we’ve had our fair share of failures as well… but as Velodrome has matured it’s been more clear that failures can always teach you something. So we’re taking the last 5 years of experiences to shape Velodrome into what it will be for the next 5 years.
FAST | SIMPLE | FRESH - our tagline and driving motto since day one. We’re re-focused on the customer experience and we put everything we do through the fast-simple-fresh-test. Any new product, concept, or idea gets put through the test and if it fails even one aspect, then we’re not doing it. We always want to be a no-nonsense stop for quick coffee and food.
Personally Sourced Coffee - the reason I started Velodrome in the first place was to source coffee differently and we’re going back to our roots even more on this. We’ve had the opportunity to work with some of our farmers every single season since we opened and then we’d bring in some other nice coffees from farms we knew well or learned about. Before we knew it, we had way more coffees than we could properly serve and represent. So, this year we’re buying more volume of coffee than ever before but it will almost all be coming from farmers we have worked with year in and out. Expect to see more of our directly traded coffees in 2023 from farms we’ve visited served in our cafes and at our wholesale partners shops! We’re also getting back to origin this year to checkin with some farmers we’ve worked with for years and meet some new folks as well.
Our goal for the next 5 years is to focus on our core principles and not get distracted by every opportunity that comes our way. We want to only grow in ways that strengthen our original brand and concept. We want to settle into proper execution and stay focused on the founding principles that got us here. We have some exciting stuff in the works but it’s all about FAST | SIMPLE | FRESH.