Four years ago, Jon Bixler and Cynthia Buck didn’t know a thing about coffee, but they did know David Greenfield. A bear of a guy with a shaggy gray goatee, piercing hazel eyes and a penchant for welding together brilliant contraptions for roasting coffee, Greenfield had a million-dollar idea without a home.
With more than 30 years in the java business, this quirky Coffee Whisperer had a plan to revolutionize industrial roasting. Well, not exactly a plan, which is where Bixler and Buck came in, with a solid business model and entrepreneurial experience. The three joined forces in 2012, and Santa Rosa’s Bella Rosa Coffee Company was born. Specializing in organic, fair-trade and shade-grown coffee, the trio are forging a new path to your cuppa joe, one bean at a time.
“We’re doing this from scratch and evolving,” said Bixler.
After three years of explosive growth, the artisan coffee company is on track this year to roast 200,000 pounds of coffee. By comparison, Starbucks will roast an estimated 400 million pounds, while tiny micro-roasting businesses may do as little as 10,000-30,000 pounds per year. Bixler said they have more than 120 accounts and growing in Sonoma County, with restaurants, grocery stores, hotels and cafés.
“There’s a renaissance in artisan roasting,” said Bixler, sipping a latte in the small café Bella Rosa operates in front of its manufacturing area. “We’re seeing in coffee what has happened to craft beer in the last few years.”
But it hasn’t always been a bed of roses. The trio is admittedly a bit different than the usual coffee magnates, forging a very personal path for the company. “We are unabashedly who we are,” said Bixler, who rarely minces words. “We want to have fun, and we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
With mismatched chairs and hand-drawn signs strewn about (including one over the recycling bin that touts itself as “The Most Ineffective Sign in the World”), it’s not a place for plugging into your Wi-Fi and tuning out the world. Instead, the Bella Rosa crew, who purposely don’t offer Wi-Fi, encourage having an actual conversation over your cup. Adding to the homey atmosphere, the son of Bixler and Buck, Giacomo, colors and makes Play-Dough shapes in the corner while an oven full of bacon perfumes the café .
“It’s not for everyone, and that’s okay,” said Bixler.
The coffee also reflects their unique perspective. In a world where bitter, acidic coffees are often the norm, Bella Rosa uses a unique hot air roasting method, rather than conventional metal plates, that creates a balanced blend they call “Sweet Medium.” Think air-popped popcorn versus popping it in a pan.
“We believe the sweet spot is right between dark, smoky coffees and light, acidic coffees,” said Bixler.
They also won’t give you the stink eye if you choose to personalize your order with creamer, Splenda, agave, sugar or CoffeeMate.
“I want people to put their two hands around a mug and say, ‘Ahhhhhhh, coffee’,” he adds, “not, ‘That tastes like lemon grass and burdock root’.” But selling their coffee around the globe isn’t the goal. Bixler said his primary focus is Sonoma County. “I don’t want to ship coffee to Florida,” he said, referring to buyers who would like to wholesale his product. “It isn’t eco-friendly or supportive of their local businesses.”
The next step for the business is to build and license versions of their roaster, which has a tiny footprint, a state-of-the-art-computer and can be adjusted to specific parameters (and checked for consistency) via an internal computer network. The new energy-efficient models are in prototype and will be able to roast 60 pounds of coffee in four minutes.
“Artisan production doesn’t have to stop at larger production,” he said. The new roasting technology will ensure a consistent product, consistent temperatures and consistent quality no matter what the amount produced, he said. It’s an ambitious plan, but one Bixler said his team is ready for.
“Either it will work or it won’t, and that’s fine as long as it’s on our own terms,” he said.
Bella Rosa Coffee Company, 5491 Skylane Blvd, Santa Rosa, 542-6220. Hours are 7 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays. Coffees also are available online in 10-ounce cans; 1-, 2- and 5-pound bags.