Staying Fueled and Productive During Times of Change
Coffee is part of many people’s everyday routine. Listen in as we talk with business partner Tim Volkema, CEO/owner of Schuil Coffee Company in Grand Rapids, to learn about everything from being a coffee sommelier to how his business has been affected by the pandemic.
00:04 Lynne Jarman-Johnson: Money, I’m Home. Welcome in, I’m Lynne Jarman-Johnson with Consumers Credit Union. From finance to fitness, we have it all. And today, we’re talking about a great business partner that we have, and also a little bit about what’s been going on with the pandemic and how business leaders are helping us all succeed. Tim Volkema is the CEO/owner of Schuil Coffee. And oh my goodness, when we can serve coffee, Tim, it is the most yummy coffee that is in our offices. [chuckle]
00:36 Tim Volkema: I’m glad to hear that, and I appreciate you having me on.
00:38 LJJ: Say, tell us a little bit about yourself. You’re a business owner, a leader in the community. Introduce yourself to our listeners.
00:46 TV: Sure, I’m from the West Michigan area originally, and then my wife and I left for 17 years, and I worked at some various places, [including] Amazon, Kraft Foods, just got some different experiences. But then when the kids got a little bit older, we thought it’d be great to be closer to her extended family and my extended family. And so we made the move back to West Michigan and looked for… I was looking for opportunities. And Schuil Coffee has been around since 1981 and was founded by the Schuil family. And they were in a period of transition and just looking to move on, and didn’t have an obvious choice within the family to take it over. And we met through a mutual friend and a connection was made. And we figured out a transition plan and made that happen about 3-1/2 years ago.
01:39 LJJ: Well, I think that’s about when I met you, which was an awesome meeting that we had in one of our offices in the Cascade area. And you were really excited about bringing Schuil into the marketplace, even stronger than it already had been. With your background and such, Tim, how has that been? You mentioned the word “networking,” and I think that that’s one thing that has been so successful for you, just continuing to connect with people.
02:10 TV: That’s what coffee is really about. People connect over coffee. And it’s true. Schuil is a local business. So we’re in a couple hundred stores throughout the state and a few in some surrounding states, but ultimately, we’re really strong in this market and especially on the business side of things. Like you alluded to the fact that we are in your offices and it’s… We’re just honored to have those kinds of relationships, and those are developed by this local networking. When we met, we got connected and we’ve had other meetings like that that have served us well also, which has been great.
02:48 LJJ: I know that the pandemic hits, March hits, and all of a sudden, the world kind of changes. We obviously had shut down our offices for a while until we could reopen safely. We still do not have coffee service yet, because it’s one of those up in the air components of what we do. But one of the things that has happened for us was that we had our CEO send each one of our colleagues a really fun box of Michigan goodies that kind of has helped us throughout this pandemic. And one of the supplies was Schuil’s coffee. And I think you’re going to laugh at this, ’cause it made me laugh, it still does, we started having arguments on who got the best flavor. [laughter]
03:34 TV: Nice, I love it. I love it.
03:36 LJJ: I want you to know that my favorite was in it. [laughter]
03:39 TV: What was that?
03:40 LJJ: Yeah, I like the Foglifter. I’m a big, bold drinker. [laughter]
03:44 TV: Excellent, excellent.
03:46 LJJ: But when you look at the pandemic and what has happened, how has that affected you, not only your strategy but also getting supplies and products? Has there been an issue with supplies and being able to really just be able to ship your coffee?
04:04 TV: There has been less impact than I thought there would be. So when it first… When COVID first happened, we thought, “What if they closed the ports in these coffee producing countries?” We get a ton of coffee from Colombia, Brazil, Ethiopia, all around the world, from several different origins. And we were just… And we have relationship set up everywhere but if they close the ports, that’s a huge problem. And so that was one of our biggest fears, is not being able to source the raw, green coffee that we roast and package and sell. So we bought up early. We basically stocked our warehouse to the gills, ceiling high. And it turned out to be okay. The supply chain never really broke down, in terms of that. We have had some challenges with elongated timelines for our bags, and they’ve added some tariffs to some of the equipment that we use, like brewers. And so there’s been some impact on the supply side.
05:04 TV: The bigger impact for us has been on the sales side. So we were in a lot of different channels. So we’re in grocery stores; we’re online. Those have been impacted, if anything, positively, by the circumstances. But we’re in other channels like offices and restaurants and churches. And that’s been terrible, because nobody’s going to work and nobody’s going to church. And so, it’s just been challenging for some parts of our business, but we’re fortunate in that we’re diversified into some other channels that have done well. So we’re thankful, and our team has been busy with those other channels. And so, like I said, we’re grateful but we have been impacted.
05:51 LJJ: As a business leader, when the pandemic hit in March and there was so much that happened that is just… A shut down, and yet you are a plant that actually produces and has to touch items and machines and… What was your plan? And how did you communicate with your team to, A, keep the spirits up and then continue operations?
06:14 TV: It was one of my biggest leadership challenges of my career, because we were able to stay open; we were part of the food supply because we could supply grocery stores. And so we never closed. We did modify our store a lot, and we did have to modify how that all worked. We went to online only or phone-in only, and then we modified that to, you can now come in the store but you can’t stay and you have to wear a mask. And so we’re trying to protect both the public and our team. But I’d say the biggest thing when we were first open, during the early, early stages of the pandemic, is just everybody’s scared. And so our team is like, “Oh, are we all going to get each other infected? Are we all going to die?” It was just, we didn’t know anything about this disease, and so it was very nerve-racking to say, “Well, we sort of have this duty to stay open. We don’t want the grocery store shelves to go bare, and people need their coffee. And we also are in a privileged position to be able to stay open, but we just have to do it carefully.” So we did our best, but it was all really uncharted territory. You’re trying to wipe all the services down all the time. But there is a laundry list of things that we implemented. To say it was challenging is an understatement.
07:30 LJJ: Tim, how important was communication to your team, then and now?
07:35 TV: I would say it was very… It’s always important, but I think during that first part of the pandemic, it was vital just because I think nobody knew what to make of it, and so it was like, “What are we doing to protect you, and how should we… ” We’re constantly getting questions from our wholesale customers, “Are you open? What’s your plan?” And so there was just getting everybody on the same page was really important. I would send out emails to the whole company, maybe every two, three days, just as to, “Here’s what’s new, here’s what’s going on.” And that has dissipated. I still do it, but much less frequently than I did in the early stages of the pandemic.
08:19 LJJ: How about your outreach to your customers, to those who… Even those that right now may not be able to order, only because of what’s going on in their own offices, but those that can, and how you can do things differently?
08:35 TV: Yeah, we definitely did some outreach just to let our customers know we were still producing coffee. And so if you do need it, we’re here. So that was really relevant for a lot of our online customer population and our grocery stores and customers like that. But you would have been a good example, where I think you had an internal email go out. We created a code for your company because…
08:56 LJJ: Yes, you did.
08:57 TV: We had people we assumed were working from home who weren’t used to working at home, and we wanted them to still enjoy the same Schuil Coffee that they were able to enjoy at the office. So we offered a discount code and just slashed our margin, which we’re 100% fine with in these times. We just want to keep people fueled and productive. So we did that with you and a number of other companies as well.
09:23 LJJ: I just love the words you just said, so let’s get to coffee, fueled and productive. Tell us a little bit about your philosophy with coffee. And how are you choosing what flavors and what countries to purchase from? What an exciting job you have.
09:38 TV: Well, thanks. It’s fun. I learned a lot about in the last three and a half years. I didn’t know much coming in, but there’s a scoring system that the industry uses, and that delineates specialty coffee from commercial coffee. And Schuil Coffee is a specialty coffee company. So what we’re really looking for, first of all, before we decide what formats or what flavors or what origins, is does it meet the specialty bar or not? And so that’s what we’re tasting for. And since becoming part of the company, I became a Q Reader and my daughter did as well with me, and so you just sort of get certified in actually scoring these coffees. So that’s the first thing…
10:19 LJJ: So wait, is that like a school? Like, how do you get… I want to be certified, Tim. I want that. This is cool.
10:24 TV: It’s a series of 19 tests. It’s challenging. It’s mostly sensory based.
10:33 LJJ: Wow.
10:33 TV: Sort of like a… It’s a little bit like a coffee sommelier. It’s what the coffee industry has that’s the closest thing, I’d say, to a sommelier. And so, you basically take all these tests and the triangulations where you’re trying to identify one coffee from another. And you’re trying to score within a certain range of the instructors to make sure that you’re scoring properly. It was an interesting process, and it was something fun for my daughter and I to pursue together. Anyway, that’s part of how we screened. And then once we have made that distinction that it is specialty and it’s appropriate to bring into our portfolio, then it’s like, how does it fit in with the rest of what we already have, and what flavors? There also is this whole thing, and we don’t need to go down this route in detail, but there’s non-flavored coffee and there’s flavored coffee. Non-flavored coffee is you buy the bean and you roast it and you package it. And flavored is you apply a flavor to it, so it’s hazelnut cream or coconut cream or macaron or fudge or whatever.
11:41 LJJ: Maple?
11:41 TV: Or Michigan maple. We’re rolling whole-bean roasted coffee in flavor, and then it absorbs into the bean, and so you get this different aromatic experience. And the taste of it, you can taste it, too, but it’s not as forthcoming, I guess, as if you had like a Michigan maple drink, where you’d have the syrup in your coffee. Like that’s… If you really want it to taste like maple syrup, then you do that, but if you want it to sort of smell and be a bit more subtle, then you buy a flavored coffee and kind of follow what we’re doing.
12:20 LJJ: When you look at COVID, the thought of saying, “Okay, you cannot taste and smell,” truly, especially for coffee drinkers, and I am a big coffee drinker and I love that first smell in the morning, it is just an intoxicant almost, Tim. I bet that probably when you look at what’s going on, that has to have some impact of people saying, “Oh my goodness, I need my coffee.”
12:48 TV: I think so, too. For me, it’s just a period of relatively high anxiety. Everything’s very strange. We can’t do the things that we normally want to do. I want to go on vacation somewhere, and they tell me I can’t do that, and so it’s weird. And so coffee, for me, at least, is this ritual that I have every morning. And I’m spoiled because I got exposed to all this different coffee. But even before this, like five, six years ago when I wasn’t even in the coffee industry, I still loved having that cup of coffee every morning. It was a source of comfort and a source of familiarity. I just really appreciated it, so I think that’s what we’re offering right now.
13:30 LJJ: Well, Tim, we sure appreciate you. I didn’t realize that I was talking to the sommelier of coffee, and it’s really incredible.
13:39 TV: Well, thanks. Yeah, we appreciate you as well, and you’re such a great partner. You’re so flexible and easy to work with. Your customer service is awesome. We love… I don’t even know if that’s the right word to use for a credit union, but we love banking with you. Whatever… Whatever word is appropriate.
13:53 LJJ: It absolutely is, Tim. [chuckle] Hey, listen, stay safe, stay well, and thank you so much. And for anybody who would love a little taste of Schuil Coffee, you can get it online. It’s there, and it is delightful.
14:05 TV: Thank you very much. I appreciate you having me.
14:08 LJJ: Thank you, Tim. Lynne Jarman-Johnson. Hey Money, I’m Home, with Consumers Credit Union. If you have a great topic that you’d like to hear about, just send it our way. Thank you so much, Jake Esselink, for your production skills, and I hope everybody has a great week.