Jones Coffee Roasters is the kind of business you want to see succeed in the era of Starbucks. Located in a storefront that at first looks more like a garage or warehouse than a refined coffee house, somehow Chuck Jones and crew have created a space that feels both welcoming and communal.
Although Jones has only been selling coffee drinks since 2004, they've been selling beans to the public since 1994 and have been growing beans on their family farm in Guatemala, Finca Dos Marías, for five generations. Last week, I had the chance to sit down with Chuck and hear his thoughts about running a small business and the growth of Jones. Chuck knows what he thinks, and he's not afraid to tell you. This is not to say that he thinks he has it all figured out. After talking with him, it's clear that one of the things that keep him excited about the business is that he's learning new things all the time. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.
TB: It seems like over the past year you've had a bump in business here. Can you attribute that to anything in particular?
CJ: I think the first thing that happened is that we had an article. The LA Times did a secret tasting of French roasts around town. And we came in number one. I think that put us on the radar.
TB: I noticed that you have an average of 4.5 out of 5 start with 55 reviews on Yelp.
CJ: Yelp helps a lot. You can't compete with all the ad budgets out there. My pitch that I have to my wholesale customers is: If you want to be in the mediocre coffee business, you better have a lot of money. Because you're going to be competing with Starbucks and McDonald's and all the other mediocre coffee that's out there--but you're not going to need as much money for marketing if you have a premium product.
TB: So the retail portion of the business has grown organically?
CJ: Yes. Our annual ad budget is $200. When people call and try to sell us ads, I'll say, 'Our ad budget is $200. I'll throw it on the white board and see if it sticks, but I don't think it's going to work.'
For me, the root of the entrepreneurial spirit is making something out of nothing. When I was in elementary school, I used to pull the lemons off my neighbor's tree because they were hanging into my grandma's backyard, and I sold them to the market down the street. When I had too many lemons, I made lemonade. I used to stamp the lemons with a little happy face because I wanted them to be branded like Sunkist.
Back to the Yelp reviews. The only negative consistently mentioned in the reviews is the lack of parking. Because of limited spaces, the few spaces out front are limited to fifteen minute stays. Jones does offer free valet parking service during peak hours. I think reviewer Karen B.
puts it best, though (after awarding Jones five stars): "The parking sucks, but the coffee is so wonderful I'd be an ass to dock them for it. It is simply the best espresso I've had in the LA area thus far."
When I asked Chuck what he'd say if he had to distill Jones' mission into two or three sentences, he responded, "I don't know. I guess, life's too short for bad coffee. Quality trumps all gimmicks. It's worth the walk."