In this part of the 5-part series on building a stronger D.C. food economy, we’ll explore how Compass Coffee utilizes the Union Kitchen Distribution network to support its cafés and place its products on shelves around the District. We’ll dive deep into how Compass tests which products are ready for grocery stores, and learn more about what’s next for the D.C. juggernaut coffee roaster.
Compass Coffee started as a couple Marines in their basement trying to roast some coffee. After a year of experimenting, building their first café, and hiring a knock-out team, the first café and roastery opened its doors in Shaw.
In the six years since, Compass has grown from a single café to 12 locations with more on the way. They serve thousands of customers per day, and their iconic coffee tins are sold in grocery stores throughout the DMV.
How did they do it?
The first Compass Coffee product to hit the shelves was the 12oz, Whole Bean coffee tin. Available in any of the nine signature Compass blends, you could buy a tin at your local grocer and get it refilled at any Compass Café. It was a huge success, but it certainly wasn’t easy.
“Our products aren’t created in a vacuum,” says Compass Coffee Director of Corporate Development, Kuran Malhotra. “We rigorously test and retest every single product to make sure that it’s what our customers want and expect from us.”
This holds true for the newest Compass products just as much as it did for those first nine blends. Just like today, back in 2014, you could often walk into the roastery in Shaw, and take part in a cupping — a coffee lovers’ ritual that allows for exploring different varieties of the same bean or blend.
Different green teas laid out on a cupping table at t Compass Coffee's Roastery in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, DC.
“It’s a way to connect with our customers.” according to co-Founder Harrison Suarez. “It lets us share the craft that we love, and let people dive deep into the nuances of the coffee, without making it too esoteric or unapproachable.”
Today, while you may not be tasting a variation of those keystone nine blends, you can still walk into the Roastery and often partake in a cupping of the latest seasonal roast, or try the newest Compass syrup.
“Our customers’ feedback is the most important part of the process,” says Malhotra. “We follow the same guiding principle as Union Kitchen — make things people want. If the customers love something and want more, well that’s what we need to spend our time perfecting and producing. We’re here to serve our customers and make their days better.”
A sneak peak into the product development process at Compass Coffee.
Once the customers approve, the next step is rolling out the product in cafés. Across the 12 cafés, Compass has thousands of customers, all of whom are eager to try the newest product line. They provide feedback to Compass and serve as the first beta test for the mass market.
“If customers don’t absolutely love the new Chai recipe, we bring it back to the drawing board,” says co-Founder Michael Haft. “Same for our K-Cup packaging, tea blends, and everything else. It’s gotta pass the most important test: do our customers love it as much as the coffee?”
From there, the Compass team works with Union Kitchen to market-test the product in specialty grocery stores within the Union Kitchen Distribution Network. It’s a stressful time, according to Malhotra, “We know our customers love it in café, but will they love picking it up on their weekly trip to the grocery store? Will someone who’s never seen or heard of Compass want to buy a bottle of Lavender Honey syrup purely based on the packaging, the pretty purple color, and their own curiosity?”
That’s where Union Kitchen comes in — all Union Kitchen Accelerator Members, including Compass, give open and honest feedback about everything from taste to packaging, to help and support each other and promote a shared success in product development and brand building.
“Union Kitchen is super helpful across our operations,” says Chas Newman, Compass Product Manager, “They are a partner who is flexible enough to work with us on our evolving needs, and it’s been really valuable to get honest feedback and input from them as a different side of the food business community.”
From here, the next step is hitting the mainstream market. At this point, everything from color and flavor to the size of the opening on syrup squeeze bottles has been carefully considered (it’s about the size of a ballpoint pen, in case you’re curious!), and optimized to create the best experience for the customer.
“We’re super excited about our products,” says Malhotra, “we love our coffees, syrups, teas, and everything else, and our job is to make sure the buyers for retailers like Giant and Whole Foods do as well. We want them to try the product, explore it, understand it, and really develop a connection. If they can love it as much as we do, they will be just as confident as we are that their customers will love it too.”
A tin of Waypoint at regional DMV food store, Streets Market.
“The hope,” says Haft, “is that we can share our Real Good coffee with people across America, who may not be able to reach our cafés in D.C. Whether we’re developing new products or improving our existing ones, we always want to grow and improve so that we can meet our customers where they are and make their days better.”
Every day is a new challenge at Compass. Whether it’s perfecting the newest blend, pitching a new grocery partner, or creating a new product line, there’s never a dull moment at the roastery.