Childhood Obsession Drives Coffee Business
It looks like a cross between the “Wallace and Gromit” spaceship and the robot who was always yelling at Will Robinson on “Lost in Space.” It’s the Loring Roaster™ recently acquired by John Roos, and he can’t wait to show it off.
“It’s custom built and environmentally sound. And it’s more accurate; we can keep the same roasting profiles over and over. We’d sent some of our beans over to a guy who uses one of these, and we noticed a big taste difference. The coffee just tastes cleaner,” says the high-energy creator of Roos Roast.
The Loring is a quantum leap from the original Roos roaster, which is about the size of a toaster oven and currently sits atop a storage unit in the back of the flagship Roos Roast store on Rosewood Street in Ann Arbor. But it’s the logical next step for a guy who’s been obsessed with coffee for decades. As a kid, John Roos would run to the coffee aisle at the grocery store and inhale.
In the interim between childhood and the present, he’s been an itinerant cook, poet and artist, making his way around the United States and the world. All three vocations influence Roos Roast. His oddball names for brews—including Lobster Butter Love, the store’s signature heady, rich blend—spawn from smoky, bleary-eyed nights in poetry clubs where “you had to do something really crazy to get noticed.” The artwork in the stores and on the labels is his, too.
Cooking was his primary moneymaker until he had what he refers to as his “Aha Coffee Moment.” While John was operating a burrito truck near a windsurfing site, a sailmaker came up to him and said, “Coffee. Just add water.”
"That’s when it hit me: All the things you can cook are so complicated, but a good cup of coffee is so simple.”
He has roasted his own blend from whole beans before whole beans were readily available. The results were good enough that he’d make small batches to give and eventually sell to friends and customers from the time he sold cars at the Subaru dealership in Ann Arbor.
“It was ‘buy a car, buy a coffee,’ and the car dealers got really mad, and I drove them crazy, but I sold a lot of cars, so they put up with me,” says John.
He met Kath Weider in the Subaru parking lot. She worked at the time as a creative arts producer for Stamps School of Art and Design. “He had this unrelenting passion, and he worked his ass off,” says Kath. In 2008, the two joined forces personally (they got married) and professionally. John began a full-time coffee business, selling cups at the Ann Arbor Farmers’ Market; Kath kept her job with Stamps, but helped out as much as she could.
The business “blew up,” in John’s words, and “we needed to go legit,” says Kath. John shared a roaster with a small company, now defunct, that had its own equipment in a building on Rosewood Street, as well as an espresso machine. “Early on, we had about five customers a day. We used to call it ‘Ann Arbor’s Hardest-to-Find Café,’” Kath says with a laugh. “This all just kind of happened. It’s not like we said, ‘Oh, here’s our business plan, and here’s our training manual and here are our venture capitalists.’”
“The business plan was always just ‘Make good coffee,’” says John.
“It’s always had this funky, laid-back charm,” says Andy Tanguay, a former Ann Arborite and early Roos Roast fan. “It feels more like a little clubhouse as opposed to the daytime caffeinated singles’ bars that a lot of coffee places feel like.”
Now, Roos Roast occupies the entire building at Rosewood, and as of this year has expanded into a branch downtown, which features a small kitchen. “We were a little nervous initially. I mean, I’ve seen a lot of businesses not make it downtown. But when we announced the downtown store on Facebook, people went crazy,” says John. “That’s the thing: The people are what make Roos Roast; our awesome customers are so loyal and incredible. And the people who work for us are amazing.”
Barista Ashley Tomasczewski is one of them. She learned the trade in New York City while attending NYU. “As a coffee drinker, working at Roos is the best,” she says. “You have access to the best coffee around by far, and we’re always encouraged to be trying and exploring new things—making sure we really understand and know our coffees. It’s super important to us as a staff but also individually. We just got a couple of new light/medium roast coffees in, a Mexican Chiapas and El Salvador Las Nubes, and all of our light roast fans are freaking out. I really can’t express how great it is to be surrounded by other coffee geeks.”
Amidst the exploding growth, John and Kath believe that the key to staying sane is to “set the experience. So we’re not going to add some new thing to the menu, we’re going to make what’s on the menu really well. We’re not going to try some whole new business we haven’t tried.”
“It’s about relationships,” says Kath. “You know, coffee is a big part of people’s day, one of their rituals.”
“Coffee is a commitment,” says John. “And Roos Roast is everybody.” And then he and Kath head back to work.
1155 Rosewood St., Suite B, Ann Arbor
117 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor