Bellwether Roaster in Firebrand Oakland CA

Last April, Bellwether Coffee announced their new ventless coffee roaster designed to help cafes and grocery stores roast in-store without having to install complex ventilation systems. Ten months—and $10m in additional funding—later, roasters are finally showing up around the country.

Bellwether began distributing roasters to cafes in the Bay Area (where the company is located) in the last quarter of 2018. The idea was to start close to home to ensure those customers were having a great experience before expanding further away.

The feedback must have been positive, because the first device to leave the Bay Area ended up in Sump Coffee’s Nashville location late January.

In the coming months, Bellwether will have roasters set up in Austin, Portland, Denver, and New York as well, but with sales reps being hired for eight more cities, it’s only a matter of time before that list becomes much larger.

“From our standpoint, for a company that just announced its product in April, the floodgates feel like they’re opening now.” Nathan Gilliland, Bellwether CEO, told me when I asked what it would take increase demand for Bellwether roasters.

And it makes sense. There are thousands of cafes in the US alone that would love to roast their own coffee in-house, but when they look at the labor overhead, the ventilation required, and the training they need, it feels overwhelming. “That’s really where our pre-orders have come from: those folks who said they’re interested in roasting, but who feel overwhelmed by the usual route”.

Nathan says Bellwether doesn’t really consider itself as a competitor to traditional roaster manufacturers. They not stealing customers away from that kind of coffee roasting equipment. They’re not having people rip out older, chunkier roasters in exchange for Bellwether’s vending-machine-sized device. They’re adding roasting capabilities for the first time in places where it would have never been possible before.

“For all of our customers to date, there is no way that a traditional roaster could have been put in there. They’re in urban locations and multi-story buildings. No way they could get the right permits or do ventilation in those stores.”

Roughly 40% of Bellwether customers are small cafes. Another 40% are multi-location chains—many of them ordering more than one roaster. The goal is to put an end to the ‘hub-and-spoke’ model of roasting, where a single facility supplies beans to a wide area of cafes, by enabling each location to roast its own beans using the same roast profiles stored online. This engages customers of each location with the roasting process, as well as results in better consistency and freshness for each cafe.

The remaining 20% of Bellwether’s orders is a “large national grocery chain”. Nathan’s been teasing us on who this chain is for months now, but we’ll have to wait a little longer.

“We hope to do an announcement with them in a month or two,” he said. “It’s a large chain,” he teased, once again.

One thing Nathan’s thrilled to roll out in the next couple of months is the ‘Tip The Farmer’ feature. Cafe and grocery customers will be able to walk up to the Bellwether roaster and add a tip that goes directly to farmers, rather than just tipping their baristas.

With coffee farmers often receiving under $0.75/lb of coffee (sometimes much, much less), even just one in twenty-five customers tipping $1 can double a farm’s revenue per pound—a dramatic jump. Nathan hopes to have more data on how this feature can impact farmers and customer experiences in the coming months.

Bellwether’s not the only startup working toward ventless roasting technology. Roastery (formerly Carbine Coffee) is also working on a cloud-connected roaster that doesn’t require ventilation, and Nathan believes it’s only a matter of time before the big players in traditional roasting equipment, like Loring and Diedrich, also start working toward more user-friendly, portable gear that can fit in cafes and grocery stores.

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