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Coffee has always been about stimulation and comfort, two much needed things during a pandemic. Now that many of us are no longer grabbing a coffee and running out the door to work, brewing our own coffee at home has taken on a new life. Or, at least that's the mindset that Buffy Maguire and her team at Lady Falcon Coffee Club hope people are ready to adopt. In this Small Business Spotlight, we talked to Buffy about her inspirations of starting her own business and the challenges of taking their business online during the pandemic.
About Lady Falcon Coffee Club
Lady Falcon Coffee Club is an independent specialty coffee and cáscara tea company hailing from San Francisco's historic Ocean Beach neighborhood. They're a roaster, producer, and delivery service rolled into one, and are best known for their iconic coffee truck with their signature grey exterior and teal interior -- parked at San Francisco's historic Alamo Square on weekends. If you enjoy hearing their story, please be sure to support them online, or follow them on Facebook or Instagram.
Inspiration, Passion, and Coffee
It all started (as these things do) with restrictions and reasons to get out of them. In explaining her inspiration for the business, Buffy Maguire recalled reading books about Carville-by-the-Sea (an impromptu SF neighborhood in the early 20th century), and learning of the Falcon Ladies Bicycling Club which ultimately became the inspiration for the name of her business. The bicycling club did a lot to put the Carville area on the map and shape the stories there. For them it was about freedom, getting out and moving in a way that was often restricted. This idea struck her as both excellent branding and a way to commemorate their legacy.
Buffy, a third generation San Franciscan was into coffee early on and loved dwelling on the concepts in and surrounding it around 2006-2007. However, at the time that she started looking at specialty coffee, there was very much a niche definition of 'what specialty coffee should be'. This definition and the industry that surrounded it was often gated with a boys club feel, which made breaking into the space a challenge. Even today, less than 13% of roasters are women.
Buffy recalled that at the beginning she was dismissed and turned away often. On her path to self learning, she found that few people seemed to have the time for her intrigue but was undeterred as the challenge set her on a path to turn coffee from an interest to a hobby to her passion. Her first foothold came in late 2008 - early 2009 during the economic downturn where she was able to get a high-grade roaster on the cheap.
Buffy picked up a Probat, put it in her garage, and got to work. Like many new roasters just starting out, she started roasting light then went very dark. That's the way with coffee trends, she mused, with a constant swing between "dark beans are best" then "light" and vice versa. She is still using that Probat today.
In her experimenting, she asked herself "what about middle roasts?" What flavors and aromas could she find if she took her roasts a bit past light, but not too dark? Around this time, she started thinking about coffee through the lens of "experiencing" and wanted to explore the ideas around having a cerebral or sensual coffee experience. Typically you could talk to a barista and ask them what coffee tastes like, and they could go on about notes, taste profiles, etc., but if you asked them if they liked the taste, you may not get a straightforward answer...
Buffy wanted to accomplish two things: First, for her product to have more substance, and second, to build a more inclusive coffee company that focused on creating a more emotional experience. For her coffee drinkers, she not only wanted them to think about how the coffee itself tastes, but also how it makes them feel. Lady Falcon Coffee Club was built on that ethos.
Coffee, Ever Evolving
In recounting her own story, it was also important to understand how the specialty coffee industry developed in the US. There have been four major waves of coffee in the US, starting with the 1st wave of quick, instant coffee. Companies like Folgers got big with pre-packaged, easily delivered coffee after the rationing efforts of World War 2.
The 2nd wave hit with Peet's Coffee and Starbucks and the European-inspired focus on dark roasting everything. Eventually, this led to a 3rd wave with consumers wanting to enjoy and appreciate higher quality coffee and the emergence of new companies like Blue Bottle. In this 3rd wave, coffee became more of a ritual and less of a commodity, which led to the 4th wave, Buffy considers Lady Falcon to be a part of. In the 4th wave, medium roasts had taken the stage and single-origin blends remained. But more importantly, the 4th wave sought to rebrand the coffee 'snobbery' that the 3rd wave was cheekily known for. Most importantly, during the 4th wave, more roasters and producers had a voice and a directive to develop their own coffee and brands.
In terms of supply and production, most coffee companies have access to the same stocks of coffee, but it's the presentation that matters. A big challenge for Lady Falcon was building the marketing and packaging, and making that extra special. The team at Lady Falcon put a lot of time into figuring out how to make it work quickly. They figured out a way of setting the wax seal using a glue gun, a fun trick that saved a lot of effort.
Adapting During Covid
Right before the COVID-19 shut downs were implemented, Buffy and her team participated in a campaign with Nudge, a local startup where they handed out portraits of women for national Women's Day from their truck. She recalled that March 8th was the last day they were out on rounds before the lockdowns. At the time, she saw the COVID situation creeping in and made the decision to keep the team from going out. Soon after, a team member came and asked her for more work as they needed the hours, since other jobs didn't have as much availability. Buffy was shocked as she didn't expect people would want to work given the situation and potential risks.
For Lady Falcon, they had already been considering coffee delivery. While the Lady Falcon delivery truck did a lot to share the brand and the company's story, their team's primary goal was always in selling beans and tea, rather than lattes. By focusing on delivery, they were able to expand their reach safely, and they weren't limited to Alamo Square like they were with their truck. They were in local retailers like Bi-Rite, Williams Sonoma, etc, and could even take their brand to a national scale.
While the shift didn't occur overnight, the move eventually fell into a natural rhythm for Buffy and team. She enjoyed empowering people to make coffee themselves at home, and to build their own techniques and coffee rituals. To make delivery happen, she asked her team for ideas on how to go about providing contactless delivery and they came up with a plan to roast small batches to taste, and deliver quickly. To help with branding, the team worked hard by adding small gestures to connect with the customers, such as notes and wooden tokens, deliveries presented in compostable bags. These things give customers assurance that the company would be around after re-opening, and their customers, regularly gave positive feedback on their commitment to presentation.
Even when Amazon wasn't fulfilling, the team was busy getting products to their customers. Buffy pushed hard, even making late-night deliveries to make sure orders were fulfilled with a 24-hour turnaround. There were even days where her kids would ask where she was going and she'd respond "out on a delivery!" Because Lady Falcon didn't have a dedicated team for deliveries at the start, it forced them to build quickly and put a process in place to meet demand.
Building the Business Beyond COVID
While Lady Falcon has been able to return to a 'normalcy' with having their truck back out at their pre-COVID destinations, they've been able to expand their business significantly and expand beyond just the coffee truck. in addition to deliveries, they've expanded the items in their online store, and have added ways to increase cart size and customer loyalty with gift packages and subscriptions. On their marketing and branding, they've been making plenty of new content to teach their community how to brew the perfect cup of coffee; and while Buffy and team don't know exactly what's next with the pandemic, they've been able to meet these challenges, and create new opportunities for the business.
To learn more about the Lady Falcon Coffee Club, be sure to visit them online! And if you see something you like, feel free to use HATCH20 for 20% off your next coffee order!