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Meet Laurie Britton of Cafe Virtuoso

Today we’d like to introduce you to Laurie Britton.

Laurie, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
My background prior to coffee was in manufacturing. A close friend, who had been obsessed with coffee since as long as I’d known him, asked me if I wanted to be his partner to start a specialty coffee company. I was a little apprehensive at first.

At that time I didn’t know much at all about coffee—other than the fact that I loved drinking it everyday. After extensive research I discovered there was a huge opportunity to be involved with organic coffee: that’s when I became interested. For me, it is and has always been about how to make businesses more sustainable. Combining his love for the art and science of roasting high-quality specialty coffee and my passion for sustainability, it seemed like the perfect fit for us to carve out a niche in the San Diego marketplace, which at the time was very much in need of great coffee and espresso.

I agreed to go into business with him under one condition: that we become a 100 percent certified organic coffee roaster from day one. It’s a huge understatement to say that it’s no easy undertaking to do this and there are certainly no shortcuts, but for me, it was and still is worth all the trouble to make a difference. If it was possible to support and be part of producing top quality coffee that people came back for over and over because it tastes amazing without causing more pollution, significant destruction to the environment and poisoning all the people involved in the process then that’s what we were going to do.

At first, we ended up focusing only on wholesale, which was a great success, but after a while, we relented to many people’s requests and added a retail cafe inside the roasting facility. I ended up taking over the entire business in 2014 and rebranding. Based on demand, I also decided it was time to purchase new equipment in order to double our production.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Virtually everything is a challenge in having your own company. At first for me, it was the big scary things like signing a lease, the very first client contract and then even now it’s making those commitments based on long-term and big-picture ideas. There are no guarantees in life, so making these big decisions that affect others involved is terrifying.

The person with the big picture has to rally the troops and drag them into that vision. It’s a bit daunting, to say the least to ask that of people because you just don’t know what the outcome will be.

New challenges never seem to stop coming. I don’t think having a business is ever a smooth road, but at the same time, I don’t think I would want it any other way. In order to grow, no matter what it is, you must commit, push yourself and face those uncomfortable challenges and obstacles head-on; otherwise, you become stagnant. The last thing I want for myself, my employees and my company is to stop growing.

Success for me in my business is demonstrated by having the means to help my employees and my customers become empowered and to thrive. It’s about having created a company culture where everyone has like-minded goals to maintain the highest standards in every aspect to collectively make the business do well. I feel that we are successful because we have allowed people to take ownership of what they’ve accomplished, not just for the business but also for themselves and their own personal goals. The most important thing is about the quality of life that we create together for everyone involved.

Please tell us about Cafe Virtuoso.
Cafe Virtuoso provides the complete spectrum to our customers from procuring the highest-quality organic coffee and tea for our retail cafe and wholesale customers to supplying other businesses with retail products, brewing equipment, service and expert certified coffee industry training.

We are the only 100 percent certified organic specialty coffee roaster in San Diego and one of the few in the country. While working only with organic coffee and tea is important to us, the most important goal and number one focus has always been to make a product that people recognize as amazing quality; that creates a “buzz” so to speak and is in constant demand from our customers for more. If its organic, but tastes terrible, then there’s really no point. First and foremost it has to be good.

We are most proud that we have been able to achieve this. We continue to procure great tasting top-quality specialty coffee while also having preserved our organic and sustainable integrity through all of our growth. This is very difficult to do, while also maintaining quality and service. We are certainly not perfect, but I’m very proud of all the people we have that make up this company. They all continue to be willing to constantly learn, grow and improve our business processes to ensure that our customer expectations are always exceeded.

When it comes to being a certified organic roaster, what sets us apart, first of all, is that most coffee roasters don’t bother with it at all. The main factors are the expense and the fact that it holds people to extremely high standards, which can be very overwhelming.

In order to achieve and maintain an organic certification, you must follow a strict set of government regulations. In the US, these are established by the National Organic Program (NOP) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as it relates to agricultural crop production and must be able to verify that organic integrity is maintained throughout the process even through delivery to the coffee roaster, how its stored before roasting and the roasting process. This results in strong, traceable production and processing practices, providing consumers with the assurance that the organic coffee they are drinking is produced in a manner they can trust.

If you had to go back in time and start over, would you have done anything differently?
I think I would definitely try to react quickly to signs that things are not working.

Looking back, I tended to wait to see how things were panning out much longer than I do now. Currently, I look to find solutions when I see certain signs much faster. On the other hand, I think this also goes back to learning and part of the growth as a business owner. We all need those lessons and to make those mistakes in order to be better.

One thing I do really wish I had in those early days was a mentor. In fact, I could still use one today. I would love to have someone who I could turn to that has experienced something similar to what I’ve done and continue to do as I evolve and grow with my business, especially now as I contemplate how to expand the retail side. I think we all need people like that in our lives.

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