When a teenage Jennie-Mae Skinner first pictured her dream coffee shop, it bore little resemblance to the circa-1904 storefront in downtown Richmond, Virginia, that serves as the HQ for her flourishing coffee subscription and custom wedding-favor business, Apropos Roasters.
“When I first started thinking about it, I thought I wanted a coffee shop on the beach that you could wheel the door out from and just be on the beach with the breeze…and possibly have live music at night, too,” she recalls. “And then I was like, ‘That is super expensive and ridiculous. Also, it’s hot on the beach.'”
Although the setting may have shifted, Jennie-Mae’s longstanding desire to establish her own community gathering place — “something like Cheers, only not a bar” — never faded. Now, from a 1,000-square-foot commercial space with a coffee counter in front and a roaster in back (plus an upstairs apartment she calls home), Jennie-Mae has created her own homey haven for caffeinated conversation — and the ideal workspace for roasting and packaging the beans she carefully bundles in favor pouches for weddings far and wide.
“[Before I found this space] I pictured lots of things — I was overly imaginative about everything. But you know, one of my biggest learning curves as an adult is that nothing is ever what you picture; usually it’s better, if you can let it do its thing and you don’t try to fight to make it what you pictured,” she says.
To learn more about how Jennie-Mae’s current reality measures up to her imagination, read on.
How did you first get into coffee roasting?
I started roasting coffee when I was maybe 17; I got a job one summer as a barista, and they happened to roast their own coffee there, which wasn’t the norm then. The guy who did all the roasting always let me help him, which it turns out was really lucky; I learned later that not a lot of people do roast their own coffee, and it’s a skill.
Every day, I had to drive 30 minutes to get to this job, but I kept doing it because I was determined I was going to own a coffee shop when I grew up. I didn’t even drink much coffee then, I think I just really wanted to have something like Cheers — only not a bar, because then you have to be there all night. So I thought a coffee shop was the next best thing for having people sitting around and talking. That was definitely a long-term goal, and I don’t even really know what put it in my head.
What came next? How did you go from learning the ropes at that first job to starting your own roasting business?
While I was still working at the coffee shop, I started going to school for business — and also working with a lot of other independent small businesses around town that were trying to open. After a while, I realized that I didn’t love business school, but I did like the hands-on work, so I dropped out of school and kept learning my way around small business start-ups.
Right about the time the economy tanked, I decided I was going to do my own thing, so I bought a very tiny roaster and tried to start a coffee subscription business: I wanted to deliver people’s coffee to their doorsteps. It turns out that I don’t know a whole lot about computers — and I knew even less about them then — so trying to get the word out was really tough.
During that time, I made some coffee favors for friends of mine who were getting married, and they were like, “These are cute; you should try to sell them on Etsy,” and I was like, “What’s Etsy?” People definitely had to walk me through setting up the shop — and even uploading pictures — but the wedding favors did really, really well. I did that for a couple of years and managed to save enough to get a little storefront going, and that was that.
So in the beginning, were you doing all your roasting at home?
Yeah, the roaster was out back in my glorified garage space — and I probably was not supposed to do that; I don’t think you’re supposed to have something smoking out of the back of your garage. At first my neighbors were like, “What the heck is going on over there?” But then they all got into it and thought it was really cool.
The biggest problem with that setup was that the roaster I was able to buy was so small it only could do two pounds at a time; when I started getting orders, it was literally an entire day of standing by the thing to get enough coffee done to complete them. I remember the first really big wedding order I got, for 300 favors, I was counting in my head, Alright, that‘s like 18 hours of roasting.
Still, I didn’t have the space for a huge machine, so I was working at the house for probably two and a half years. In the middle of that, while I was doing really well on Etsy, somebody locally was trying to get rid of a roaster — a big, real roaster. They found out I was doing this and asked if I wanted it, and I was able to buy it. But I still didn’t have anywhere to put it, which is what got me thinking, Okay, I need a real spot.
And then how did you find the space that you’re in now?
I looked around for so long; it was such a dream of mine to have a space that I think I was always wandering around looking. Before I got the roaster, though, I was never really financially prepared, or the places I saw weren’t where I wanted to be; then when I got the roaster, I was like, I need to do this.
I’m in a city, so a lot of the real estate is very zoned for what it is. And downtown Richmond, for whatever reason, we’re kind of revitalizing it — it’s not your typical downtown right now, and they really want businesses. When I looked at this building, it didn’t require so much of the permitting and it was right around all these offices, so I thought, Surely I’ll be able to sell some cups of coffee to these people. It’s the perfect place — and it’s kind of funny to me that the cheapest place was the downtown business area, but it really was at the time. It’s changing now: There are a bunch of new condos and apartments and businesses nearby.
How has your business evolved over time?
When I first started trying to do this, I was focusing on the coffee subscriptions — which are successful now, but back then it was a harder thing to market. So I had mostly those subscription listings and one wedding favor listing up, and when that sold, I started shifting to focus on that. I certainly never expected that: If somebody had said that I was going to work predominantly with brides, which I do now, I would have been like, “What?” I didn’t know anything about the wedding business. When it started working out, I was like, You know, I guess I should start getting these bridal magazines and researching weddings. The whole thing was very much a surprise.
Another surprise for me was that I really got into the design aspect of things. At first, just figuring out how to take good pictures and set things up right in my Etsy shop was a huge learning curve, and one I’m probably the most proud of myself for, because now I’m like, “Wow, I know how to use all this stuff!” And with the wedding favors, starting to design the custom stamps for them, when before, I didn’t even know how to use Paint on my computer — it’s like finding a talent that you didn’t know you had. Once I figured out that I could design things and felt like I was getting okay at it, it became something that I really loved to work with. So that’s a lot of fun, and that’s a thing that’s evolved that I would have never expected. And it’s responsible for my whole business at this point — it funded opening a small coffee shop, and now we sell coffee and lattes and we work on favors when it’s not busy.
What about your roasting? Has your approach to that changed at all, or did you learn everything you needed to know from that first job?
The thing with coffee is that you never really know it all. There’s so much that can go into it, but for me that’s a good fit, because I don’t like any day being the same. But it’s a long process, and I honestly don’t roast like they roasted in the shop where I learned, because they basically throw it in till it’s black. That’s the old-school, burn-the-coffee style of doing things.
Since then, I’ve gone to a lot of dorky little coffee fests and I’ve sat through some classes and definitely talked to a lot of roasters; there are some around here and we’ll trade notes. I think for me, roasting has been about learning just by standing there: You smell it and see it and you can hear it — it actually cracks like popcorn. So it was always very hands-on for me, like cooking; I’m always right there. I’m the only one that touches the roaster and it definitely will always be like that. Roasting is something you just get such a feel for that things become ingrained. Certainly, when I get a new coffee in, I have to try it out and figure out the best method, but I’m less of an analytical person and more about going by feel and intuiting what has to happen.
I’ve also learned a whole lot about sourcing the beans, especially in the last two years. It’s really important to me to get them from someplace that is practicing sustainable farming methods. Most important, if I can afford it, is to buy from the smallest farm I can. We’ve got a Colombian in right now that is a direct trade: It comes right from the farm and they’re getting all the money that I’m spending on it, which is a really cool thing. That’s something I feel like I’m learning right now — how to source beans from these very small places. It can get confusing, and it’s hard, and you still have to have distributors and importers sometimes to help you out, but I’ve certainly learned a lot about working with all kinds of different people for all kinds of different beans.
You’ve mentioned before that sustainability is a big concern of your business — can you tell us more about that? Was that always in your business model or did it come about later? What are some of the ways that your concern for sustainable practices comes through in your product?
I think that’s something that has always been in me, in my heart. When I was a little kid, I tried to save the world by cleaning up trash; my dad’s a state park ranger and I grew up living in the parks. I could be considered a little hippie. That’s something that just runs really deep for me: You don’t litter, you always reuse, you support the people that are supporting you.
When it comes to my products, I feel very passionately about two things. I geek out about packaging: I want it to be something that is recyclable or compostable. And then also, I want to source things that are sustainable. Certainly, it can be a little trying sometimes; you can definitely get your supplies cheaper. And with food and favors, I know that people are on a budget — but at the same time, I’m just not comfortable using a lot of plastics, for example. I’m really adamant about that.
The paper wrapping that I do for the favors now was actually an accident, because I didn’t have the money for those fancy coffee bags with the lining. I was trying to figure out something I could do, and I was wrapping these favors up myself, and people were like, “You know, it actually looks really cool.” The more I got into doing that, the more I realized that we don’t need the fancy packaging that has all the plastic and never breaks down. What we have is not only perfectly good, it’s better than that — it’s cute, it looks nice, it’s thoughtfully done, and it’s not plastic. And that’s great.
What’s been one of the most rewarding parts of building your business?
On a big level, every single day when I walk into the shop I still think, “Whoa, this is mine!” That’s very rewarding, that I’m doing what I want to do every day. It’s cliché, but it’s true — especially when I’m working downtown around a lot of people in offices; you know, they love coming in, and it’s the highlight of the day for them to get out of the office, and I’m just like, I am so lucky because I never want to get out of my office. I want to be here all the time.
And on a smaller level, when I’m working with a bride who is either on a really tight budget or has a very, very clear vision of something, and trying to make that happen, and then making it happen…I don’t get to see the favors in action very often, but every once in a while I’ll get a thank you card with a picture of the couple or a picture of how the favors were used, and that’s always my favorite thing. We’ve talked about something for a day that’s so important to them, and to get to see them and see that I gave them something that was thoughtful that they love — I really get a big smile out of that.
What’s your best coffee brewing tip? Is there some little thing that lots of people get wrong — or that they could be doing better?
I think the trick with coffee is not to get too bogged down — there’s just a billion ways to make it. I personally have all of them, even the huge espresso machine, but I still use an Aeropress every morning. I love that thing; I think it is by far the quickest and best cup I can make. I also tell people, when they want to get into the gourmet coffee world, that grinding your own coffee right before you use it will take everything up about five notches. That’s where you get all the initial flavors. Of course, it will still taste like coffee months after you’ve ground it, but you can grind it yourself — and you don’t even need a fancy grinder. Just get a blade grinder, a little cheap thing.
My other big tip is to do what you like. I think we also get kind of caught up in what the trend is and these things that are “cool,” and really it is a personal experience and a matter of taste. When people tell me what they like and then say, “I don’t know if it’s wrong or right,” I’m like, “It’s what you like — it’s definitely right.” In the shop, I do keep everything to a medium to light roast, because that’s my preference, and since it’s my shop I get to do it, but if you want a dark roast, I can dark roast it. You should never be worried about whether you like the right thing, you should just be super stoked on the cup of coffee that you’ve made.
What’s next for you? Do you have any exciting new projects in the works?
I just signed the lease on this little shop a block up from here — it’s really cute, and it’s on the corner so it’s got the big corner windows — and I want to open up a market/convenient store kind of thing in it. I’m so inspired by Etsy and all the artisans out there, so I was thinking of a shop that could sell some local products along with drip coffee and grab-and-go items. The neighborhood’s really developed since I’ve been here, and we could use more places like that. My initial thought was actually that I needed more storage for all the Etsy stuff and the paper products I order in bulk, but then I got in there and put some paint on the walls and thought, You know, this is cute, maybe I will do this market thing. I don’t know how long it will take me, but it’s exciting.
All photographs courtesy of Apropos Roasters.