Finnish Snowboarding Star Became Coffee Roaster in Portland
Driven by his passion for great coffee, Wille Yli-luoma put down his snowboard and started a coffee roastery in Portland, Oregon.
Never-ending search for perfection. That’s how Wille Yli-luoma describes his work as a craft coffee roaster in trendy Portland, the largest city of the state of Oregon on the west coast of the United States.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be perfectly happy with the final product. The day I feel I’m doing everything just right may well be the day I get bored with this business.”
The quest started out as a hobby. Buying better and better coffee grinders and espresso machines led to home roasting in the basement.
“I wanted to figure out why coffee had tasted one way today and another way tomorrow. The more I learned, the better I understood that it’s a living organism.”
The hobby soon became a passion, almost an obsession.
“My wife says I’m extreme at everything I do. I give it 110 percent. Whatever hobby I start, I want to get better and better at it. That’s how it was with coffee”
At the time Yli-luoma was making big bucks as a professional snowboarder, starring in sponsored videos watched reverently by aspiring young snowboarders all over the world. When he felt the time had come to transition to a second career, he knew what he wanted to do.
In October 2009 he opened his first café and started selling his roasts to Portlanders. Heart Roasters was born.
Starting a coffee roastery was not easy
Life as an entrepreneur was not easy at first. “For the first two years our coffee was good only every now and then.”
Opening a café without first perfecting his roasting skills was characteristic of Yli-luoma.
“I dove in head first without really knowing what I was getting myself into. For the first two years our coffee was not always great”, Yli-luoma says.
Luckily Yli-luoma had started his business before a craft coffee roaster boom hit Portland, and he didn’t have many competitors.
“We had lots of customers right from the start. Back then, the local Stumptown Coffee Roasters had a monopoly in Portland, and people were curious to try something new.”
Inspired by the Danish roastery The Coffee Collective, Yli-luoma wanted to bring lighter roasts to Portlanders, who were only used to dark roasts.
He kept studying the art of coffee making to improve his product. He read books and online resources and talked with other professional roasters. Eventually he started to get the hang of it.
“Nowadays we are known for our consistent quality. It would be awesome if we could wipe the slate clean and let everyone form their first impression of Heart Roasters based on our current product.”
Searching for the perfect green coffee
One of the keys to great quality turned out to be finding the perfect green coffee. Yli-luoma travels extensively to the countries that produce the coffee beans he buys, in search for the very best ones.
“Looking for the right beans is my favorite part of the job, but also the most difficult one.”
Another key factor is adjusting the roasting curves to perfect the taste, which he also enjoys very much.
In Yli-luoma’s opinion an open mind is the most important characteristic of a good coffee roaster.
“It’s easy to get stuck if you don’t stay open to input. You need to keep tasting other roasters’ coffees and if they’re doing a better job than you, you have to bite the bullet and admit it.”
“The most stressful part about owning a coffee roastery is waiting for a shipment.”
“If the green coffee doesn’t arrive here in good condition, we’ll have wasted 100,000 or 150,000 dollars. Then we need to find that shipment a new home.”
Yli-luoma is usually able to find a buyer willing to strike a bargain for a shipment that doesn’t meet the quality standards of Heart Roasters. That way, he only loses part of his investment.
“Some roasters here in the States choose to buy lesser quality to keep the prices down.”
Traveling up to four months in search of green coffee
When Yli-luoma isn’t traveling, his typical work day starts with an espresso at one of his cafes. Then he goes to the roastery to taste the coffee they have roasted the day before.
The rest of the day he spends reading and answering emails and planning for the future. Once or twice a week he also test-roasts coffee bean samples from different producers.
Yli-luoma used to be on the road for up to four months every year in search of green coffee, but lately he has cut back on travel to have more time for his wife and two daughters. This year he should only be away on business for about two months.
This gives him more time at their unassuming home, where his wife keeps everything in strict order.
“The best things about being at home are routine and relaxation,” he says.
Booming coffee business in Portland
Portland is surrounded by beautiful nature and the family often go swimming, biking, hiking or camping. They seldom drink coffee at home, focusing instead on food and wine.
In the first two years as an entrepreneur Yli-luoma was constantly wondering whether or not they would make it. At the same time he was adjusting to a totally new standard of living.
“In my snowboarding days money was never an issue. I could buy whatever I wanted.”
Eventually things started to turn around, and now business is booming. Heart Roasters roasts 6000 pounds of coffee per week and their product is sold not only in their own three cafés but at several other locations as well.
Yli-luoma sees the transition from rich sports star to successful entrepreneur as his biggest acomplishment. In the leaner years he learned not to bother too much about money.
“I no longer care what kind of car I drive, and have no desire to live in a fancy mansion,” he says.
“Now that we’re growing, I’m more interested in hiring more staff to have more time with the family than I am about making a bigger profit.”
If Yli-luoma could change one thing about coffee, he would create better standards for roasting and brewing it.
“There isn’t enough structure in our industry. I guess that’s the beauty of it, but at the same time it’s quite frustrating.”
In his personal life he doesn’t have any grand dreams for the future. Life is good, right here and now.
“It’s important for me to live in the moment.”
Wille Yli-luoma’s tips: How to open a coffee shop
- Find a good location with lots of foot traffic.
- Get a designer involved to help with the flow of the space.
- Keep it simple. There’s no need to offer tons of different brew methods.
- Buy coffee from a good, consistent roaster.
- Be patient.
- Offer fast service.
- Always be nice and don’t over-explain. Most of the time people just want a cup of coffee, not a lecture.