#27 The Exchange: Connie Blumhardt Publisher of Roast Magazine

The Exchange Green Coffee Podcast Season 3 Episode 2
Posted in: Relationships
By Olam Specialty Coffee
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#27 The Exchange: Connie Blumhardt Publisher of Roast Magazine

#27 The Exchange: Connie Blumhardt Publisher of Roast Magazine

Connie Blumhardt joins Mike Ferguson to talk about their 24 years as friends in coffee, starting Roast Magazine in 2003 (or was it 2004), and her observations of the coffee roasting sector.

Mike: [00:00:18] Welcome to Season 3 Episode 2 of The Exchange, a coffee podcast where coffee people talk to coffee people about coffee and/or things coffee adjacent. I'm Mike Ferguson, and for this episode, I'll be your host as we speak with...

 

Connie: [00:00:33] Connie Blumhardt. I'm the Founder and Publisher of Roast Magazine. And my first job in coffee was selling advertising space for Fresh Cup Magazine starting in 1997.

 

Mike: [00:00:43] Okay. So Fresh Cup magazine, 1997. That was your first job in coffee?

 

Connie: [00:00:49] That was my very first job in coffee.

 

Mike: [00:00:51] And who was the editor then?

 

Connie: [00:00:53] The editor was Valerie. And her last name is eluding me right now, but she was only there for a short time. And then Rivers Janssen took over.

 

Mike: [00:01:05] Rivers. So the first time that we met, and we'll talk about when that was in a minute, I know it was in Philadelphia or that's my memory. But you were with Rivers and we had lunch or dinner. And what I don't remember is if it was in the fall of 98, during the committee meetings, SCA used to have committee meetings where all the...

 

Connie: [00:01:29] Yes. Those were great.

 

Mike: [00:01:29] Yeah, everybody came to town where the conference was going to be the next year and all the committees would meet and plan for the next 12 months. So I don't remember if it was the fall of 98 during that or if it was in the spring, actually during the SCA conference in Philadelphia. Do you remember?

 

Connie: [00:01:45] I think you and I met at the committee meetings in 1998. Definitely. I have vivid memories of the meetings. Those were always a really fun time to connect with people and get to know people. And then I think the instance that you're talking about was actually at the conference when Rivers was there and we were together and we had dinner and I believe we had dinner with your wife as well.

 

Mike: [00:02:14] That's right. Okay. So I'm mixing up two different...

 

Connie: [00:02:17] I think they both happened. Correct.

 

Mike: [00:02:19] So at the committee meeting, you were on the...

 

Connie: [00:02:21] I think it was the well, it ended up being called the Allied Resources Committee or something like that. But it was the committee that dealt with the trade show planning.

 

Mike: [00:02:30] So committees and volunteering, a lot of our experience and a lot of I mean, we've been friends since then. I guess 24 years.

 

Connie: [00:02:39] Yeah. Crazy.

 

Mike: [00:02:40] Yeah. I don't like thinking about it, but it's been a long time.

 

Connie: [00:02:45] {laughter} It went fast.

 

Mike: [00:02:46] I mean, that's almost half of my life.

 

Connie: [00:02:48] Aw, we've been friends half our life. Those were really, really fun times. The beginnings and how things were back then versus how they are now. I know we're going to talk about that a little bit later. I think that the committees and volunteering and the SCA events really shaped at least my industry and my business. Those are the people that we met at those committee meetings. Those were people that were the movers and shakers in the industry. And they either supported Roast and advertise or they supported Roast and wrote for the magazine. And I feel like that was the stepping stone to where we are today. And I'm super appreciative of those moments. And I really miss those. I really miss the committee meetings. They weren't like the expo where you are too busy to talk to anybody. They were quieter and they were all about building relationships and it was a good time.

 

Mike: [00:03:57] Yeah. And sort of tied up with that was what I think of as the road warriors. But we would see each other at Coffee Fest and NASCORE. And for those who don't know NASCORE, why don't you tell us what NASCORE was?

 

Connie: [00:04:11] So NASCORE was the North American Specialty Coffee Retailers Expo, and it was the trade show that Fresh Cup Magazine produced. And I'm not exactly sure how many years they put the show on, but then it eventually transitioned into The Fresh Cup Roadshow for a couple of years. When the roadshow started I had just started Roast, so I only did... I think I did one roadshow. They were small and it was expensive to go to all of these events. And it's funny that you brought up the Road Warriors because I'm still a Road Warrior.

 

Mike: [00:04:52] How many shows do you do a year now?

 

Connie: [00:04:54] Oh, my gosh, we do... We have some team members that do some of them, too. So we do SCA Coffee Fest, World of Coffee, the Pacific Coast Coffee Association event, NCA, the National Coffee Association event. Those are kind of the main ones. I don't do any of the restaurant shows anymore or the Fancy Food shows. When I was at Fresh Cup, we used to do all of those.

 

Mike: [00:05:18] Yeah. Fancy Food. My memory of the Fancy Food show, SCA would do a reception at the Fancy Food show.

 

Connie: [00:05:26] Oh, yeah, that was fun, too.

 

Mike: [00:05:27] Yeah. And a membership reception.

 

Connie: [00:05:30] Yeah. I forgot about that.

 

Mike: [00:05:32] And I remember, one year at Fancy Food, after the reception, we went to dinner and it comes to the end of dinner and I don't remember who was there with us other than you and I were there. And at the end of the dinner, you look around the table and you go. Isn't anybody going to ask me why I'm not drinking?

 

Connie: [00:05:50] There was, we had a meeting there. You were there, too? I don't know. Well, that might have been. It was the same weekend and there was a meeting with the Allied Committee. Yeah. And Deborah from Café D'Amore. She was the one who asked, "Why are you not drinking?" And then it was revealed I was having twins who are now 16.

 

Mike: [00:06:16] Yikes. So, yeah, we were... There was a group of us that were always at those shows. NASCORE and Coffee Fest and a few others. And we're pretty close. And we always saw each other, and there was a lot of support. And I have a lot of good memories of those people.

 

Connie: [00:06:33] I do, too.

 

Mike: [00:06:33] Yeah. The good old days.

 

Connie: [00:06:37] The good old days. We're those people now talking about the good old days.

 

Mike: [00:06:41] Yeah, I know. I feel a little bit like Johnny Carson, his last five years doing his show. He's like having Buddy Hackett and...

 

Connie: [00:06:50] Oh, man. Right. Oh, my God. Stop it. Stop it.

 

Mike: [00:06:55] And then I think the last thing we sort of did industry-wise together, other than we've worked together on like throwing parties, I think Batdorf and Bronson, we worked together on a party. We worked together on a party for New Orleans, but that didn't happen because we didn't end up going. But we were on the board together.

 

Connie: [00:07:13] We did a couple of other parties, too. We did one in Los Angeles.

 

Mike: [00:07:17] Oh, right, yeah, right.

 

Connie: [00:07:18] Yeah. I think it's really important, we talked so fondly of those meetings and being Road Warriors together, and I think it's so important to try to keep that type of in-person interaction going. So it's not just us catching up with each other, but hopefully, we can be mentors to the new people coming into the industry and remind them how important it is to have to make these relationships with people. Because coffee is wonderful. And the fact that people like you, people that I met first on, I'm still friends with them. I know their families, I know their kids. I really think it's important that we can maybe keep some of those events going so that people can form their own new relationships and also so we can keep meeting the new people in the industry too.

 

Mike: [00:08:19] Yeah, so important the relationships. I'm fond of saying that coffee is a story, but I also say that coffee's relationships. Definitely been true for my career.

 

Connie: [00:08:27] No. And then we might, some people might transition to new companies or they might start out as a barista and turn into a roaster, then turn into a green buyer. Those are all the people that we want to foster along the way and events that bigger companies like yours and mine, you know, the bigger events, the smaller events that we have, we're fostering those people in their career in coffee too.

 

Mike: [00:08:51] The last thing we did, volunteer-wise, is we were on the board of Coffee Kids together for a time.

 

Connie: [00:08:57] You know, I think that that was a bittersweet volunteer piece for me. We tried really hard to make it work and there were elements of it that worked. But it was just, it was hard to get over the hurdles. And I'm glad it was taken over by the Neumann group and hopefully it will continue its work.

 

Mike: [00:09:22] And I want to talk about a Roast Magazine, which you founded in 2004. Correct?

 

Connie: [00:09:29] Correct.

 

Mike: [00:09:29] Okay. Did you not remember? {laughter}

 

Connie: [00:09:32] Yes. I always struggle with I actually started the company in 2003, but our first issue was in 2004, and I always struggle with that date. So here's a good question. Do I celebrate our anniversary in 2003 or 2004?

 

Mike: [00:09:46] I was going to ask you that same question.

 

Connie: [00:09:50] {laughter}

 

Mike: [00:09:51] I think that you celebrate privately with your team in 2003 and then you celebrate... So let's have two parties. And then celebrate publicly in 2004.

 

Connie: [00:10:04] There you go. I think you were correct.

 

Mike: [00:10:07] So in any case, it's coming up on twenty years. So tell me the story about that decision. So you're selling advertising for Fresh Cup Magazine.

 

Connie: [00:10:13] Yeah. So I worked for Fresh Cup for six years. And again, I go back to these relationships that I formed and I love selling ad space. It's still one of my favorite things to do for Roast even. I don't sell all the ad space, but I sell some of it to our older customers.

 

Mike: [00:10:37] Long-time customers.

 

Connie: [00:10:38] Yes, long-time customers. I left Fresh Cup. I didn't really have a plan for what I was going to do. I had this sort of idea that there was space in the coffee industry for a magazine for the roasting community because the Roasters Guild had just formed. You could kind of see that there was a lot of energy, good energy around that group. And you could just sort of see that there was a need for more technical information. I think you were one of the very first people that I called to gather your thoughts about the idea. And, of course, you were super supportive. And that's how it started. I think I stopped working for Fresh Cup in May, and then I spent the summer sort of writing the business plan and putting things together. And then in the fall, I made the announcement at the planning meeting that I was starting Roast, and it was mostly everybody was super supportive of the idea. There were a couple of people who were like, "There are too many magazines already. You don't need to do it." But since then, I'm not naming names, but some of those people did come back to me later and say they were wrong, and there was obviously space for another magazine. And then how many magazines have started since then? More than just Roast.

 

Mike: [00:12:13] Yeah, no, I remember at the time. There were the resources for roasters were sparse to say to least.

 

Connie: [00:12:23] Oh, man, there was hardly... There was nothing.

 

Mike: [00:12:24] I mean, we had Mike Sivetz's book, which was, you know, a lot and really detailed and really technical in science. And then there was Ken Davids' book on home roasting, which he always assured me it was really on roasting. Home roasting was something his publisher made him put on the title. But that was really it. There wasn't a lot available.

 

Connie: [00:12:46] Right.

 

Mike: [00:12:47] So the timing was great. I thought it was a good idea.

 

Connie: [00:12:50] The timing was absolutely perfect.

 

Mike: [00:12:52] Yeah. So do you remember when the idea came to you?

 

Connie: [00:12:56] Well, when I left Fresh Cup, I knew that I wanted to stay in coffee. I had developed all these relationships, and I wasn't an entrepreneur type, so I wasn't immediately thinking I should start my own magazine. Not at all, actually.

 

Mike: [00:13:11] Right.

 

Connie: [00:13:11] But it just kind of kept gnawing at me, like I think people would support it. There's definitely a need for it. So, yeah, with that knowledge, I just, I just went for it.

 

Mike: [00:13:25] Yeah, I have a memory. I don't know where we were, but it was sometime after Roast had started and hadn't been going that long. And I asked you how it was going, and you said, "It's going to work."

 

Connie: [00:13:41] {laughter} Well, that's probably how I put things in... I'm very much a realist. So it's either going to work or it's not going to work.

 

Mike: [00:13:47] You know, the advertising was working. The magazine was going to work. That was great. So if coming up on 22 years or 20 years. Either next year or the year after, depending. If you could go back in time and talk to Connie in 2003, what would you tell her?

 

Connie: [00:14:10] I would tell her I feel like I used to worry so much about what other people thought. I would tell her to just relax a little bit. There are bumps all along the road in business. And I think what I've learned is I don't overreact to things where I think when I was younger, I definitely overreacted and I wanted everything fixed immediately. And now I'm a little bit more laid back and I guess that comes with confidence. I can take a step back and just say, "Okay, let's look at the situation. Yes, it might be bad, but we can fix it. This is how we fix it and this is how we move forward." Yeah, I think that's the information I'll probably give myself. And I wish I had more confidence. It took a long time to gain that confidence. And I have it now. And not to be afraid of going for something. Just go for it. It was definitely the hardest thing I ever did to start Roast. I had to take a leap of faith in myself. I had to take a leap of faith in my customers. I had to take a leap of faith in the idea. And I guess that's what entrepreneurship is, right? I had never personally taken that leap. And when you're younger and you have energy, go for it. Don't wait. Just try it. Because now I have all these great ideas, but now I don't really have the energy to make them.

 

Mike: [00:15:47] Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. Over now almost two decades, what is some of the best advice you've ever seen in the pages of Roast Magazine for roasters?

 

Connie: [00:16:00] Probably like how to buy equipment, how to buy green coffee and all of the technical information that our writers have written for Roast because we're not roasting experts or green coffee experts. So we've relied heavily on our writers, and I have to thank them immensely for all their contributions. I think just being able to provide this technical magazine for people in coffee has been amazing because there really isn't anything else like it.

 

Mike: [00:16:31] No. And writing for Roast, I can speak from experience.

 

Connie: [00:16:36] Yes, I can thank you personally.

 

Mike: [00:16:37] It's quite the involved process relative to other magazines, which I really appreciate.

 

Connie: [00:16:45] I've heard that before.

 

Mike: [00:16:46] Yeah, a lot of work goes in and it's not just the writer, the editorial team, the advisory board. It's a challenge. It's a great challenge. I enjoy it. But stuff isn't just being tossed onto the pages at Roast.

 

Connie: [00:17:01] Absolutely not. No, that's kind of been our mantra, and I think that's what's given us the brand credibility is what we put out.

 

Mike: [00:17:09] Roast is no longer just a magazine. We've got Roast Awards, surveys, Daily Coffee News. Let's see, book publishing. Events. And roast is also international.

 

Connie: [00:17:25] Correct. We call ourselves a platform now.

 

Mike: [00:17:28] Platform. That's right.

 

Connie: [00:17:31] We are a media platform. Mostly in-house. I don't really say that it's not printed anywhere, but we really do have a platform, right? I mean, we have Daily Coffee News. We have really large followings on social media. We have Roast Summit, which is our event, and it was live in 2020 and then we did it virtual for 21 and 22. And then it should go back to... Well, we're trying to decide how we'll handle it for next year. But there will be some in-person aspect because we again want to foster in-person meetings and people building relationships and such. And then we introduced a roast grant this year. We awarded a $5,000 grant for people doing good work in our industry. We have Roaster of the Year award. We published a new book this year. We published five books now and the new book is Green Coffee Sourcing Book written by Chris Kornman. And we're busy. We just want to build our platform and provide as much as we can to the industry.

 

Mike: [00:18:49] Yeah, I really love seeing the book publishing part of your platform. We can't have too many books on coffee, in my opinion. Probably biased as a writer. And then Daily Coffee News is a part of my day.

 

Connie: [00:19:02] Thank you. Yeah. Nick Brown and Howie and the team over there, really have such a high standard in news for the coffee industry. And thank them for doing their jobs and being upstanding citizens. And I think what they do is amazing. Happy to be part of their team.

 

Mike: [00:19:24] It's more than 20 years that you've been in the industry. It's I think 25, right?

 

Connie: [00:19:29] Yeah.

 

Mike: [00:19:29] Yeah. So what are the biggest changes you've seen to the industry and then perhaps in the roasting sector specifically?

 

Connie: [00:19:37] Well, some of the biggest changes in the industry as a whole are just this, when you and I started, there was just a coffee industry, right? There wasn't a barista community. There wasn't a roasting community. You know, there wasn't a technician community. And to me, that's one of the biggest things that as an industry that's how we've changed and grown. And also in Asia, when we started, I don't remember anyone talking about coffee in Asia. We had coffee in Europe and that's all we talked about. And obviously, we talked about coffee in the growing origin countries as well. But in terms of retail coffee, to me, that's the biggest growth. You have Asia that just moved in and they're their own segment now. And then you have all these different communities that popped up and started facilitating the industry and helping it grow.

 

Mike: [00:20:36] Right.

 

Connie: [00:20:36] And then I think the roasting community sector just seemed so small when we started, and now there are so many people. I felt like in the early days of roasting, I could say I had at least heard of all the roasting companies. But now it's like impossible. There are so many.

 

Mike: [00:21:00] Remember when we thought we had a complete list of all the roasters?

 

Connie: [00:21:04] {laughter} Yes. Yeah, that's a great... It's so funny now.

 

Mike: [00:21:07] We have roasters signing up for accounts here. It's not if we'll have a roaster sign up for an account today, it's how many signed up today for an account. It's just so hard to believe that there are that many people out there roasting. Having watched roasting businesses for so long now are there things that you think that successful coffee roasting businesses seem to have in common with each other when a company is successful that you can count on seeing inside that company?

 

Connie: [00:21:37] I really do. I think if you look at some of the original coffee roasting businesses that grew into some of the larger companies. I mean, they're not Folger size or anything, but larger micro-roasters. I think one of the things that we both can probably mutually agree upon is that you really saw these were small businesses, they were entrepreneurs, and they were very passionate about what they did. And with their passion, they were super likable people and they were all very similar. If you look at the founders of Intelligentsia, the founder of Suntown, Counterculture, all those people, they do share some of the same characteristics. They're super passionate about what they did. They were willing to put themselves out there to try to build the industry. And with that, I don't know if they were trying to build their name and brand and reputation, but they did.

 

Mike: [00:22:36] Right.

 

Connie: [00:22:37] And I think we're seeing some of that today, too. We still see it the same way. If you look at the owners of Little Waves Coffee, I mean, they are amazing in the same ways as the founders of the companies that I just mentioned. They're passionate. They're willing to put themselves out there and they want to make a difference. And I think those are the things that contribute to the success of Coffee Roasters.

 

Mike: [00:23:06] As far as COVID goes, and again, from your desk, how has the industry or the roasting sector done in terms of weathering the pandemic?

 

Connie: [00:23:18] Well, I think it's a little bit hard for... I mean, I'm only speaking from what I see. I'm super comfy and cozy in my office. COVID didn't affect my business the same way that it affected coffee roasters and retail. I have to go back to, I think, the roasting companies that were set up and already had a strong business model. They weren't already having problems. They were already strong setup and financially sound in some instances. And I think that those people were able to continue on the path of their well-planned business as well as make adjustments really quickly. I think the problem occurred for some roasting companies if they weren't already sound, and that's probably true across the board. I think that people that weren't able to pivot quickly, it caused a lot of issues.

 

Mike: [00:24:25] If you read Connie's publisher columns in Roast Magazine, you know Connie, you know who she is, I think, in a sense already. She's an optimist, she loves the Pacific Northwest, and relationships are really important to her. So if you haven't picked up Roast Magazine, please do. And Connie, thank you for joining me.

 

Connie: [00:24:48] Oh, Mike. The pleasure is mine. This is just like sitting down with an old friend chatting, and I feel lucky to call you my friend. And hopefully, together, we can make more new friends at all of our future events.

 

Mike: [00:25:03] Absolutely. Thank you, Connie.

 

Connie: [00:25:07] Thanks, Mike.

 

Mike: [00:25:16] You've been listening to The Exchange, a coffee podcast coming to you from our coffee podcast studio in beautiful downtown Providence, Rhode Island. The Exchange is produced and edited by me, Mike Ferguson. Our opening theme was A Cup of Coffee and A Piece of Pie by the Ribeye Brothers. Our closing theme is Coffee Morning by Olga Scotland. All music is used under Creative Commons. I almost forgot to mention now we have electronic mail. You can email us at CoffeeTheExchange@gmail.com. And now your postscript.

 

Connie: [00:25:50] Yeah. And you have that nice raspy voice. That's good.

 

Mike: [00:25:54] Yeah, well, I smoked a few cigarettes before I came into the studio.

 

Connie: [00:25:56] {laughter}

 

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