CJ Croll's coffee career began as a detour from one in law. Now he applies his analytical aptitudes to keeping our stores stocked for the next rush. In this conversation, CJ shares his tips on building a rapport with vendors, strategies for dealing with that notorious "chain", and what's got him excited for the future of coffee.
Michael Sadler: Tell me how you got into coffee.
CJ Croll: I got into coffee after I graduated law school and took the bar exam. I realized that practicing law was not going to be a good profession for me, so I originally just wanted to find something to do in the interim while I thought about what I wanted to do. I worked at a very busy cafe in Cambridge, MA and fell in love with coffee culture. I had my first phenomenal cup of coffee and decided I wanted to learn as much as I could about the coffee industry, and coffee in general. And so I transitioned into the coffee industry because of my passion for learning, and also really enjoyed what I was doing.
I became a barista, and have since moved into different positions throughout coffee. In management, and with different companies. It’s been a really fun industry to be a part of, and every once in a while the industry will do something really extraordinary that makes me really happy to be a part of it. Like, when there’s a natural disaster in a coffee producing country, every specialty coffee company in the world gets together to help fund disaster relief. It’s one of the only industries that we have the end users trying to help the beginning producers as much as we do.
I went into law school because I’ve always enjoyed learning, there’s a lot to learn there. And that passion for learning has continued into the present day. I’ve been working in coffee for eight years now, and I feel like I'm only scratching the surface. It’s such a tremendous place to be, we’re learning so much on a daily basis as an industry.
MS: Tell me about your role at Irving Farm.
CJC: I am our Retail Procurement Manager. I do orders and inventory for all of our cafes in the city. With Covid, our leadership team decided to change the way we were managing our cafes. With much lower volumes and much higher costs, we took single store managers out of the stores and instead built a management team that oversees all of the stores. As we started picking up, we realized we needed somebody who wasn’t going to be managing baristas and instead was just going to be focused on ordering and inventory so that we could really get our cost of goods in line with what we’re using on a day-to-day basis. Every single week, I'm going to every one of our stores and doing inventories and placing a ton of orders.
What really made me interested when I was approached with this role was one: after working through the height of Covid, it was a good opportunity for me to leave bar. The other was that it was an interesting way to use some of the analytical skills I developed in school. And I have not been disappointed! I get to critically think about what sales we’re making every week, and change the processes with which I place orders, and be very cognizant of how we’re selling each product that we sell. And how I can make what I'm ordering match it identically so that we never have too much product, but we’re also never running out of product. It’s fascinating.
MS: What do you consider success in what you do?
CJC: I consider success to be: that nobody in the company ever has to worry about whether we’re going to have something or not. But I also don’t want to see a lot of product being wasted either. There’s a line of acceptable waste versus unacceptable waste. You are inevitably going to have some waste because if you’re not, you have lost opportunity sales. So there’s always going to be some waste. When I first started the position, I was very against any sort of waste. So I found myself being a little too lean on some of my orders. As I’ve accepted acceptable waste, I’ve found what we can waste on and what we shouldn’t be wasting on.
So success is other people not worrying about it at all.
MS: What’s your strategy for achieving that?
CJC: My strategy is I look at our item by item sales very, very closely and compare it week to week, and try to match product to inventory as much as possible.
MS: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing cafes right now?
CJC: I think there are two major issues affecting cafes right now. One is staffing. No cafe is back up to the sales they were at pre-Covid. And so labor costs are significantly higher in proportion to sales than they used to be. It’s a huge struggle. And the thing that most customers don’t realize is that most cafes went from having six people on the floor at a time to three, and they’re still expecting the quickness of service that you would expect out of a six person schedule, and it’s just not possible. So it’s very difficult to manage the labor budget of cafes in comparison to expectations of the customers.
It’s just going to take some time for cafes to adjust and be able to get it right again. But customers are also going to have to change their expectations a little bit. We heard early on in Covid that a lot of people were going from doing one person’s job to two people’s jobs or three people’s job even, and that’s still how it is in the service environment to a large degree. So that’s one thing.
The other is supply chain issues. I think it’s a huge issue that we’re not going to solve overnight. So cafes across the board are going to experience supply chain issues at least for the next year, I would guess, as the shipping industry gets back into its groove. Unfortunately there’s nothing we can do about that. It’s entirely in the purview of shipping companies. Demand is back, they’re going to have to find a way to make the supply work in order for all of us to function in the way we used to.
MS: How have these supply chain issues affected you, and how have you managed this?
CJC: Our suppliers are always out of something. When I took on this role at the end of the summer, the supply chain issue was ice cups. There was a week or two when I wasn't sure if I'd be able to get any iced cups for our stores. So it introduced me to having to think out of the box for supplies. And I have learned that I don't necessarily have to go through the supplier that I think I do in order to get the products. When we were struggling to get iced cups, I spent some time doing research into other iced cups that we could use in case we couldn’t get the ones we wanted.
But other items have become issues every once in a while. Random outages of say, water bottles. You wouldn’t think that’s something a supplier would run out of, but they do. And so I found a water bottle that was sourced through two of our different suppliers, so that if one was out then the other would have it. I tried to do that as much as I could with every other product we sell. So any time we introduce a new item, or I notice we are selling more of a specific item that we used to, I think about an alternative of what I could source to take its place, or where else I could get it.
MS: What are your other pain points?
CJC: The other thing I run into every once in a while is human error. I don’t expect our suppliers to hit one hundred percent, one hundred percent of the time. We’re all human. I think it’s unreasonable to expect our suppliers to get every one of our orders correct every single time. So with some of our vendors, I have a very dynamic relationship with them where I try to anticipate problems and hedge my bets on it.
As soon as I place an order, if I know there’s something that I know might get messed up, I’ll reach out to our vendor contact and make sure what I wanted was clearly enunciated. Every once in a while things still happen and the items I ordered don't come, or an extra item gets added, or they deliver the wrong thing. And then it’s a matter of knowing the best way to get in contact with them, and how to get the item switched out, or approach the conversation of “we didn’t order this, we’re not paying for it.”
MS: How do you manage your relationships with vendors?
CJC: I find that the best way is to approach our vendors with what’s going to work for them. Every vendor is a little different, and they like to be reached out to in slightly different ways. The best way for me to maintain our vendor contacts is to approach them how they want to be approached.
The other thing is, I realize they’re human and they make mistakes, and so I have a level of things I’m willing to accept. Like, for pastries, if we receive an extra box of cookies, I could make a big stink. But I ultimately have to think about it as: are we going to sell the cookies?
What I try to do the most is approach the vendor how I would want to be approached. We’re all human, we’re all making mistakes. If I'm making a big deal about every little thing, they’re going to be unhappy, and then when I make a mistake, they’re going to not want to help me. Whereas now, when I make a mistake, most of my vendors are very accommodating with me, as I'm very accommodating with them.
MS: How do you approach crises when they arise?
CJC: The best way I can work in a crisis is to take a step back, get my head together, and think about the best way to approach the situation. Because also, most crises: they’re not actually that bad. And you can continue to function even if something went wrong. You take a minute, step away from the situation, and come back.
MS: How do you find personal balance?
CJC: That’s difficult. I come from a background of my family ingraining in me that you work a lot. And it’s something I know I should be better at, clocking out. But I do make sure that even if I’m checking my emails et cetera, that I'm making time for myself, winding down, doing something that I like. I love cooking, I love reading, I make sure that I do one or both every single night to decompress.
And having a partner who’s also very busy, we have to make time to be with each other. It’s a really wonderful way to decompress, to find ways to decompress with somebody else.
MS: What’s some advice you’d give to somebody running a coffee business?
CJC: My best advice is to not stress the small stuff. I think the reason we focus on a lot of small issues is because they are easier to address. I think business owners need to not stress those small things. Keep everybody happy, don’t nitpick, instead focus on the bigger issues and find solutions for them rather than picking apart every little small one.
MS: Where do you think the coffee industry is headed this year and beyond?
CJC: I think the coffee industry is headed very much toward sustainability. I think through Covid and everything else that has happened, we realized that sustainability is a bigger issue than we thought. We’ve had issues in parts of the world where they couldn’t sell their coffee, so they have to stop being coffee farmers. That’s an aspect of our industry that most people don’t realize is connected to sustainability.
Specifically I think what we’re going to see over the next couple of years is earth sustainability, environmental sustainability, where we’re focused on finding ways to produce less waste, and to make waste more compostable. We’re already seeing that as cafes have switched to compostable plastic cups. I think the next step with those is making sure they are actually being composted properly. I think the next step of the coffee industry is going to be to take the levels of sustainability that we’re doing right now, and taking it to the next level.
MS: Is there anything new or fun that’s happening in the cafes right now?
CJC: We always have new stuff going on! But something I’m excited about is that we’re experimenting with some new recipes for summer beverages. If we’re doing something we’re enjoying, the rest of it is more sustainable for us. It’s going to be a good way for us to stay engaged with the company, and for our staff to stay engaged with the company.
We also just rolled out new bagels from Gertie in Brooklyn and I'm really excited to see how they do in the cafes.
MS: What’s your favorite coffee right now?
CJC: My ideal way to make coffee, and how I make coffee at home, is a pour-over. It seems like the last thing you want to do, first thing in the morning, to put in work when you’re tired. You just want to hit the button. But making your own coffee, standing there doing a pour-over, is so relaxing, and such a phenomenal way to ease into the day.
The coffee that I’m drinking right now is actually our Guatemala Santa Isabel. It’s been my favorite coffee from Irving Farm since before I joined the company. To this day it’s my favorite coffee that we’ve ever served. Every year it’s just gotten better and better. And this year is the cream of the crop as far as Santa Isabel goes, in my opinion. I’m so excited to have it over the next couple of months, and I’m actually going to be sad when it’s gone!