ANN ARBOR - John Roos is the founder and owner of RoosRoast, a quirky and beloved Ann Arbor coffee joint that roasts its beans on site. John worked in the restaurant industry for years and fell in love with coffee while living in Portland, Oregon in the 90s. He moved back to Ann Arbor, his hometown, in the early 2000s and began roasting beans in his garage. Little did he know, he would one day become a household name in the Ann Arbor coffee scene -- and nationwide.
We sat down with him at the RoosRoast headquarters on Rosewood St., where they roast their coffee and ship their hand-printed bags across the country.
Take us back to the beginning. How did this all start?
"When I moved back to Ann Arbor, I wanted coffee. There weren’t many coffee roasters in Ann Arbor, and I started just roasting in my garage. I started with a little tiny roaster and an espresso machine and just making batches and tasting and trying different coffees. I knew a lot about different kinds of coffees, but I didn’t really roast them or try them.
"The funniest thing was that I needed a job, so I took a job selling Subaru cars at Dunning Subaru, and it was really funny because that was a crazy job, but I really liked it. They were really good to me and it worked really well because when I started to sell cars, I realized I needed to have an identity, so I became ‘the coffee guy who sells cars.’ People would come to see me because I’m the coffee guy and pretty soon I’m selling 10-lbs a day out of my office cubicle. And I would give someone a bag of coffee when I would sell someone a car. It’s the first thing I would do, I would say, 'If you buy a car today, I will give you a bag of coffee that I roast in my garage.'
The state-of-the-art roaster at RoosRoast's headquarters (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)
"I worked there for four years, and when I left, it was exactly time to try and do this RoosRoast thing. I thought I would just hang out, roast some coffee, go to the Farmers Market, and then it just grew really fast. It was really fun because I had worked for a lot of restaurants that had been successful and I had worked for even more restaurants that had not been successful, so it was awesome to have a successful business. But I never accepted that I was doing well because I was scared of going out of business – coffee is a different type of business than a whole restaurant. It takes a lot of commitment and training."
How long were you roasting in your garage? The four years you were selling cars?
"Longer than that. It’s kind of crazy. It was very organic, slow growth. People don’t understand that when I was doing the Subaru thing, I was working six days a week. So I was doing it very small but then it all came together. There was a roaster here in this space in this building called San Rafael.
"There were two guys roasting coffee, one was from Guatemala, one was a University of Michigan student. They were great guys, but they didn't really have the restaurant or the marketing or the background, and they only had Guatemalan coffee.
"Ann Arbor is really sophisticated – people want a lot of different, interesting things, and they want marketing – they want things to be flashy and cool. These guys didn’t have that going on.
Coffee beans waiting to be roasted (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)
"This is a really funny part of the story – I started selling coffee at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, and they said, ‘You need to call the Department of Agriculture and just get this thing signed off and they’re real nice, it’s really easy.'
"So, I’d been selling coffee all summer at the Farmers Market and I was all ready to go to the market one day, and I was like, 'I should call the Department of Agriculture.' And I called them and they were like, 'Where are you roasting?' and I said, 'I’m roasting in my garage,' and they were like, 'You’re shut down right now!'
"I called my friends and they were like, 'Just sell your coffee at the Farmers Market,' and I didn’t want to get in trouble.
"I started going around trying to find a place I could roast coffee. (San Rafael) said they were going out of business. So I bought their roaster and took over the lease. That’s when things started growing because I had an actual 20-lb roaster that would roast more coffee."
Did it just blow up from there?
"Yeah. It was still two to three people working here, and no café part. Then, the café happened, and as that grew and the Department of Agriculture came in regularly, and that was good. We were legal; we weren’t shut down anymore. The Farmers Market really helped us grow, and then we slowly just went after local businesses. But part of our vision and our mission is to make a really good cup of coffee without any backtalk and sell it at a decent price.
"When we started making coffee, I was really happy because we were selling bags of coffee, but we weren’t selling cups because I wanted people to taste how I really made it. When I started doing the Lobster Butter Love, we made a video that made me really happy because I was making the coffee like I was in Portland -- good cups of coffee.
"People (the general public) always relate it to Starbucks and ask, 'When are you going to open your next store?' Well, it’s a lot of work. We have two stores now, and it’s really insane. Every time you put a new place in, it takes more people to do it, more professionals."
The artwork on each bag of coffee is screen-printed by hand (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)
Talk about your employees. It seems like you like to find a certain sort of character.
"It’s hard to find good employees, and we have so many good employees. Growing up, I had a million different jobs. I was always trying to do it my way. I wanted RoosRoast to be a place where people wanted to come to work. If you’re not having a good time when you’re working here, then don’t work here. I don’t want you to be hating your job here, or trying to change everything. We have a certain way that we do things, and if you want to do it like that and get into it, then great. But if you’re looking to come in and change everything around and do it a different way, you’ll be frustrated."
You were born and raised in Ann Arbor. It’s not an easy crowd to win over. Did you have any challenges getting people into this?
"Oh yeah, my family. They thought I was crazy. A lot of people were like, 'That’s the dumbest idea I ever heard.' They didn’t know what it was. I think part of it is, growing up in Ann Arbor, there’s so much energy here around the University of Michigan, football games, around the art fair, and that’s what I grew up with.
"I saw Domino’s get really big, Border’s Books. What I always say to people about Michigan is that Michigan is not the Midwest. It’s its own special place where all these people came to build things and design stuff, build cars and figure out better way to do things. They’d take something that’s already there and make it better.
"And that’s what I did in the kitchen. Never run out. That’s one of my things. You know when people go somewhere and they’re like, 'Oh, we don't have any of that right now?' Just have it. That’s one of my really huge things, even today, don’t run out. I don’t want any excuses. If the supplier can’t supply it, then let’s find someone else. Because I think people come far and wide for things, and generally, they want you to tell them what they should have. If you don’t have it, otherwise, why do it?"
Orders ready to ship across the United States (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)
There are other coffee shops in town that sell beans as well. What’s that been like competing in the coffee market in Ann Arbor?
"You have to have a strong brand. RoosRoast was on social media immediately. I have all these journals where I write everything down."
"Those things adapted into RoosRoast which built our brand right away. I think a lot of people forget brand is important, same with quality.
"I think competition is great because people can try something else. If they love it, great, if they’re like, 'Oh man, I think that other thing better,' then they’ll come back to that. And Ann Arbor is an interesting town. There’s a lot of foodie-type people here, which is exciting. And foodie-type people like coffee."
Is there anything that’s surprising about you that you think people wouldn’t expect?
"I’ll be all over Craigslist, looking for weird cars. I love cars! Maybe they already know that about me.
"I’m pretty easy going. When I sold cars -- this is a funny story. I remember one guy accused me of being stoned, and I’m like, 'You’re kidding!'
"So people think I’m high all the time, but I’m not. I’m not high, the good thing to remember about John Roos is that he’s not high. He may be high on coffee, but not weed."
Following the interview, Roos added that he really enjoys plowing snow.
Check out the Facebook live we did the same day as the interview:
Learn more about RoosRoast on their website.
To find out about events going on, or job openings, follow RoosRoast's Facebook page.
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