In the summer of 1984, with a pack on his back and about $80 in his pockets, Simon Thompson came to America for what he thought would be a six-month stay. "I remember landing in New York on a clear day," says the Spokane-by-way-of-England resident, who is now president of Craven's Coffee. "I felt an immediate bond with this country."
Armed with a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Leeds University back home, he was on his way to Gull Lake in Nisswa, Minn. "I'd applied for a job at a country club restaurant. They'd told me by mail, 'If you find us, we'll hire you.' Only in America!" laughs Thompson. "I made it there by Greyhound," he continues. "When I called from a phone booth, they were surprised, and said 'You made it! We'll pick you up!' "
So the man responsible for one of the best cups of coffee in the Inland Northwest had his first job. In fact, he was at work that same day by 5 pm.
"Coming from England, there wasn't the excitement, desire or opportunity. It was very stifled. The idea in America that you can seize life -- make the most of it -- was exciting to me," says Thompson, whose full name is Simon Peter Craven-Thompson. Craven is an old family name that he and his wife and business partner Becky Templin chose as the name of their coffee roasting company. People often call him Simon Craven, but he refers to himself as Simon Thompson. "Either one works," he says.
After working his first summer job in America, Thompson was hired by Nicolet Island Inn in Minneapolis. After he'd been on the job about 18 months, management was having trouble getting people to transfer to California. "Long Beach sounded great after living through a couple of Minnesota winters," says Thompson. "I told them, 'Let me solve your problem." He was off to Simon and Seaforts, where his reputation for turning around struggling restaurants was forged.
Within two years, Stepps, a notable dining institution in downtown Los Angeles called. "It was on the edge of fiscal insanity, with rumors that it would be closed," says Thompson. "But it was in the heart of the city's financial district. And it was the boom years of the late '80s."
So Thompson went to work, and Stepps was transformed, becoming one of the places to be seen in Southern California, even hosting Oscar parties. "It was bizarre, but in 1991 I no longer enjoyed it," says Thompson. "I was ready for the next challenge, even if it meant leaving the restaurant business."
Even though he didn't know it, a storm was brewing that would bring the change Thompson desired. He'd met Becky Templin, who lived in Seattle and worked for the same company that owned Stepps. So when Seattle's Best Coffee called, he was intrigued about the idea of living in the Northwest to pursue the relationship. "I told them I didn't know a lot about coffee," recalls Thompson. "They said, 'We don't have a coffee problem. It's management we need help with.'"
When he got to Seattle, he had another intuitive moment. "I just knew coffee was my product," he recalls. "I told them I wanted to learn everything I could about the coffee business." When the owners found out Thompson had a passport, they sent him to Costa Rica on his first coffee-buying expedition.
Meanwhile, the idea for a coffee company of his own started to come together just as his relationship did. "Becky and I were actually building a relationship and a business at the same time. It was perfect. She was as strong in marketing and finance, as I was uncompromising in product service and operations."
For two years, the couple stayed with their jobs while working on their business plan after work. By 1993, they were ready to launch their business. Craven's Coffee Company almost landed in Minnesota, then Atlanta. But neither city felt quite right, so Thompson and Templin looked at Portland and Boise. Suddenly Spokane was on the radar screen. Ultimately, choosing Spokane came down to practicality: The cost of starting a business in the Inland Northwest beat out all of the other cities.
The Thompsons started their business with $80,000, half their own savings and half coming as a loan from the federal Small Business Administration. "We were so focused on finding a place where we knew it would work," says Thompson. "But now we realize coming here was the best decision we ever made. We have a lifestyle beyond our wildest dreams, with a tremendous place for our 8- and 6-year-olds to grow up."
And his job has satisfied his desire to travel. Coffee-buying trips have taken him from to Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico and Hawaii. Soon he will travel to Colombia and Nicaragua. Trips to East African countries -- Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya -- are on the distant horizon. When Thompson gets back from a trip, he oversees the roasting, and his coffee is sold all over Eastern Washington, North Idaho, western Montana and western Colorado.
"Spokane is a very good place to do business," says Thompson, who has become a bit of an evangelist for the region over the years. "Along with Spokane, coffee is my passion. And I love telling the outside world who we are."