Cravens Coffee Co. celebrates 30 years in Spokane as co-founder Simon Thompson reflects on the roastery's journey

click to enlarge Cravens Coffee Co. celebrates 30 years in Spokane as co-founder Simon Thompson reflects on the roastery's journey
Young Kwak photos
Cravens brings beans from around the world to locals' cups.

You could say the early 1990s were serendipitous for Simon Thompson. Not only did he find the love of his life, he found his life's calling, too.

This year, Thompson is celebrating the 30th anniversary — on April 1 (no joke!) — of his Spokane-based company Cravens Coffee, which helped push the Inland Northwest toward what's now a nearly universal focus on high-quality, sustainably sourced coffee.

A decade before Cravens Coffee was founded, Thompson arrived in the U.S. from Norwich, England, with a hotel and restaurant management degree in hand. He eventually made his way to Seattle, Starbucks' birthplace, where the coffee industry was just starting to percolate its third wave, marking a shift in how coffee is viewed, as an artisanal ingredient more like wine and chocolate.

It was 1991, and a former colleague had offered Thompson a management position at Seattle's Best Coffee's roasting facility.

"I told him, 'I don't know anything about coffee,'" Thompson recalls. "And he said, 'We don't have coffee problems, we have management problems.'"

Thompson quickly realized how much he really did want to know about coffee. And not just because he was being paid to do it.

"When I stumbled into the coffee business, it was almost instantaneous," he says. "I loved the sensory part of it and got passionate about it in a hurry."

A year later, Seattle's Best was preparing to be bought out. Not interested in working for a large corporation, Thompson and his future-wife and then-girlfriend, Becky, decided they wanted to strike out on their own. Though they met while both were working in the restaurant industry, Becky had experience working as a marketing consultant for Seattle's Best.

"Here we were, talking about starting a business, and we weren't even married," Thompson says, laughing. "We thought, 'This had better work.'"

As the U.S. coffee industry was ramping up, the pair started looking at cities where they could really gain traction. Atlanta and Minneapolis were initially at the top of the list, but starting a business in those cities would have cost more than they could afford. So they narrowed down their list to Portland, Boise and Spokane. At the time, Portland already had 17 roasters, so it was out. Boise was too small, but Spokane intrigued them.

While more than a dozen locally owned coffee roasters now call the Inland Northwest home, in the early '90s there were only two others: 4 Seasons Coffee Roasters, founded in 1976 and the oldest continually operating, and Uccello, which is now closed. Among many other attractive traits, Spokane seemed to have all the right ingredients for success.

"It just made sense. Spokane spoke to us. And it was the best decision we could've possibly made," Thompson says.

It also somehow made sense to open their new business on April Fool's Day, 1993.

"We knew the failure rate for opening a new business, then we decided to test fate by opening it on April Fool's Day," Thompson says with a laugh.

click to enlarge Cravens Coffee Co. celebrates 30 years in Spokane as co-founder Simon Thompson reflects on the roastery's journey
Becky and Simon Thompson started their coffee journey 30 years ago.

Even though the Thompsons never saw themselves as a direct-to-consumer retailer with their own cafes like other roasters, the couple thought it was the best way to introduce themselves to the Spokane community. They opened Cravens Coffee as an 800-square-foot cafe and roasting facility downtown at the corner of First Avenue and Cedar Street.

Craven is Thompson's middle name, passed down in his family.

"We sent it out for a vote, and while nobody knew the connection, they liked the cadence of it," he recalls.

Being only the third roaster in the greater Spokane area, Cravens quickly made itself known.

"If you weren't serving 4 Seasons, you were buying coffee from Seattle, so we were able to convert those people over quite quickly," Thompson says.

Three years later, the couple decided to close the cafe and roast full time, shifting the company's focus to wholesale. For consumers, Cravens Coffee is available online, at cravenscoffee.com, and in many grocery stores around the region like Rosauers, where its custom-built fixtures showcase pre-bagged coffee, whole bean bulk bins and even a grinding station to ensure freshness. The roaster's hub remains in Spokane, though over the years it's added offices in Montana and Colorado.

As the Thompsons look back on the past three decades of doing what they love, they credit Cravens Coffee's success to much more than hard work. They also place product excellence, meaningful relationships and paying it forward at the heart of what they do.

"When we started, there were tiers in coffee quality," Thompson says. "But we thought, our very best coffee is excellent — why would we sell anything else? We've been blending these fantastic single-origin coffees for 30 years and working with our same green coffee importer this whole time."

Cravens sources its coffee beans from farmers across Central and South America, Africa, and Indonesia. On annual trips, Thompson nurtures the company's relationships with those farmers and coffee-growing cooperatives, allowing him to secure the very best beans possible at the point of origin.

When it comes to roasting that coffee, Craven's uses tried-and-true roasting equipment from the 1940s and 1960s, not relying on technology to do the work.

"Roasting is stewardship, it's not magic," Thompson says. "The magic happens on the coffee farms and in the mills where the coffee is processed. This roasting equipment relies on the art, craft, and senses of the person roasting to steer the coffee through the process."

The Thompsons also decided from the beginning that they wanted to support and be involved with their community on every level.

"Something I've enjoyed more than anything over the years is helping others fulfill a dream of starting their own business," Thompson says. "When the whole cafe, drive-through thing took off, a lot of people came to us and said, 'I want to open a cafe, I want to open a drive-through...' They were so passionate, we would say, "Of course, we'll help you every step of the way.'"

Cravens also continues its longstanding "The Coffee's on Us" campaign in partnership with KHQ-TV, which lets community members nominate local nonprofits to be surprised by the Cravens' team with free coffee delivery.

And Thompson's passion for what he does — roasting great-tasting coffee — is still as front and center as day one.

"I'll walk down the grocery aisle and if someone is at one of our [coffee displays], I can't wait to thank them for buying our coffee. I am always truly flattered," he says. "I still love coffee and being at the cupping table. To the roasters that are tasting with me, I'll say, 'Doesn't this remind you of why we do this?' And they say, 'Yeah, you say that every time.'" ♦

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