Meeting new people in the coffee business continues to fascinate me. Jason Griest, co-owner of Sacramento, California’s Old Soul Company is no exception. From my impromptu Sunday night request to meet with him while spending a couple days in Sac, Jason was more than happy to accommodate me the following morning.
I was greeted with the same friendliness at Old Soul that I’ve become used to from coffee roasters. When I ask for Jason, a member of staff points to the stockroom and tells me I’ll find Jason in there. A stark contrast to the Employees Only signs I’m used to seeing. Everything at Old Soul is transparent, from the supply of burlap sacks of green coffee to the roasting and packaging operations – it is a slick operation but in an entirely open environment.
After introducing me to Old Soul’s head roaster, Lucky Rodrigues, Jason brews he and I a pot of coffee by French Press. My choice from whatever they have roasted at the time – I go with one I’ve never had, a Panama Boquete. We sit outside on a sunny, comfortable California morning and drink fresh-roasted, fresh-ground, fresh-brewed exotic coffee.
Old Soul’s Story
Old Soul’s website tells the story of Jason and his friend Tim’s wine-inspired collaboration. Old Soul would bring craftsmanship back to Sacramento, Tim as its baker and Jason as its roaster. They never intended for it to be a retail business – they leased an abandoned warehouse to bake and roast for wholesale customers. The waft of their work inevitably seeped into nearby windows of locals who would stop in for something fresh.
In Jason’s words, Old Soul became a local speakeasy – without a retail license, Jason and Tim put goods out from whatever they were making for their wholesale customers, and an open jar for customers to make change out of. What started as a simple system to accommodate a few passers-by started to attract up to 100 people and over $1,000 a day on the old-fashioned honor system.
At this point in hearing Old Soul’s history, I ask Jason what coffee the people of Sacramento were drinking prior. The question is well-timed – local chain Java Time and national chain Starbucks were the main choices in the area. Old Soul didn’t step up to directly face these Goliaths, but in a much more subtle way, succeeded where the chains failed. Old Soul did it by applying a local sensitivity and care that separates fresh products from something mass-produced.
In a shuffle of its business, Java City outsourced the management of all of its locations –except the original- to food services company Aramark. Old Soul opened their second location on Weatherstone in Sacramento, assuming the lease from that Java City location. They opened up the transparency of the operation, and today its success rivals that of Old Soul’s original location, and is outperforming Java City’s record in the same location.
When Starbucks shut down 700 outlets two years ago, the mayor of Sacramento Kevin Johnson approached Jason and Tim to assume the lease of what would become Old Soul’s third location. Today, it does almost twice the business that Starbucks was doing in the same spot.
I felt like I could sum up the conversation with Jason with a lot of similarity from my conversation with Planet Bean’s Bill Barrett. The local coffee roaster can be more important to an area’s local culture than any chain, even unseating corporate giants by emphasizing sensitivity to local tastes and a personalized care for quality.
- Read my profile on Planet Bean Coffee
Giving Back to the Community
Later that day, Jason and I met again, this time at one of Jason’s “dive bars” also a part of Old Soul’s history. In the company’s early days and means, Benny’s in Sacramento was the nearby watering hole to wind down after the equivalent of two workdays crammed into each one. After Jason introduces me to the bartender, he’s served a drink he didn’t order, the hallmark of a regular.
I got to hear about Old Soul’s commitment to the community, this time through endorsement of a reading program for young children in the area. Jason and I agree that today’s text messaging and Twittering is slowly indumbening today’s youth. Whether it’s through Fair Trade certification, on-site development projects like those sponsored by the Tim Horton’s chain, or a focus on local success and economics like that of Planet Bean, a sense of community and helping the underdog is the tie that binds all coffee roasters I’ve met to date.