At Specright, we’re celebrating people driving innovation and change as part of our “Industry Makers” series. While attending Natural Products Expo West, we met Joe Schaible, Senior Engineering Manager at La Colombe Coffee Roasters, who exemplifies what it means to reinvent an industry with a lot of history. La Colombe has been at the forefront of some of the biggest breakthroughs in coffee innovation in recent years. We spoke with Joe about why innovation is a team sport and what’s next for the coffee company.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Joe! Can you talk about your role at La Colombe and what you focus on?
As the head engineer at La Colombe, I oversee the machinery and processes that handle our coffee from roasting the green beans to stacking pallets of cans and bottles of Draft Latte and Cold Brew - and everything in between. I also help design and implement new processes that deliver on our belief that America Deserves Better Coffee. I do a lot of research on the cutting edge of manufacturing and automation, always focused on how to make our product ideas a reality at scale and how to reduce costs over time.
Coffee has been around since the 15th century. Can you talk a little bit about how La Colombe’s approach to coffee and how it’s different from other major players?
We have 30 cafes nationwide but we’re not in every city or on every street corner. We’re focused on translating the cafe experience to something you can take with you. We want to develop coffee accessibility in the American market and future global markets that takes the cafe experience and makes it both portable and never compromising on quality.
Why is this focus on translating the cafe experience important?
With most packaged foods, we are quietly taught that anything produced in mass quantities will automatically be worse than something made in small batches by individual craftspeople. In coffee, this is usually true. Typical ready-to-drink coffee tastes very different than the offerings in a cafe - we’re working to change that because we know that scale actually means tighter quality control in many cases. As long as our raw materials are the same as we use in our cafes (and they are) then the taste and texture of every drink will be the same - this is “Cafe Anywhere”. What drives our perspective on coffee is translating the Italian espresso culture that entered the American market in the 80s and 90s and taking this further to make it the purest coffee experience at a price everyone can afford.
La Colombe is perhaps most well-known for making the Draft Latte. Can you talk about how that came to be?
The idea for the Draft Latte was born back in the late 90s when people started to order iced drinks. The normal process for an iced latte is simply throwing a handful of ice in a hot latte, but this destroys the characteristics that make it great - you crush all the foam with the additional water and end up diluting the milk and coffee, so you don’t end up with the same textural experience. Our thought was, how can we do a latte in a completely cold process that doesn’t involve using ice? Through years of careful R&D and challenging the status quo, we leveraged the unique characteristics of nitrous oxide to create a method that would work. The biggest hurdle was actually convincing the people who make beverage cans that this was worth investing business resources to develop a totally new can. We knew we needed to put it in a canning format people were familiar with, but that could support adding nitrous oxide. We found a good partner in Crown and co-developed the can, a special gas-injection grommet, and custom machines that would seal the nitrous oxide. Beverage canning is a commodity business, focused on high volume, so there’s typically not a lot of differentiation in beverage cans. Working hand-in-hand with Crown’s CTO, we were able to move forward and truly develop a new concept in canning.
At Expo West, you had cold brews with wild flavors like Cherry, which reminded me of what we’ve seen in the craft beer movement. Where do you get these ideas and inspiration?
All of us are food consumers and have our own tastes, along with a relative comfort level with novelty. We aim to follow all paths, so if we have three different options the idea is to try all three and see what works.When we look at the categories that exist already, we’re not afraid of trying concepts outside of what is already accepted. Craft beer moves at a particularly fast pace in the beverage world. With consumer tastes, it feels like an annual if not month-to-month changes. That volatility is fun.We also “taste” all the concepts we’re working on. Todd [CEO and co-founder of La Colombe] is in every tasting and if he likes it, it can quickly become a reality. Vertical integration is the primary reason why we can quickly execute.From a cultural perspective, there are many different ways to run R&D and execute new projects. For us, we decided to take an approach that’s less “business school” style and more focused on close connections between our individual creative and scientific minds. At La Colombe, everyone knows what everyone else is good at. We’re driven by a relentless, fast pace driven by our CEO. Not everything is going to be perfect when you’re trying a new idea, but for us it’s more about attempting to solve the problem as much as possible, each with our own specific areas of expertise and enthusiasm. None of us as individuals get penalized if an idea doesn’t work out - negative consequences only come if you’re not trying to solve the problem. We’re all mutually aware when something gets mired up and we have to keep moving forward.
I see La Colombe locations popping up everywhere. How do you maintain that culture of innovation as you scale?
A lot of it is getting in the same room as much as possible - whether a physical or virtual room. We’re a G Suite shop and the ability to do real-time collaboration in brainstorming docs when people are at different locations is key. Despite the fact that five years ago, the entire company was colocated in Philly, we have been able to adapt to four production sites spread across the country by creating a low-friction collaboration environment early on.As we grow, frequent seat time - especially in engineering and R&D - will continue to be a key part of how we work. It’s part of our core principles.
What does innovation mean to La Colombe?
Challenging commonly held beliefs about the limits of science and consumer taste to always deliver the highest quality coffee experience possible.
How do you approach innovation in your role as an engineer?
I try to stay as open minded as possible. I feel it’s my responsibility to take all of our ideas and figure out how they map into the limits of physics, chemistry, and technology. My approach is different in that I've learned engineering through industry experience and as a hobbyist mechanical engineer. I went to school for computer information systems, which taught me project management and how to keep up with an industry with an extremely rapid rate-of-change. As a result, I’m not held back by the status quo or a deep well of learned constraints that hold me back. Anything is possible (with time and money!).
What manufacturing innovations are you most excited about?
I love seeing automation in all of its flavors. For our processes, we’re bringing robotics into our manufacturing plants. We can very rapidly deploy robotics and other automated processes to make human jobs easier and safer. A lot of people talk about automation removing jobs, but in our world it just increases our quality of life in our existing roles. There’s no question that automation will significantly change how we all work over the next 20 years. As a company, we cannot ignore these changes - we embrace them and make our employee’s lives better as a result.
There’s a lot going on in the company - what are the main priorities this year and how does innovation play a part?
Expanding supply capabilities at our Michigan canning and bottling plant is my personal top priority. As a company, we are focusing on continuing to innovate: always coming up with new product ideas and turning bench-top experiments into reality in our production processes
When you think of La Colombe 5 years from now, what do you envision?
A company that hasn’t lost its scrappy, exciting focus on changing the world with a top level, origin-focused coffee experience. A company culture that is built on openness, innovation and moving as fast as possible is one that can survive and grow.
What’s your favorite La Colombe product?
I really love our 42 ounce bottles of Cold Brew because it represents what’s so special at La Colombe (and it was my project to set up the manufacturing line). Because of our vertical integration, we can deliver a super high quality coffee experience on store shelves that shows off different flavors of single origin coffees, without any additives at all. It’s the purest cold brew coffee experience possible - even better than what you could do in your home (unless you own a roaster!) There’s a whole world of different coffee flavors from different countries and different coffee beans. I find it exhilarating to open the door to exploration of these different origins through bottled cold brew - and I can’t wait to share that with as many people as possible. Interview has been edited for clarity.