When Curtis Rich ’79 and his wife ordered nine bags of specialty coffee to sell out of a tiny storefront in a small Massachusetts town in 1992, one customer wondered aloud whether they’d ever be able to sell all that coffee.
Now, Rich and his wife, Kathy Lytle, own a growing business, Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters, roasting 2,000 pounds of coffee a week and selling it at seven homey stores in the western part of the state. They have 85 employees, serve about 1,500 customers daily, and bring in some $3 million a year through retail sales and a small wholesale business.
It is a family affair with a Vassar flair. Daughter Annabelle Lytle-Rich ’10 is the general manager. Rosalind ’17 has worked as a barista and plans to eventually join the business. Daughter Eve, who like their mother is a nurse, also works in the business. Rich majored in English and Annabelle in history. Rosalind is a classics major.
“We had to think well outside of the box in order to make that small startup take off,” Rich says. “And we’ve had to continue to think and act creatively all along in order to survive and thrive. That’s partly where Vassar comes in. I didn’t study business or coffee at Vassar, but I learned to think broadly.”
Rich, a native of New Rochelle, New York, got his first taste of a good cappuccino when, as a high school student, he went down to Little Italy.
“I loved the idea that coffee was not something that you grabbed on your way to work,” he says. “I loved the flavor and the experience of careful preparation and savoring. Kathy and I have a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and after being out of college for a while, we decided to start our own business.”
When they were first married, they lived in Maine; they sold their first drink, an “Iced Island Delight,” on the ferry dock of Peaks Island on July 4, 1990. Then, they drove a van to fairs and festivals, introducing espresso to people along the East Coast. They settled down in Shelburne Falls, a picturesque village where they opened that first store. Two years later, they were roasting their own coffee and selling locally-made baked goods.
Then came stores in nearby Northampton, Easthampton, Greenfield, East Longmeadow, and Hadley. When the building housing the original store burned down, they opened a larger store on the Mohawk Trail, the first scenic road in New England.
Talking in the roastery two buildings down from the store, surrounded by piles of burlap sacks containing almost 50 different kinds of green beans from around the coffee-growing world, Rich says, “We built the business by learning the craft of roasting, going to seminars and learning by doing, and by creating hospitable, warm places.”
Shelves held large bags of roasted coffee such as Colombian Supremo, Costa Rican Tarrazu, Guatemalan Antigua, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, and Organic Peruvian that would next be divided into smaller packages for sale.
All three girls grew up working alongside their parents. Annabelle started at age 2, helping make iced tea and making change from the register. After college, she taught third grade for two years in New Orleans through the Teach For America program, stayed an extra year, and then returned home to become the general manager.
“The challenge of an independent business is you don’t have a safety net to fall into,” Annabelle says, “but our success as an independent business is that we can be very responsive to our customers. They can get to know us as a family and we can get to know them.”
Each store has the same color scheme: jade green, golden yellow, and farmhouse red, with wood floors and paneling and comfortable floral-patterned couches and easy chairs. Work by local artists covers the walls; games, books, and magazines invite customers to stay a while.
Kyle Cogswell, a firefighter who stopped by the Shelburne Falls store to pick up a hazelnut coffee on a gray January day, observed a bulletin board covered with cards offering music lessons, yoga classes, the services of a photographer, an invitation to a music bash, and more.
“You can see somebody’s lost cat or someone you would like to do business with,” he says. “You won’t find that at Starbucks.”
--Photos by Michael Gordon