For TJ Zimmerman and Andy McEntire, founders and co-owners of Concord Coffee, the quest to bring craft coffee, in a community-based setting, to Lakeland goes back to 2006, shortly after the pair met while working as counselors at a summer camp. "We're both like-minded creative people," Zimmerman said. "We developed a good friendship. We always came up with these grand ideas. One of them being the idea of opening a true craft coffee shop. Andy moved to Jacksonville and I went to Dallas for about four years. He eventually moved back to Lakeland to be closer to his dad. I also moved back to work with Andy's dad as a Youth Director. One day, we started talking about that dream of ours, but this time was different. We decided to go for it. Andy had a love for coffee and I had a love for community. Eight months later, on March 28th, 2015, we opened the doors to Concord Coffee."
TJ gave us a brief overview of that eight month journey and what they had to do, in such a short amount of time, to get the business open. TJ, and his side of the family, contributed a significant portion of the required capital. Andy also personally contributed. The rest of the capital came in the form of small investments that they've since paid off. TJ explained that, throughout the build-out process, their landlord was extremely supportive and helpful and understood their vision. Everything about Concord Coffee, from the building to the decor to the neighborhood was carefully selected.
TJ explained, "We're located in the Dixieland area, just outside of downtown Lakeland. It's a great up-and-coming area with a lot of growth and revitalization efforts taking place. For our shop, we wanted a space that had plenty of parking. The building itself has a pretty unique design. It used to be part of a mini-mall and, immediately before we took over the space, was a tattoo shop. We gutted the whole place and built it from the ground up. We wanted a modern, clean and industrial look. We also wanted a separate space big enough for groups to gather and have meetings. Today, we offer that space for free to non-profits. Private groups can rent it out."
TJ admitted that, without previous knowledge of the coffee industry, there was a bit of a learning curve involved with sourcing the ideal bean and, most importantly, roasting it. They did a lot of research and were adamant that their importers sourced 'direct trade' and not just 'fair trade' coffee. TJ explained that, with direct trade coffee, the actual companies sourcing the beans have direct connections with the farmers. "It goes way beyond just 'fair trade'," he said. "It's a way to pay homage to every single farmer. Whether it's coffee beans from Ethiopia, Guatemala, Columbia, Peru or Brazil, we're more involved and were able to cut out the middleman. We're building relationships with the farmers. Our beans are roasted with our San Franciscan Roaster, in batches of five pounds for approximately 15 minutes."
Concord Coffee is very much a family affair. Zimmerman's wife, Lindsay, when not identifying and maintaining private investment sources as Director of Engagement for the Central Florida Development Council, does the financials for Concord Coffee. McEntire's wife, Ashley, does a lot of the design work. TJ is responsible for the daily oversight and strategic direction of Concord. McEntire, who also owns a full service film and video production company called Indie Atlantic Films, is still very active with Concord and provided invaluable guidance and support during the build-out and early growth stages. A year and a half ago, the team added Bryan and Emily Ley as minority stakeholders.
There are a few other coffee shops in Lakeland, but as TJ explained, Concord Coffee stands out in several different ways. "We're considered a 'third-wave' coffee shop," he said. "A first-wave shop would be a local mom and pop type cafe or restaurant brewing Folgers Coffee. Second-wave shops are places like Starbucks and Barnie's. As a third-wave coffee shop, we focus on a true craft coffee experience. Everything is done by time, temperature and weight. We dial in our Espresso machine several times a day to ensure the perfect cup. This is our niche. It's more of an experience for our customers. We also worked hard to create a place where everyone, regardless of background, race or status, feels welcomed. That's very important to us."
TJ and team are working on expanding their reach with several strategic partnerships and distribution channels. "We currently supply our coffee to local restaurants Cob & Pen and D'Lucas. We also ship our coffee to a shop in Miami, two places in Orlando, Dallas and to individuals across the United States. We even worked with BrewHub and helped them create a beer using one of our cold brew coffee varieties. Looking ahead, we're definitely focused on growing the wholesale side of our business. More locations is also a possibility with a continued emphasis on doing our own roasting."
What advice does TJ have for aspiring entrepreneurs? "The biggest thing is to surround yourself with mentors and people that can encourage you," he said. "It's important to have a clear plan and vision and execute it. Also, stick to what you know and stay within your means. Don't go beyond that. Talk to people and figure out what all the behind the scenes stuff is. There's a lot more going on behind the scenes than you might realize. Lastly, make sure your staff is great and take care of them. Hire for personality and not experience. It's hard to train your employees to be good people."