BUSINESS & COMMUNITY
By Fraser Sherman
Scott Conary says jumping from a career in biochemistry to a career in coffee isn’t as unusual as it sounds.
“A lot of people in my generation came to coffee from something else – a different profession, a different job,” Conary told The Local Reporter. Because they’re in the coffee world by choice, he added, “When I look at my peers in the coffee industry, there’s a lot of happy people.”
Part of Conary’s happiness in his three businesses – Chapel Hill’s Caffe Driade, Carrboro’s Open Eye Cafe, and Carrboro Coffee Roasters – is that they’ve lasted two decades while dealing with farmers fairly. He said that shows other coffee businesses they can succeed without fighting for the lowest possible price: “We didn’t want it to be unique; we want it to be a template for what’s possible.”
Conary said he was already a coffee lover when he made the jump and opened Driade in 1995. Part of the reason, he said, was that his ideal Chapel Hill coffee shop didn’t exist yet: “At some point it’s well, if no one else is going to do it, I guess I will.”
Open Eye followed in 1999. In 2004, Conary launched Carrboro Coffee Roasters, a small-batch artisanal roasting company that acquires its coffee through direct relationships with overseas farmers. The company supplies not only Conary’s coffee shops but other retailers as well.
Conary said he conceived Driade as “an Old World sort of European style and theme. That’s why we chose the Italian version of the name. There is this sense of tradition, but not overbearing. It’s meant to be a nod to where things came from.” The Open Eye name is partly a pun on coffee’s power to open eyes, “but beyond that, I wanted to open our eyes to what coffee can and should be and how it can be better – higher quality, more transparent and equitable.”
Running the two cafes, Conary said, taught him about the retail side of the coffee world. Becoming a professional roaster taught him what goes on behind the scenes: “When I like something, I want to know everything about it. That doesn’t mean that’s the easiest way to jump into the business.” Working through other distributors didn’t satisfy him, though, as it left “black boxes” in the supply chain where he couldn’t see what was happening. Traveling overseas to meet coffee farmers lets him see how coffee is grown and how to source it ethically.
“The situation for coffee farmers is the worst,” he said. “They are lowest paid, most taken advantage of. In an effort to say, I think we can do this better, I created Carrboro Coffee Roasters with the idea of making things more equitable: we would go directly to the source, speak to the producers, find out what is their reality, what do they need not just to survive but to flourish.”
Carrboro Coffee Roasters shares the connections it has built with individual coffee farmers by identifying them by name on the company website, helping customers understand the backstory behind their coffee. Traveling to meet and work with the farmers, Conary said, “is quite an endeavor – more than a full-time job. You have to put the time in; there aren’t shortcuts.” However, he said, the success of Driade and Open Eye proves his approach can be profitable: “We wanted to do something different. We are doing something different. Now I can show you it can be successful.”
“The biggest challenge to success at the retail level is plain survival,” he added, “figuring out how to make sure you’re doing the right thing.” The best way to do that, he said, “is to take the pulse of the community you’re in.” In Open Eye’s case, for instance, that meant becoming “Carrboro’s living room” where everyone in town knows they’re welcome.
The best part of the business? “Being part of something bigger. A business is hard enough to run by yourself; when you’re part of the community, it feels so much better. People are the best part of this.”
Fraser Sherman has worked for newspapers, including the Destin Log, the Pensacola News-Journal and the Raleigh Public Record. Born in England, he’d still live in Florida if he hadn’t met the perfect woman and moved to Durham to marry her. He’s the author of several film reference books and has published one novel and several short story collections.