Summit Coffee’s 22nd Year
By Brian Helfrich
I’m sitting in the far end of our roasting warehouse, sitting in a desk chair with my feet propped up on a stack of burlap coffee bags. We’re in the middle of celebrating our 22nd anniversary of Summit Coffee, and this is the only space I could find to steal 20 minutes and write.
In this 2,200 SF facility alone, we’re cupping coffees, leading orientation with our newest employee, negotiating the final buildout costs of our NoDa cafe, and wrapping up a sales meeting, all while Kate and Dora have our new branded van in Chapel Hill to put together our next team of Summit baristas for a café (somehow) opening in 3 weeks.
2020 has been a lot. I mean, holy shit, right? (Sorry, mom) There’s a global pandemic, and an economic crisis, and wildfires raging on one side of the country and hurricanes lambasting another. There’s a long overdue uprising for social justice, and the most divisive election in generations, all the while we can’t really travel anywhere and even if we could, we have to consider which countries will welcome us at this point.
The dichotomy of the last two paragraphs is staggering, and so in celebration of 22 years of Summit, I am taking these 20 minutes in the back of our warehouse to express gratitude, relief, excitement, and so much more. I want to tell y’all how proud I am of what Summit has done the last 365 days. Each day and each year, we make an active choice to be Summit Coffee. To show up for our work, to enjoy showing up for work, and to embrace everything that comes with that. Our annual celebration isn’t a given; it’s a success. It’s gratification for surviving 12 more months in this industry. It’s more amazing with each passing year how long this relationship has thrived, and never has that been more true than in this moment.
This team that I get to work alongside every single day has fought so hard, worked so tirelessly, stood up for what’s right in the face of what’s wrong. We’ve stared down our greatest challenges and responded with our greatest accomplishments. We’ve taken our biggest risks in the scariest times, and we’re here for another September to tell you about it.
Twelve months ago, celebrating our last trip around the sun, I wrote: “You evolve, you try new things, you succeed and fail. But at the end of the day, you are who you are.” We wrote and proclaimed our Core Values, to identify more clearly “who we are.” In the storm that is 2020, we’ve leaned hard into these core values, into our ethos, stared in the mirror and had some identity crisis moments in order to persevere.
Well, we’ve made it another year, and to celebrate the Summit team, here’s a list of 22 accomplishments from our 22nd year, and how they are rooted in those core values.
To pursue excellence in everything.
- We won the Charleston Coffee Cup in February. The elusive honor, celebrating the best specialty coffee roaster in the south, is in our hands — a wonderful validation for the work that Donovan and the coffee team are doing behind closed doors on a daily basis.
- Last fall, we looked at our website and felt that it was fine, at best. So, in a matter of weeks, we launched this new website! We needed a better representation of where the Summit brand is going, to share our franchising opportunities, and to build a dynamic storytelling platform.
To be positive members of our communities.
- In August, we stood up, literally, to a van-full of angry, hateful, vitriolic visitors who bombarded downtown Davidson. We protested, face-to-face against this hatred and told the “protestors” their energy had no place in our community. Sometimes it takes an incident like this to remind you how important it is to be a good neighbor.
- Also this year, we (re)launched Give Back Fridays, donating 10% of sales at all cafés and online to organizations doing great work in their communities. In particular, we are supporting groups fighting for equality and social justice in America.
To be a fair and good employer.
- We began offering health insurance for all full-time employees. Because it’s, simply, the right thing to do.
- We committed at the start of COVID to “do the next right thing,” thanks to some inspiration from Disney’s “Frozen II.” The Summit team has given us SO much, that we felt it was imperative to preserve jobs during this pandemic. So what did we do? Opened a Drive Thru in 72 hours, actually added jobs, and fought like hell to keep Summit alive.
To provide remarkable experiences.
- Speaking of the Drive To, how many of you had a Kindred Milk Bread Donut? Because our dear friends showed up big time for us, and we brought happiness (and donuts) to a town that needed it (and them).
- Keeping in mind 2020 debuts, we also launched instant coffee. It’s pretty much the real deal. I’ve used it on airplanes, in hotels, while driving on the highway at night, and waking up in a tent. (Well, OK, I hate camping but I promise you Olivia did this.)
- Do you know we also launched our own app? Like, one that you have on your phone that has a Summit mountain icon and everything? If you haven’t downloaded it yet, you should. It’s dope.
To collaborate with people we admire.
10 and 11. We took two trips to different coffee origins these past 12 months, making new coffee relationships and reinvesting in existing ones. Now that we’ve put a freeze on international travel until who knows when, we’re very thankful we made these two expeditions — to Guatemala, and Honduras — happen.
- We launched Find Your Summit Fridays, a weekly series of interviews with people we admire. Olivia, our brand champ, took this project from random afternoon idea to live sit-downs with Gold Medalists. It’s also the inspiration for our new podcast, coming in 2021!
- Have you met our arts team? We’ve brought Tyler and Brooke on board to handle all of our visual things, from branding to signage to menus to café design. They’re also just lovely people to be with. Moreover, we’ve got Leah creating content for us and frankly Summit has never looked better.
To stay curious and humble.
14, 15, 16: You know what comes from curiosity and humility? You know what’s super audacious? Opening not one, but THREE cafés during a global economic crisis. But, that’s kinda what we do. We cannot wait to introduce y’all to Summit Chapel Hill, Summit NoDa, and the newest Summit Asheville. October, November, December.
To be sustainable.
- The root of the word sustainability is sustain, which by definition means to strengthen or support physically or mentally. Last fall, we hosted our inaugural Manos de Mujer festival to celebrate women makers and entrepreneurs. We debuted a coffee from María Julia, the best in all of El Salvador, on a night when we celebrated the excellence of so many kickass women we’re so grateful to call teammates, friends, partners.
To share our story.
- In June, to celebrate Pride Month, we hosted a campaign to celebrate the LGBTQ+ friends in our lives, in our communities, in our world. We had some gorgeous shirts, a rainbow Summit mountain logo (thanks, Brooke), and shared stories of what Pride means to our staff.
To have fun.
- In addition to our Pride t-shirts, we also spent 2020 launching some fun word tees. The “WFH2020” shirt, celebrating the work from home champions in all of us, was our best-selling merch item ever. That is, until we debuted “Coffee is Essential” two months later. And, most recently, our “Be Kind” shirts, which lasted for all of 72 hours.
- During the pandemic, we also transformed our uber-popular trivia nights into semiweekly online trivia challenges. We needed an additional revenue source, we wanted to provide entertainment to our communities, and we love trivia. It was WAY more of a hit than we ever expected — more than 1,000 online trivia nights sold since March!
- We had the wild idea to bring a six-person crew to Denver as the coffee partner of the Outdoor Retailer show. Three days and 4,000 cups of coffee later, we cheers’d some Coors Lights to celebrate the most successful event in our history.
AND … (it’s been a long 12 months)
- When we started year 22, Tim was sitting outside his apartment in Connecticut, resting from a day of educating and coaching high schoolers. He had just gotten off the phone with Andrew and me, when we told him about the health insurance, and Denver, and instant coffee, and who knows what else. And he decided it would be a lot more fun to be in the trenches with us, so he packed up his six-person (soon to be seven) tribe and came home to Summit.
Cheers to 22 years, to this 22nd year, and to all the people who’ve made it as remarkable as it’s been. It has been a privilege to lead Summit during this year, and I’m eternally grateful for everyone along the way.