WESTPORT – “Never stand between me and my coffee.”
The wooden sign posted inside the Tinderbox Coffee Roasters shop could stand as a lifelong motto for Nick and Tara Greeley.
The couple, who met in high school at a Christian summer camp and followed their dreams together ever since, have found themselves forever bound by a passion for well-roasted, finely prepared java.
So much so that they gave up careers as nurses at Grays Harbor Community Hospital to start what is believed to be the only commercial coffee-roasting business on the Harbor.
“We’re devoting all of our time to the business now,” said Nick, who first started roasting coffee as a hobby using an old popcorn popper.
And they share the kind of bond that makes them as happy working together as they are in their life away from work.
“We have done a few home remodels and projects like that before and we have enjoyed working on them over the years,” Tara said. “I think we have found that we enjoy working together.”
Nick, 39, grew up in Aberdeen, and Tara, 37, was raised in Sunnyside. The two met at a Bible school in Arizona for the Assemblies of God.
“It was love at first sight,” Nick professes. “I’m not making stuff up.”
Tara blushes and agrees. They returned to Washington, fell in love, and married in 1995. They also took “the great American road trip” across the country in a Volkswagen bus, did a backpacking trip into the Olympic Mountains and then began nursing school in Port Angeles at Peninsula Community College.
After graduation, they both acquired jobs at Community Hospital in Aberdeen. Nick worked in the emergency room and Tara was an obstetrics nurse, but they always felt like something else was calling them.
“This is just something that’s been on our bucket list,” Nick said of the coffee shop and roasting business. “We’ve done a few unconventional things in our lives, and we love being a little different. If everyone is saying, ‘you’re crazy, it’s not normal,’ we know it’s a cue that we should further explore.”
“We love coffee and I had been hobby roasting for a few years when we thought some day it would be really fun to move into the coffee business,” Nick said.
Their nursing skills were a benefit in that a major part of the job involved helping people. Plus, they have plenty of experience with other cultures from travels abroad together. They have been to Myanmar and other Southeast Asia countries, as well as India.
“We are well aware of the potential to use our skills in tough areas of the world, and coffee seems like the perfect medium to engage in some sort of business where we get to build relationships and connect with people,” Nick said. “If we can grow this enough and start to source our own coffee, we have this dream of being able to travel, use our skills overseas a little bit, whether it’s helping to build schools, provide fresh water for people, help out with their medical skills, and hopefully source our coffee at the same time.”
One of the ideas the couple has is to feature the stories of the people who “work so hard to get that coffee going.”
“It’s a stretch, but it’s our dream and we’re sticking to it,” Nick said.
“You’ve got to dream big,” Tara adds.
The Greeleys say they are just beginning to use the power of online social media as part of their marketing efforts, and see that as a way to help them tell the story of how good coffee is grown from beans, harvested and exported to their roaster shop in Westport.
There are eight ways coffee is prepared at the Tinderbox, including the most exotic: siphoning, which is done with a clear glass contraption that looks more like super-heated test tubes from the lab of a mad scientist than a coffee pot.
And there are about a dozen different varieties of coffee roasted on site with tender loving care and social consciousness mixed into the flavor and aroma that comes with the fresh beans they import with discerning dedication to creating a sustainable business enterprise from beginning to end.
Nick’s experience seeing coffee roasted first-hand occurred when he visited El Salvador as part of the Bible school the young couple was attending.
“I was trying to buy some souvenirs for family and friends when I saw this elderly woman crouched down and spreading something out on this mat on the dirt road,” he said. “They were actually green coffee beans, so I bought a bunch from her and got really excited. I thought, I’m going to become a coffee roaster, so I took them home and thoroughly and utterly destroyed them in the oven.”
That first batch was “horrible,” he confides. “I remember giving it to family, and my mom, who would smile and tell me a dead, cooked cat tasted good, had this look on her face.”
Doing more research, Nick decided to try out those old electric popcorn makers that you can find in just about any second-hand or thrift store in the country.
“It’s a long story,” Nick says of his experiments roasting coffee beans in popcorn poppers. He’s now on his fifth roaster, using a drum roaster he found online that was for sale in north Seattle. His roaster of choice is called a SonoFresco, which Nick said is basically a hot air popper. It was designed by the same person who designed the first wood pellet stoves, he said.
“You can roast all day with it,” he says, firing it up and adding a couple scoops of fresh beans for roasting.
“And we always have a backup,” Tara remarks.
There are two important sounds Nick listens for as the coffee begins to roast, which he calls the “cracks” the beans make as they heat up. The first crack is more like a pop of popcorn. At that point, Nick explains, the water content of the bean is reaching a critical loss, and the bean is swelling to a point where structurally the fibrous parts that hold the bean together start to break and snap.
“The second crack is kind of where the magic is,” he said. “Boy, you can stop a roast seven seconds apart and get a noticeably different flavor profile, just based on that one little zone.”
Usually, once he hears the second crack, Nick will wait about 10 seconds, start cooling it right away before taking the first sample about 24 hours later.
“We want to see if it’s talking to us or not,” he said.
So far, their labor of love is starting to get some notice among the Northwest coffee-roasting culture.
“Their dedication to coffee is inspiring to say the least,” said Brent Spore of the Seattle area, who featured Tinderbox in a blog he wrote about the roasting passion. “Coffee shop owners should be passionate about their community and their coffee. We all want a friendly greeting when we hit our local coffee shop, and you’ll get that and more from the Greeleys.”
The business cards for Tinderbox state the theme to the Greeleys’ shop: “Providing a coffee experience … not just a drink.”
“The coffee shop thing has always been a draw to us,” Tara explains about how they went from hobby roasters to business owners last year.
“We loved going to coffee shops any time we traveled. We were always looking for where the good coffee is at,” she added.
In their travels, the couple also was drawn to how great a need there is other parts of the world and they wanted to do some sort of business that could reach out across the globe.
“The dots just started connecting in our head. The combination of our love of travel, our desire to be able to help other people. We’ve always cared about people who are suffering and nursing is a beautiful field in that way, because you are operating out of compassion and really can build a connection with people,” Nick explains leading up to the ultimate change in careers.
“The coffee is just this kind of crazy link. Most of the coffee we drink across all of the social strata in our country often comes from impoverished, developing or often poor areas,” Nick said.
They found a building that already had an existing shop at 101 N. Montesano St. on the main route through Westport quite by accident. In fact, finding the shop was the catalyst that made the business seem possible.
“I was working a shift in the ER and it had been a couple crazy days there,” Nick explains how they came to settle on Westport. Another person they worked with at the hospital approached Nick, saying, “Are you ready for your second career?”
“I said, ‘Did you have a coffee business or something?’ I don’t even know why I said it, but he just looked at me and said, ‘Do you want to buy it?’”
That night, he came home and told Tara. It was last December and a few months later, they gave up their jobs at Community Hospital.
“This is the face of our business, and you’ve got to have some place where you start,” Nick said. “This is a really great location, a lot of traffic and a neat looking building.”
The building is a former garage remodeled with massive windows that are tinted with local photos, and a pellet stove provides a warm glow. Local artists display their handiwork and the shop features a menu of delicacies and delights to go with the coffee.
“Maybe you’ll get a warm invitation to listen to local music or appreciate art. Or an offer to try their latest in-house roasted brew,” Spore said. “They’ve got something for those who want to slow down and set in, and pour over perhaps, or a quick double latte to go for the commuter. Tinderbox is a gem and it’s because the Greeleys make it so.”
As the business grows, Nick and Tara hope to have their hand-roasted coffee featured around the Harbor. Last week, Nick was brewing and pouring and giving out samples at the Hoquiam Farmer’s Market. Tinderbox coffee now can be found at Grays General Store in Hoquiam, Port Angeles Home Brew Supply, the Recipe Box in Hoquiam, Marketplace in Aberdeen, and Luna Rana Coffee and Tea House in Cosmopolis.
The Greeleys would like Tinderbox to be known as a Harbor business and don’t envision growing much beyond that, being content to build a slow and steady clientele as the word gets out. As far as they know, the farthest their roasted coffee has traveled has been to Korea, where one of their customers sent it to her daughter. It was Alby’s Roast, which features the smiling mug of a black lab on the label, encouraging coffee lovers to take a whiff of the aroma.
“We’re really excited to be able to start one of the first coffee roasters in Grays Harbor,” Nick said. “Hopefully it grows to the point where we can source our own coffee, start to do some trips overseas and connect with other people over there to bring stories and coffee back and speciality roast it here.”
Angelo Bruscas, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3916, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org