‘Coffee For Everyone’: Idou Coffee Company Helping Community Develop A Passion For Specialty Coffee
Amid the trials and tribulations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, four passionate coffee lovers took a sip of espresso and a leap of faith.
When Mike and Mikala Swanson moved from Pittsburgh back to the State College area, they joined longtime friends Christine and Tim Schafer for a hike. On their stroll, the couples spitballed about how they were going to spend their stimulus checks. Half-jokingly, one said, “What if we start this business we’ve been talking about?”
Back in 2014, the Swansons and Schafers’ friendship was built around a mutual love for coffee.
“We had kind of dreamed up what it would look like to have a coffee company that is super excited about doing coffee that helps people slow down,” Mike said.
After doing some research and buying a roaster, Idou Coffee Company launched in December 2020.
Idou, which is Greek for “to pause” or to “take notice,” reminds people to stop and enjoy a delicious cup of joe amid a busy day.
When the company launched, the founders focused on crafting their signature roasting philosophy and process. Fast forward a year, and the crew purchased a trailer that would become Idou’s signature mobile coffee unit after being gutted and revamped.
Nowadays, you can find the trailer at the downtown farmers market on Tuesdays and Fridays as well as various local events that are announced weekly on Idou’s Instagram page.
Mikala and Christine have the most barista experience, so they run the show on the retail end. Tim is the lead roaster, so he does the behind-the-scenes roast profile and development. Mike contributes most to the outward-facing aspects of the business, which includes leading Idou’s online presence and educational resources.
While Idou isn’t a full-time job for any of its founders, the company has grown exponentially since its mobile unit debut.
At its core, the Boalsburg-based coffee company has three main values: Excellent coffee, coffee for everyone, and social responsibility from farm to cup.
Idou hopes to be the company that helps people learn and discover a passion for coffee they didn’t know they had.
When describing specialty coffee culture, Mike explained that it can “breed a lot of competition, hostility, and arrogance.” Since forming the company was such a positive relationship builder for the team, they decided to go in a different direction.
Idou has a resource section on its website that provides guides about roast profile basics, navigating coffee shops, and cupping coffee at home. Its beginner’s guide includes articles about why fresh coffee matters, an introduction to the french press, and why you should filter your water.
“[Coffee for everyone] is born out of the conviction that we want to help people find a coffee that they love,” Mike said.
Through Idou’s journey of increasing accessibility in the coffee scene, its team has formed a neat, yet strategic, relationship with Penn State’s Coffee Club, which shares a similar interest in the specialty scene.
“Those folks are going to be movers and shakers in the coffee industry as they get older and graduate,” Mike said. “We can help people see our philosophy behind coffee that is a more welcoming space for people across the board and not combative. You kind of get to see the beauty of helping people experience coffee for the first time.”
According to Mike, 60% of Americans drink coffee daily, but only 10% actively seek out specialty coffee. For him, fixing this starts with education.
“There’s a lot of people that are drinking really low-quality or unethically sourced coffee every day,” Mike explained. “We’re kind of noticing this little sliver of the market where we want to help people drink really good coffee and help them understand why it’s good. But also, we want to help them make better decisions about where their coffee comes from.”
Thus, Idou’s third core value, social responsibility from farm to cup, comes into play.
Idou focuses on traceability and transparency when it comes to its beans. The coffee industry is one of the top three contributors to the global slave market, according to Mike, so Idou ensures it isn’t contributing to that statistic.
“The combination of coffee education and trying to help people find a coffee that they love alongside making sure that we’re equitably compensating everybody along the supply chain — from producer to distributor to roaster, or ourselves, and our customers — is something that we take really seriously,” Mike said. “I think that unique combination alongside our commitments to making excellent coffee sets us apart a little bit more than our peers.”
Idou works with a supplier, Sweet Maria’s, which promises that its farmers are being paid more than 50% more than the Fair Trade minimums, though it’s often more.
They pay farmers directly, which eliminates the need for a middleman. Because Idou is still relatively small, it doesn’t have the capital to develop direct trade relationships with the farms, so Sweet Maria’s “Farm Gate” does this for them.
“Whether you buy a latte, or you’re buying a bag of coffee, whatever it is, the money that we’ve paid for that is going to the farmers, and it’s contributing to them having some kind of economic stability, to continue to produce that crop year over year, and to continue to offer jobs to local residents, which for us, is a part of that transparency and sustainability,” Mike said.
“Because here’s the thing, if they can’t produce coffee, we can’t roast it and sell it,” Mike continued. “And so our fates are tied up together. For us to continue to make the investment as producers means we can continue to sell delicious coffee.”
For those who enjoy coffee and are interested in getting involved in coffee culture, Mike has one piece of advice: try it all.
“As you can afford it, buy stuff that’s different,” Mike said. “Buy stuff from different producer countries, buy stuff that’s processed differently, buy stuff that you can make seasonal. Make it on a French press, make it on a pour-over, make it on a drip machine, make an AeroPress. If you have an espresso machine, make it that way. But just start exploring stuff, and then noticing, ‘What do I like? What do I dislike?‘”
It appears people have been coming to Idou to explore and try their different types of coffees and drinks. The company has already established a presence in the local coffee community and plenty of customers have walked away satisfied.
“So far, it’s been really fun,” Mike said. “We have a ton of people who have become regulars over the course of the summer because they have a good experience of ‘this is delicious. I’m coming back next week.’ So, we’re really hoping, fingers crossed, that they turn out to be regular purchasers over the winter.”
The sky is the limit for Idou’s growth in State College, and the company doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.
“If we keep doing well, it would be super fun to have a storefront where people come in and hang out with us. It’s becoming more and more popular with roasters all over the country where they have storefronts where they’re specifically doing coffee education for people that want to sign up for it…That would be really fun for us. We’ll see…” Mike laughed.
But, for now, Idou wants to focus on brewing delicious coffee, forming relationships through its mobile unit, and creating more educational resources.
Bags go for $13 to $15, but the benefit of the mobile unit is that people can try a cup of Idou’s coffee for only a few bucks to decide exactly what beans they want to purchase. Idou runs a monthly subscription service where customers can purchase a 12 oz. bag of its newest, freshly roasted coffee on the first Monday of each month.
As for Mike’s favorite part about his Idou journey, it was difficult to pick just one. Ultimately, he settled on interactions with customers.
“I get really geeked when somebody comes up and they’re excited to try our coffee, and we make them a drink, and they take a sip and they’re like, ‘Woah, that’s delicious,'” Mike explained. “That moment where they have an experience where it brightens their day to have a cup of coffee that they love, for me, it’s like, ‘Man. This is what it’s about.’ I love that.”
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