This is a story about the life-changing power of tinkering. This is also a story about a really good cup of coffee.
Doug and Barb Garrott live in a hilly corner of northern Idaho, just east of the twin college towns of Moscow (Idaho) and Pullman (Washington) that straddle the state line. The same year they got married, they started working as estate auctioneers, and for a decade they ran an eBay store selling antiques and collectibles. But it wasn't just business—Doug has had his obsessions, too. "I, at one point, collected electric fans," he recalls, "and at one point, electric guitars, so I became an amateur luthier. And then tube amps, which got me into electronics, and then accordions—that was a loud period."
In 2002, during an antiquing trip to Seattle, the tinkerers stopped for a cup of coffee at the city's famous Espresso Vivace and a new obsession took root: the Garrotts wanted to make coffee that good at home.
As soon as they got back to Idaho, they bought a home espresso machine and dove into the world of online coffee forums for advice. Finally, they decided to buy a vintage lever machine—the kind where you actually pull the shot by pulling down a lever—on eBay, for just $125. "We filled it up and it leaked," Barb explains. They bought another vintage machine—same story. "There was no place to get parts to fix it, so we set about taking it apart and fixing it ourselves." And just like that, a business was born.
Orphan Espresso, the vintage espresso machine repair company they started after that first broken espresso machine arrived, began as a natural outgrowth of their efforts to fix up their own busted lever machine. Over the years, Doug and Barb had become professional tinkers, bodgers, and rebuilders. "Collecting means getting things cheap," Doug says, "and cheap means broken, so you have to learn how to fix everything." And if they were making the parts to fix their own, the Garrotts figured, they might as well sell a few, too.
As the Garrotts became more familiar with the world of home espresso obsessives, they also began buying up and repairing vintage hand grinders, those old-timey wooden boxes with brass fittings that fit right in as decoration in faux-Colonial living rooms. But fiddling around with these vintage grinders, they made an important discovery: depending on the age and state of disrepair, those old grinders could actually be great.
Why should anyone care about a coffee grinder? Because the same principle applies to brewing coffee as applies to baking cookies: consistency is important. A good grinder chops up the coffee beans into consistently-sized pieces, while a bad one (like a common whirling blade grinder) hacks them up willy nilly. The smaller particles overbrew (which makes the coffee bitter), the larger ones underbrew (sour), and the cup is ruined. There are plenty of good motorized grinders on the market that don't need muscle power to get going, but within the world of coffee aficionados, the hand grinder has a special appeal. For one, taking out the motor cuts down on costs, and for another, there's the fact that hand grinders are portable. Die-hard hand grinder fans also speak of "meditative spaces," feeling connected to their grinders, and the fact that hand grinders feel like real tools in way of a well-made chef's knife, or a satisfyingly hefty hatchet—and will happily pay up for the privilege of getting a Garrott-repaired model.
As with espresso machines, though, the Garrotts found some strange gaps in the hand grinder market, both in the products themselves and the way they were being distributed. Zassenhaus, the preeminent old-school German brand, only had one distributor in the U.S., and their products' quality had declined in recent years. Vintage grinders, which were sometimes great, were just as often useless wrecks, and there was no way to tell which was which before you got your hands on them. Doug and Barb began importing high-end Japanese hand grinders, but even then, suppliers were inconsistent, and certain aspects of the design (chintzy materials and one-bearing floating burr mechanisms) could have been better.
Over the course of a few years making the rounds at the major coffee conventions, the Garrotts had gotten to know a serial coffee entrepreneur named Kyle Anderson. Anderson got his start in the industry in the early '90s, when he and a friend invented a fully automated espresso machine called the Caffe Acorto, one of the first machines that could make a serious cappuccino, from grinding the beans to steaming the milk, at the push of the button, which found its way to the Microsoft corporate cafeteria, 7-11s, and McDonald's across the country. Since starting a grinder company called Baratza in 1999, he's built a name for himself as one of the best (and most successful) grinder manufacturers around. At a coffee convention in the fall of 2010, the Garrotts asked Anderson a question: Why didn't Baratza just make a good hand grinder and settle the import-versus-vintage question once and for all? Anderson, who was plenty busy making motorized grinders, turned the question back on Doug and Barb: Why didn't they just make one themselves?
That night, they sketched out a plan for what was to become their first grinder on a napkin at their hotel. It would have a Titan-class set of burrs, same as the thousand-dollar espresso grinders, and an unimpeded flow of beans from the hopper through the grinder and into the catch cup. It would have two rock-solid brass bearings at both ends, stopping the wobble that caused problems for most hand grinders. Once they got home from the convention, the Garrotts ordered enough parts to make ten and settled in for a winter of troubleshooting, and by April 2011, the Pharos hand grinder was born. It was about the size of a volleyball, cost $245, and quickly became known as the best espresso grinder anyone could buy for under $500.
But it was a little wonky. The Pharos was built to be almost open-source in its simplicity, and aftermarket mod kits soon started popping up to make it easier to adjust, easier to hold, and replace the drain plug the Garrotts had designed to retrieve the grounds with something a little user-friendlier. Serious home espresso geeks loved the Pharos for its stability and huge two-and-a-half-inch-wide burrs, but it was a little too much for people who just wanted a really good cup of pour-over or french press coffee, and its size meant that it lost all the portability plusses of a hand grinder.
So the Garrotts started tinkering again, and came up with a smaller, lighter grinder called the Lido 1, keyed more towards making excellent French press and pour-over coffee. They kept the same basic design principles—super-stable construction, durable materials, and unimpeded bean flow—but downgraded the burrs to a smaller set, which let the Lido shrink to only slightly larger than some of the imported hand grinders on the market (about the size of a restaurant pepper mill). The coffee community embraced the Lido with open arms (they sold 750, to the Pharos's 1,000), but Doug and Barb were a bottleneck. They were buying small batches of parts for both the Lido and Pharos and assembling them by hand, all while juggling the growing demands of Orphan Espresso.
Again, it was Anderson who gave them the push to go big. "Every time Barb came in and said, 'We just got four more orders for the Lido, Doug would just groan," Anderson says. "As much as [the Lido] was his baby, it meant hours for him in the shop, putting these things together." The big hurdle for moving up to mass manufacturing, though, was the up-front investment in expensive, permanent "tools"—the molds used to cast the custom parts—that even for a simple machine like the Lido 2 can cost over $100,000. But after months of thinking and assembling more and more Pharoses and Lido 1s by hand, the Garrotts decided to take the plunge.
"It's a big leap, to drop that much money in tooling because some numbnuts stopped by your farm one day and said you can do this," Anderson says. But he followed through with his suggestion, and hooked up Doug and Barb with his long-time business partners in Taiwan, and put them in touch with Baratza's own product designer, David Littrell, who'd also designed the look for the Sonicare toothbrush. Littrell helped the Garrotts optimize the parts for their next-gen grinder—now dubbed the Lido 2—for scalability, and work in what he calls "consumer delighters," such as a combination handle-and-bean-spout, and materials weighty enough (made with more zinc than aluminum) to give the grinders a satisfying heft.
In December of last year, the big leap into tooling already made, the Garrotts traveled to Taiwan to check out the factory and examine prototypes. They were tickled to see the new version of their homemade grinder being manufactured on the same floor as Pearl brand drums. As Doug put it, "To see our coffee grinder next to high-hat pedals, it made us think we're doing something right."
The initial 500-grinder run of the Lido 2 sold out long before the parts even made it out of that factory, and the waiting list for more is already growing. Besides posting a few times to coffee forums, they've done no advertising, no PR, and no market research. "I don't know how to write an ad any more than I know how to fly," Barb says. But what they have done is tinker—which is to say innovate, perfect, and build—incessantly, relentlessly, and while constantly engaging their customer base with non-stop customer support and conversations on the coffee forums. And, of course, they found a friend in Kyle Anderson.
Any business book would recommend finding a mentor, but it's a rare professional contact who would set you up with their own designer and factory to help manufacture a product that, technically, is a direct competitor with their own. "Kyle confounds us every minute that we have known him," Doug says. "He's the most helpful, the most open, and he's helpful to everyone who knows him, because he truly believes the rising tide lifts all boats, including his own."
The man himself agrees. "What they do is fuel the passion that people have around gourmet coffee at home," Anderson says, "and that's exactly what we like to do." It helps that the hand grinder market is only a small subset of the grinder market at large, but Anderson also admits that he has no plans for making a hand grinder himself—"especially not while Doug and Barb are doing it so well."
[Image: Flickr user Kuba Bożanowski]