Coffee brewer is passionate about her product.
When Lorraine Walker's husband, Philip, started roasting coffee in a popcorn popper in their Gallipolis home, the mother of five never imagined that a business opportunity was brewing.
But a few years later, when she was looking to return to the workforce because her oldest child was starting college and her youngest was starting kindergarten, she decided to become a professional coffee roaster.
"I've always been a coffee lover and passionate about great coffee," Lorraine Walker says. "We saw a need to offer freshly roasted coffee."
She spent about a year studying roasting techniques with the Specialty Coffee Association of America and became a certified coffee roaster.
"That certification represents a lot of classwork-a lot of time, a lot of effort," she says. "There's a lot of art and a lot of craft in making a fine cup of coffee."
She and her husband invested about $70,000 in the business. They bought a professional roaster and transformed a brick cook house attached to their historic home into a roasting room capable of roasting 32 pounds an hour.
In 2008, the Walkers launched Silver Bridge Coffee-named for the span that crosses the Ohio River connecting Ohio and West Virginia-and committed themselves to selling the freshest coffee they could.
"We're adamant about freshness," she says. "We don't leave our coffee in stores more than 90 days. We come in and trade it out for fresh product."
Initially, Walker thought she would sell mostly online but soon found that she had more success selling locally. Walker's coffee became so popular that the Athens Kroger store became the first retailer to carry it. At the urging of customers, the Walkers started selling Silver Bridge Coffee at the Athens Farmers Market. Soon, they would begin selling coffee at farmers' markets in the Columbus area.
The markets offered less competition than the Internet and more opportunities for Walker's opinions on fresh coffee to percolate with customers.
"At the farmers' market, we were able to develop relationships with customers," she says. "It's the customers that help you get placed in stores."
Selling her coffee alongside fresh-picked produce also helped solidify her argument that freshness should matter to coffee drinkers. "We want you to think of this as an agricultural product that's made weekly for the market," she says.
In 2010, Silver Bridge Coffee built a new roasting facility in Bidwell, Ohio. The building's loading dock makes it easier for Walker to take delivery of bags of coffee beans, which can weigh between 130 and 165 pounds. She also purchased a larger roaster that can roast 200 pounds an hour.
Today, Silver Bridge Coffee is carried in 19 Kroger stores in Columbus and southeastern Ohio, three Columbus Giant Eagle Market District stores, a variety of specialty markets and in 22 Whole Foods stores in the Mid-Atlantic region, ranging from Washington D.C. to Cincinnati.
Earlier this year, her husband joined the business full time. "It's going to really help us grow more quickly having him here," she says.
The Walkers' commitment to quality convinced Alycia Turley to serve their coffee at Coppa Gelato, a coffee and gelato shop in Westerville.
"We really fell in love with Silver Bridge-not only because it was super, super fresh-but because of Lorraine's pride and care with her product," says the café manager.
Walker or one of her family members delivers fresh coffee to the store each week.
"It really does make a difference with the taste," Turley says. "People will literally come into the store just to have a cup of her coffee."
Diners at J. Liu Restaurant & Bar in Dublin also have taken notice of the fresh taste, says Jake Shelton, general manager.
"People started asking where they could find the coffee," says Shelton, who likes to introduce his clients to exceptional local products.
Shelton and Turley also enjoy working with Walker because of her willingness to share her coffee expertise. Walker spent time at both eateries training employees about storing, brewing and serving coffee before they started serving it.
Walker is passionate about educating people about coffee. As the business has grown and she has had to hire employees to sell her coffee at farmers' markets, she spends time making sure they understand the roasting process and the importance of using freshly roasted beans. Still, she counsels them to be honest if a potential customer asks a question for which they don't know the answer.
"I tell them to tell the person to post the question on our Facebook page and that the owner will answer almost immediately," she says. "It's an opportunity for everybody else to learn."
Melissa Kossler Dutton is a freelance writer.