Pie Bar Small Business Partners: Alma Coffee
By: Lauren Bolden, Owner
February 1, 2022
I recently sat down with Alma Coffee co-owner, Leticia Hutchins, to talk about coffee and running a small business. She invited me up to their Roastery in Holly Springs, and I never turn down an opportunity to see the Alma Team.
This piece is a part of Pie Bar’s Small Business Partnership Series where we spend time highlighting the people and the companies that make Pie Bar so special. Alma Coffee is the sole coffee provider for Pie Bar and created a special Pie Bar Roast that pairs perfectly with our pies.
I pulled into the driveway off of Holly Springs Parkway and drove to the top of the hill where Alma Coffee’s Warehouse, Roasting Facility, and Pop-Up Cafe hide behind a farm-style house. The parking lot is dotted with fire pits and Adirondack chairs, inviting you to stay a while. It was a chilly Tuesday afternoon, and despite the weather, people were working on laptops and cell phones while sipping coffee and what I imagine are some of their signature lattes with housemade syrups.
As I entered the warehouse, I was immediately greeted by the smell of roasting coffee and the sounds of people filling orders. Someone in the back yelled “mail’s here!” before a white-canvas mail cart was wheeled to the roll-up doors by a guy covered in tattoos and wearing a coffee-stained apron. He started handing off packages to the postal worker, while they chatted with what felt like a familiar cadence.
On the other side of the warehouse at the Pop Up Cafe, a team member pulled a double shot of espresso and topped it with hot water, the perfect Americano. As I took a sip, I watched Leticia quietly give instructions to a team member filling bags of freshly roasted coffee beans. Her business partner and husband, Harry, furiously typed away on his laptop, and people steadily came and went, crossing the make-shift barriers between the employees-only area and the cafe-style seating.
I’ve known Harry and Leticia Hutchins socially for several years at this point. Leticia and I both enjoy a cold beer from Reformation and I know Harry’s favorite pie is our Bourbon Chocolate Pecan, but over the past 12 months, our relationship has transitioned from social to more processional. I approached Alma to become Pie Bar’s sole coffee provider beginning in 2021. The day I met with the Alma team to launch our partnership, we discussed the things that both of our companies felt strongly about: building community, supporting other small businesses, and making exceptional products. Ours happens to be pie, and theirs happens to be coffee. The perfect pairing.
As the Alma team worked around us, Leticia and I sat down and began to talk. The roasting side of Alma Coffee is still pretty new, starting in 2018 when Harry and Leticia left their corporate jobs (accountants) to focus their attention on coffee grown in Honduras.
Did I forget to mention that Leticia is a 5th generation coffee farmer with roots in Honduras?
Al Lopez, Leticia’s father was born and raised in Honduras before immigrating to the United States when he was just 11 years old. He eventually joined the United States Army before an injury forced a transition from the military to a career in corporate America. When it came time for him to retire (at only 42 years old!) he knew he wanted to invest back into the place he was born and continue the family tradition of coffee farming. Al started by planting a few coffee trees on his family land along the mountainside of Copan, and then he planted a whole bunch more. His focus was to create jobs for people in a community where equitable pay and fair treatment of workers was not a priority. He wanted to do things differently. Over the next eight years, Al spent his time focusing on creating sustainable practices and infrastructure on the farm he purchased from his mother, Finca Terrerito.
Al sold his coffee beans in the local markets, but at the time, they were sold unroasted. From planting to harvest, it takes approximately 4 years to see any fruit bore by the coffee trees. Once the tree reaches maturity, it flowers and creates a coffee cherry. Inside this cherry is a small bean, green in color. Following a series of hand-harvesting the coffee cherries, removing the outer cherry, and drying the green bean, the beans are then traditionally sold to brokers who in turn resell them in the coffee market. Those green beans from Finca Terrerito would eventually wind up in the hands of roasting companies all over the world who would then roast the beans and sell what we would generally know as a roasted coffee bean.
Harry and Leticia spent their high school years in Cherokee County, Georgia. They met in geometry class and bonded over their childhoods’ spent abroad (Leticia regularly visiting Honduras and Harry growing up abroad due to his father’s job.) Following high school, they attended college in Chicago, where they remained after graduation. Harry and Leticia spent several years in Chicago, living the lives of normal recent college grads and newlyweds. On the weekends they explored the city and found a passion for visiting local coffee shops and restaurants, always excited to see what roasts were being offered. They began taking more regular trips together to Leticia’s family farm in Honduras, and it was while on one of these trips they began to dream about coffee being a part of their shared future.
Back in the Alma Coffee Roastery and Warehouse, Leticia told me that if not direct, once green beans leave a coffee farm, on average they can exchange hands up to seven times before reaching the ports and being exported. This process means that the beans are less traceable, but also it creates financial inequity between the person that grows, picks, dries, and ships the green beans and the final broker who sells the product to the roastery and then the final consumer. Harry and Leticia began to question if they could make Leticia’s family coffee farm even more sustainable by becoming a true farm-to-cup coffee company.
In 2018, Harry and Leticia put in their notices at work, packed up their belongings and their two cats, and drove south to Georgia. They moved into Leticia’s parents’ basement where they lived for 8 months. They had started dreaming about growing Al’s coffee farm and were finally in a position to make it happen.
Alma means soul in Spanish, which is why Harry and Leticia chose to name their branch of the family business Alma Coffee. It was a way to pay tribute to all of the hard work and passion that he and the people of Honduras had poured into Finca Terrerito for the past 10+ years. They would be embarking on a new journey and becoming the first in 5 generations of coffee farming in Leticia’s family lineage to not only plant, grow, harvest, and dry the beans, but also to export and roast their own farm’s beans. This new branch of the family business, Alma Coffee, was a way to honor the past as well as prepare them for their new future.
The first batch of Alma Coffee Beans were roasted in Holly Springs, Georgia, in April 2019. 11 years after Al planted his first coffee tree on Finca Terrerito and a year after Harry and Leticia took the leap into small business ownership. Like many small businesses, the first year was a whirlwind. Every decision feels heightened, and as someone who has gone through that myself, I could identify those feelings in Leticia as we continued to talk. They were roasting beans only a fraction of the time, with the rest of the workday spent on things like figuring out how to package their newly roasted beans, how to get their coffee directly into the hands of the coffee drinker, and how to navigate being a married couple while also working together. A year into Alma Coffee, Harry and Leticia had found their footing and were excited about the potential of their second year in business: 2020. In February 2020, they were roasting more, establishing themselves as the go-to coffee roastery for other coffee shops and restaurants in the Atlanta area, and they had recently partnered with the local community college and co-working space to open a small coffee shop that was supported by other local entrepreneurs and students. March 2020 came around, and the Global Pandemic changed everything.
Their coffee shop was forced to close. The restaurant and other wholesale accounts that they had worked so hard to build were all put on hold. The world stopped, but they knew to keep their young business alive, they needed to pivot. Harry realized that their consumers had not stopped drinking coffee, they had just changed the way they were receiving it. Instead of visiting their local coffee shop, they were brewing coffee at home. As someone who now almost exclusively drinks Alma Coffee, I can say first hand that grocery store coffee has never satisfied the coffee-shop-coffee-drinker who is more attuned to the unique flavors and intricacies of a farm-to-cup coffee. Harry and Leticia recognized that about coffee drinkers, myself included, and figured out that they were seeking a way to get high-quality coffee, but at home.
Leticia spent weeks converting Alma’s website to an easy-to-use online coffee ordering system. People from all over the world could now order Alma Coffee and have it shipped directly to their doors. I asked Leticia where the majority of their orders came from at the beginning of the Pandemic, and funny enough they were mostly local addresses. It seems that the people of Cherokee and the surrounding counties agreed with Harry and Leticia. They believed in the power of a cup of coffee that starts the right way, and they showed that support by ordering thousands of bags of coffee over the next twelve months.
Despite the Pandemic, Alma Coffee continued to grow. With their coffee shop in town forced to remain closed, they opted to open a Pop Up Cafe in their Warehouse and Roastery. Their team grew in 2021, from 5 to 12 people, and their focus transitioned from growing wholesale and local-only accounts to implementing automation equipment and tools that make for a better product and process. It seems that the faster they can get the coffee out the door, the better it is for the end consumer (fresher beans), the Georgia-based team (an exciting, fast-paced work environment), and where it all started: the farm and people of Honduras. As Alma Coffee grows, they continue to pour back into Al’s and now Leticia’s farm in Honduras, improving lives through creating jobs with fair pay, harvesting coffee through sustainable practices, and showcasing the process of where our coffee comes from, not just the final product.
As I took the final sip of my Americano, I asked Leticia what she foresaw for herself, Harry, and Alma Coffee over the next several years. Her attention turned to the farm-style house facing the main road. The same house that hides their Warehouse and Roastery from passer-byers and currently operates as make-shift office space and temporary storage for their growing business. Harry dreams of opening a cafe where they can continue to deepen their relationship with the community around them while supporting themselves, their team, and the families who make their Honduras farm so special.
If I know anything about Harry and Leticia, it is that whatever they put their minds to, I know it can become a reality. As I packed up my things and said my goodbyes, I took one final look around the Alma Coffee Roastery, Warehouse, and Pop Up Cafe and it was not hard to see why a young couple with a desire to do some good in the world could be so successful by simply crafting an extraordinary cup of coffee.
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