Founder and CEO Keith "Herbie" Herbert is savoring success with his growing coffee empire.
As a 27-year-old living in Aspen and folding pizza boxes to supplement his income as a sports lifestyle model, Herbert knew there had to be a way to spend more time skiing.
So when he saw an ad for a six-foot-long coffee cart for $4,000, he decided to give it a shot. He set up shop at the base of the mountain in Snowmass Village. "Every day I would have the coffee cart open for eight hours," says Herbert, who serves as the company's president and chief executive. "If I wanted to go skiing, I'd have a friend come run it."
A year later, with financing from a Small Business Administration loan, money borrowed from his parents and grandparents and his own credit cards, the New York native opened the first physical Ink! Coffee shop in the front of a friend's snowboard shop.
That was in 1995. Today, Herbert's business has grown into 12 Ink! Coffee shops and the roasting company he purchased in 1998 -- all located in Colorado. The 13th store will open in an electric bicycle shop in Bonnie Brae, and the 14th will be located in an office building in Broomfield.
Ink! recently moved its headquarters, roasting and sales operations to 29th and Larimer in Denver's River North neighborhood. "RiNo is really setting a trend for Denver, and we want to be right in the middle of it," Herbert says.
Each of Ink!'s baristas participates in 40 hours of training before they are allowed behind the bar wearing an official Ink! Coffee shirt. But the company takes care of its employees. Baristas get health insurance, a 401K, profit sharing and the chance to move up in the company.
"We seek a passionate type of person who really likes hospitality and really likes making coffee," Herbert says. "We're sort of picky."
Because Ink!'s coffee is roasted at a high altitude, the process is slower so the coffee beans can be fully developed without charring or over-roasting, allowing the beans to fully develop all the flavors. Ink! also roasts to order, meaning there is no stockpiled roasted coffee waiting for a home.
"When you order our coffee, it is roasted especially for you," Herbert says. "Roasting is a key component to the magic of Ink! Coffee, as it allows us to transform the green coffee to our liking to bring out the best in every single bean. We control the coffee from the farm all the way to the cup, delivering a distinct cup of Ink! Coffee every time."
With about 54 percent of Americans older than 18 drinking coffee daily, there's plenty of room for Ink! to grow in the $4 billion industry. Of the 100 million Americans who drink coffee daily, 30 million order specialty beverages such as lattes, cappuccinos and mochas. Roughly $18 billion is spent annually on specialty coffee in the United States, according to Statistic Brain, a website devoted to statistics on a variety of subjects.
With a 7 percent annual growth rate, coffee shops are the fastest growing niche in the restaurant business, according to Business Insider.
"Our plan is to become the best and the local-est coffee company in Colorado," Herbert says.
Challenges: "Our biggest challenge is employees, especially in the Aspen store," Herbert says. "Sometimes when you find yourself in Aspen, you'd rather ski."
Opportunities: Herbert sees opportunities for Ink! in locating stores within other retailers, much like the original store in his friend's snowboard shop.
Ink!'s food products are another opportunity. "We were one of the first coffee companies to do food in a thoughtful way," Herbert says. "Now we're making cookies with our coffee in it. It's a breakfast cookie -- it's healthy and high in protein and low in fat. We're distributing it nationwide."
Needs: Denver needs to continue to evolve as a sophisticated food and beverage market, Herbert says. "We need for the market to catch up and understand how important coffee is to us and how special it is to us and embrace the coffee lifestyle," Herbert says.
And now that he's given up skiing, Herbert says he needs to play more golf. "I'm obsessed with golf," he says "I meet a lot of people playing golf that help me with this business."