The name’s backward, but Sorbenots keeps moving forward

By ED MERRIMAN Baker City Herald August 10, 2009 03:08 pm
Baker City business — think Stone Bros. spelled backward — has grown from a single trailer in a parking lot to a chain of espresso shops in five cities

At Sorbenots Coffee of Baker City, the distinct taste of every cup of espresso coffee, latte, cappuccino and other drinks was perfected by members of the Stone family before they started branching out to other communities.

“We started out in 1995 with a trailer in the parking lot at Lube Depot,” said Phil Stone, a co-owner of Sorbenots Coffee.

The company, based in Baker City, is owned by Phil and his wife, Andrea, and Phil’s brother, Jason Stone.

Their initial drive-through espresso business was called Cappuccino Cowboy, but they changed it to Sorbenots — Stone Bros. written backward — after discovering during a trademark search that the Cappuccino Cowboy had been taken.

During the company’s 14 years of operation, Sorbenots has grown into a chain of five coffee shops in five towns across Eastern Oregon.

“Duplication — making sure every single drink is made the same in all five locations — is critical to the success of a chain business,” Phil Stone said.

“It’s important for every customer to be confident when they order a latte or a cappuccino that it’s going to taste the same from one Sorbenots to the next, whether they’re in Ontario, Baker City, La Grande, Pendleton or Hermiston,” he said.

Before getting into the coffee business, the Stone brothers earned their living as wildland firefighters. To make ends meet during the winter months and slow fire seasons they started a sandwich shop in 1995 called Little Joe’s Cafe and later opened Cappuccino Cowboy, which evolved into Sorbenots.

Jason Stone, who conducts employee training sessions, also emphasizes the importance of consistency, both in training employees and in the way he and Phil roast the coffee beans at the company’s Baker City roastery.

Sorbenots starts with top quality Arabica coffee beans purchased from a California broker. The green coffee beans arrive in 150-pound burlap sacks marked with labels denoting the country of origin, including Colombia, Guatemala, Tanzania and Kenya.

The green beans are roasted in 25-pound batches in a Diedfrich coffee roaster until they reach a temperature ranging from 452 degrees to 472 degrees, depending on the type of beans and coffee. For French roast coffee the beans are roasted at 472 degrees for richer flavor and darker color, or at 452 degrees for the full city roast, which comes out lighter in color and has more caffeine.

“We get lots of compliments on our coffee. I think it’s mainly due to the roasting process developed by our parents (Robin and Donna Stone),” who, Jason said, did most of the roasting during the company’s first 12 years.

“With small-batch roasting you catch the little things, like over-roasted beans,” Jason said.

During a typical week, the Stones roast about 600 pounds of beans at their roasting plant in Baker City. That includes 400 pounds of beans used to make coffee drinks at their five shops, and 200 pounds sold to commercial customers, including the Geiser Grand Hotel, Baker City Cafe, Quail Ridge Golf Course and others including the Earth and Vine art gallery and wine bar, which is the first place in town serving what Jason Stone calls French press coffee.

“It’s unique and it’s an experience. You order it and you can press it yourself at your table,” Jason said.

At Sorbenots, customers’ coffee isn’t brewed in a drip coffee pot or coffee maker. Instead, each cup is brewed individually to order using the Americana method.

Even during the recession this past year, Phil Stone said sales growth has averaged 5 percent to 10 percent at each location except Ontario, where sales have held steady.

“We are concerned about the economy, but right now we are having our busiest year,” Phil said.

He said 2001 — the year of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — was the only year the Sorbenots chain experienced an overall decline in sales of coffee drinks.

“I think we are a little bit insulated in Eastern Oregon, and specifically in Baker City, from the national economy,” Phil said. “We’ve gone through the timber industry decline and I think the communities of Eastern Oregon are more stable than other areas that got caught up in the big boom/bust cycle.”

The company reaches out to tourists, but Phil said Sorbenots’ employee training and customer service strategy focuses on keeping local customers happy.

“It’s truly our local clientele that is the key to our vitality,” Stone said.

Phil said he strives to hire efficient, personable employees and provide them with training, while Andrea handles most of the marketing, including the design on coffee cups, to-go boxes, the company logo and writing press releases.

The Stones moved from their original trailer into the current Baker City location on East Campbell Street in 1996, and opened their second store in La Grande that same year followed by Ontario in 1998, Pendleton in 2003 and Hermiston in 2004.

“Our fourth location in Pendleton opened in August of 2003 and showed profitability the first day we opened,” said Andrea Stone. “Projections show that Pendleton will likely exceed the sales volume of any of our other locations.

“Hermiston mirrored and exceeded the profitability curve of Pendleton,” she said.

With coffee shops in five towns, the Stones promoted longtime employee Corey Smith to regional sales manager to oversee all five drive-throughs.

“Corey does the deliveries to all five stores and oversees all the managers,” Andrea said, adding, “a lot of our managers have been with us a long time.”

Although Sorbenots sells cinnamon rolls, bagels and other edibles, Andrea said 89 percent of the company’s sales are generated through drive-through coffee orders.

“We have ventured into and back out of additional food and product sales, but we found that including additional product lines often confuses the type of business which we’re striving to achieve,” she said.

All Sorbenots stores are open from 5:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Between 2003 and 2005 the Stones attempted to open Sorbenots Coffee drive-throughs in Flagstaff, Ariz., and Greeley, Colo.

After several trips to Arizona the Stones dropped the idea of opening an espresso shop there. However, in 2006 they did open a shop in Greeley. Phil Stone said after losing $6,000 a month they closed it and decided to stick closer to home, for the time being.

“In the end the Greeley shop never took off,” Phil said. “The demographics looked good. The incomes looked good, but what we didn’t realize was their incomes were all taken up with payments on houses, cars, boats and things.

“They didn’t have enough disposable income, even with two people working,” Phil said.

Now they’re looking to expand whole bean roasting and wholesale sales. Phil said future growth plans now target wholesale coffee marketing and Internet sales.

“We hired Chelsea McLagan as a commercial sales and online sales rep,” he said.

With McLagan on board, Phil said Sorbenots is picking up quite a few restaurants, hotels and other businesses that now buy Sorbenots coffee.

The Stones’ mother, Donna Stone, formerly of La Dolce Vita, an Italian phrase meaning “The Sweet Life,” was the head coffee roaster for Sorbenots from 1996 through 2004. She trained Phil and Jason in the art of roasting beans, and now they’re doing most of the roasting, although she is still the official master roaster.

Sorbenots sells one Italian roast coffee called Soignoli’s Blend, which was developed by Donna Stone and carries her maiden name.

As for adding more espresso drive-throughs after the disappointment in Colorado, Phil said the the family is looking closer to home, but has not identified a sixth site yet.

“Never say never, but there’s no place for a sixth store right now,” he said.