Whidbey Coffee’s story began with chicken fajitas at a small community festival.
Today, it’s a thriving business with more than $10 million in annual sales, 142 employees, 18 shops and stands, and a wholesale business that sends beans as far away as Houston, Texas, and Ely, Minn.
In the 30 years in between, founder Dan Ollis led the company with a focus on innovation, growth, constant improvement and good humor.
The key to his success, he explained, is pretty simple.
“It’s the fear of going out of business,” he said. “It’s definitely a motivator.”
Even after three decades in business, Ollis is enthusiastic about trying new things, whether it’s accounting in the cloud, new drinks invented by baristas — Red Bull spritzer was a recent surprise hit — or new products.
Last year, the company introduced Whidbey Coffee Pale Ale at the Whidbey Island Fair, a limited edition beer that was also available at Pyramid Alehouse in Seattle. The year before, bottled cold-brewed coffee was unveiled, but it’s being replaced this year with kegs of cold brew.
Another product on the way will allow people to make a nice cup o’ Joe by steeping coffee grounds inside a convenient, compostable tea-type bag.
“We’re always trying to figure out ideas about what the client wants and needs without hurting the brand,” he said.
At the same time, high-quality coffee remains at the heart of the company. And the key to getting the best beans is knowing the people who grow them.
Dennis Peseau, head roaster and green coffee buyer, said he traveled to Nicaragua in March, “a phenomenal experience” in which he visited coffee farms and mills.
The company had a prior relationship with coffee producers there through a trusted importer, but the trip helped to strengthen the vital relationships.
The visit, he said, also underscored his respect for those who manage the farms, pick the coffee cherries and process the beans.
“It takes a tremendous amount of labor to produce coffee,” he said, “especially specialty grade coffee.”
“Coffee is such a collaborative thing,” he added.
Peseau is next planning a trip to Brazil.
Back in 1989, Ollis started the ever-expanding business in about as small a scale as possible — selling tortilla-wrapped chicken strips at Duvall Days. He got himself an espresso cart that summer and dragged it around to fairs to sell coffee drinks. The following year, he sold coffee in front of Payless Food Store in Freeland.
Ollis, a South Whidbey High School graduate, originally offered coffee brewed from Stewart Brothers, a company that just happened to get its start as the Wet Whisker in Coupeville and later became Seattle’s Best.
In 2007, Whidbey Coffee expanded its horizons in acquiring Victrola, a Seattle-based coffee company. The acquisition allowed the company to start roasting its own beans for the first time, though it began with a small roaster at a cramped facility in Seattle.
The experience also taught Ollis a lot about coffee.
Today, the company roasts more than a half a million pounds of beans a year at a large facility in Mukilteo. It has an aromatic “lab” where coffee is tasted and tested and new ideas percolate.
Beyond the retails locations, the company’s coffee is served by businesses large and small across the nation. Workers at Amazon and Google are no stranger to the java.
Whidbey Coffee and Victrola remain distinct sister companies. Whidbey Coffee is located in North Puget Sound, from Burlington to Mukilteo and across Whidbey Island.
Ollis said he hopes to replace the drive-through coffee stand in Freeland with a cafe soon.
There are four Victrola cafes — including the Pike Place Cafe and Roastery — in trendy areas of Seattle.
“The Whidbey brand is more about the comfort in coffee,” Ollis said. “Victrola represents the adventure in coffee.”
The clients at Victrola tend to be more interested in the story behind the coffee, like the beans that come from an all-woman co-op in Rwanda. Ollis said single-source coffee has been introduced to Whidbey Coffee and will likely be again.
Besides tasty drinks, Whidbey Coffee is known for community involvement, which has included donations to hospital organizations, scholarships to South Whidbey students and support for community efforts.
Ollis, his wife Kristen and their children now live in Mukilteo, but Whidbey will always have a special place in his heart.