Real Good... K-Cups: Compass Coffee Launches New Line

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Compass Coffee has long been providing Washington, DC with real good coffee, from their locally roasted packaged beans to their 12 cafes located throughout the DMV area. When COVID-19 hit, the Compass team was forced back to the drawing board to figure out new ways to continue delivering on their promise of real good coffee. Over the past few months, Compass Coffee has significantly expanded their online store, launched into more grocery stores, including Giant Foods, released an already ground version of their coffee beans, and are now excited to announce the newest addition to their lineup, K-Cups!

We sat down with the Compass Coffee team to learn more about launching new products. We heard from Harrison Saurez and Michael Haft (Co-Founders), Chris (Head Roaster), Chas Newman (Product Manager), and Kuran Malhotra (Director of Corporate Development)

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Creating new products can be really tough, do you have any funny or memorable stories from the research and development process?

Chas: When we set out to develop the single serve products, we all agreed that we would only launch them if we could stay true to our core value of real good coffee. The truth is, most people have low expectations of what a cup of coffee made from a pod will taste like. Our first few attempts didn’t start out very good, but by iterating on our process we have managed to make real good single serve coffee that we’re proud of.

One funny story from the R&D process was during our second testing of our pods. The first batch had come out tea-like, a result of too little coffee being extracted during the brewing process. So for the next batch we tried to really pack a lot of coffee into the pods. I had high hopes for this batch and had brought in a few members of the team to try it. We start to brew the first cup and immediately I could tell something was wrong. No coffee was coming out of the machine...until coffee started to come from everywhere! The poor machine was sputtering coffee grounds. We had to take the entire machine apart to clean it, but in the process learned valuable lessons about how the machine worked and how the water was flowing through the pod and into the cup. No doubt we have a better product today because of that messy batch!

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What advice do you have for someone looking to launch new products?

Kuran: Establish a process that gets you honest, useful feedback. The mission at Compass is to make our customers’ days better, so it’s incredibly important that we include them in the process of developing new products. Before launching something into the market,  we get feedback on every product from our team, our café customers, Union Kitchen’s specialty grocers, and their customers. If people don’t absolutely love what we’ve created, we take it back to the lab and keep working until they do. In this way, we’re always making products that people want, and that are as good as our coffee. 

Chas: Never lose focus on the product itself! That’s not to say that all else should be ignored until the product is finished—it’s all important—but the R&D process of product development is hard. There will be a lot of bumps along the way, so it’s easy to want to take a break and focus on something else that may be progressing more smoothly. Without a high quality product that can be produced consistently though, everything else is just window dressing.  

What made Compass decide to expand their presence in the CPG space?

Kuran: Coffee is a ritual. For hundreds of years, people have sat down together and bonded over a simple cup of coffee. We hope to carry that torch forward, and continue making products that are not just desired by customers, but instead are so important that drinking that first cup every morning becomes a ritual and truly makes their day better. Before, that was in our cafés. Now, more than ever, people are stuck at home, frustrated, and looking for a reminder of what was before the best five minutes of their day. We’re working to connect them with that ritual, all in service to our mission of making peoples’ days better. 

Harrison: The consumer space allows us to connect to new markets and reach new heights as a company. It lets us reach our customers in the place they’re most comfortable—at home—and learn about and enjoy the coffee we love. It’s early, but all signs so far have been positive, and the customer feedback has been great.

How is Compass thinking about the CPG market as a place to grow?

Kuran: The CPG Coffee space is full of legacy players that are out of touch with customers’ needs. At Compass, we want to change that, and put the power back in the hands of customers. Our customers are experiencing new challenges, and getting comfortable in new spaces, and we want to meet them where they are. Whether it’s in their home, at their office, or in a new-found combination of the two, people see coffee as an essential part of their day, and we want to fulfill that need with new, exciting, and innovative products. Customers see our agility and appreciate it. When they needed sanitizer, we made sanitizer. So as their needs continue to grow and change, we will continue to grow and change with them. 

Michael: The goal is to not be just a company of cafés, but instead to grow and surpass that and become the coffee brand that customers know and love. The world has changed, and so we want to meet our customers where they are now, and allow them to enjoy that same cup of Compass Coffee with the machine they have at home, on their own terms.  Wherever they want us, we want to be there, and more often than not, that’ll be beyond the four walls of our café. 

Anything else we should know?

Kuran: Think about your big, well-known consumer brands. Not just coffee, but in a lot of industries, as those companies grew, they started to compromise on the quality of their product. At Compass, we’re not trying to make the most coffee, or serve the most people. We want to make a really good  cup of coffee for our customers, and regardless of the format or our size, we will never compromise on quality. We are constantly looking for new ways to source coffee and other ingredients that are better, higher quality, and more able to support the scale we’re looking for. Our lead roaster, Chris Fritz, for example, is constantly learning more about the sourcing process for quality coffee. He’s training to be a Q Arabica Grader (like a sommelier for coffee!) and this will help us find really good  coffees around the world to serve to our customers. 

Chris: We select coffees based on flavor and quality, and do business with importers that are established and have a strong reputation for ethical business practices. Sometimes we travel with the importers to the countries of origin, to see the quality of their relationships and the traceability of the coffee’s journey, and to form our own relationships with the producers. The Q Grader certification I’m training for is a certification for evaluating green coffee as well as identifying  both defects and qualities in the aroma and flavor of roasted coffee , and being able to communicate with others in the coffee industry using the same vocabulary. It’s about learning the globally accepted practices of the coffee industry so that we can collaborate  with importers and producers  around the world, and continue to uphold the tradition of quality for Compass.