Meet the Members: Brian Levine

Blueprint Coffee was opened by a group of coffee professionals and advocates in 2013. These founders (literally "members" in legalese) have been at the core of Blueprint Coffee's vision and day-to-day operations. Instead of trying to create a homogenous "about us" story, we thought it would be better to introduce you to each one of them personally and provide some insight into how they shape Blueprint.

Meet Brian Levine: the man working behind the scenes to keep the business side of Blueprint Coffee in tip-top shape. We spoke with Brian about his journey from real estate to the coffee world, the process of maintaining and growing a small business, and his hopes to contribute to St. Louis’s growth.

Where are you from?
I was born in Virginia but am from St. Louis. I grew up here as far back as I remember, and then moved away to go to school. I spent time in Vermont for college and lived in Portland, Oregon for five or six years after that, and then moved back to St. Louis. My family is from St. Louis and my wife (Jamie) is from Louisville, Kentucky.

What prompted you and Jamie to move back?
We both decided to move back to St. Louis because it was close to home, and we wanted to be working in and near the environments we grew up in.

Where do you like to spend time in St. Louis?
With two young kids, we are probably home more than we're out, but I love to get around town and check out new places. We live close to the Loop, so we

spend a lot of time walking around University City and exploring. I’m a big music fan, so I like to visit venues around town, and it's neat that there's different sized venues so you can see both smaller up-and-coming acts, as well as large bands. I also enjoy the parks in St. Louis.

What are the assets of being located in an up-and-coming city like St. Louis?
St. Louis is a decentralized city which has its advantages and disadvantages. There is good space here and a variety of small municipalities and neighborhoods. Different people choose to live in different parts of St. Louis for one reason or another, so you can reach a variety of people according to the area, and I certainly see that as a benefit. I also think St. Louis's best days are yet to come. Obviously, there's a lot of work to be done here. St. Louis is the kind of city where you can really find your niche if you put in the effort. I feel like in bigger cities, you feel so small in comparison to everything that's going on, and I feel like in St. Louis it's just easier to find your own, come into your own, and get traction in what you want to do. It’s easier to pull things together and make things happen.

brian levine, member of blueprint coffee, at home
brian levine sits down for an interview with visitor assembly

Do you see Blueprint Coffee having any part in building up St. Louis?
I think that at a very fundamental level, coffee shops are about community and a safe place for people to gather, meet with each other and enjoy good coffee and good food. As we continue to find neighborhoods that are a good fit for Blueprint Coffee we plan to open more locations. I think it goes hand-in-hand with our goal for growth in St. Louis and being an active part of this city.  So, yeah, I'd say we are doing our best to contribute,  and be an active part of the city’s fabric.

How did you get involved with Blueprint Coffee?
When I moved back to St. Louis, my wife and I really missed the coffee experiences that we had on the west coast. We were trying to find those experiences here in St. Louis. So, we ordered a lot of coffee by mail and talked about it with our friends, and through some common connections found the group of people that were starting Blueprint Coffee. We began having discussions, and one thing led to another and we came together as a team.

Did you have an initial experience with coffee that made you want to be part of a coffee shop?
When Jamie and I were living in Portland, we made our way to the Stumptown Annex, which is a storefront next to the Belmont Stumptown where they bring in coffees that don't always hit their retail shelves. They had all sorts of interesting coffees. The barista there took me through a series of different coffees and really showed me classic natural versus a classic washed coffee from different areas of the world. That really kind of opened my eyes to the variances that can be seen in different coffees. That's when the light bulb went off and I realized there's more to this than French-pressed coffee.

Jamie is involved with the cafe too, right?
Yes. She does the books for our company and handles the financial backend of things. Without her, we'd be lost with regard to how we're operating.

Is it nice getting to work with her?
It is. Every business venture I've been involved in until now she's participated in

brian levine preparing a shot of espresso in his kitchen
the right tools for the trade. good coffee, tamper, full-sized portafilter

and has really been the backbone of [the Levine's] success. I think she's used to being involved in our endeavors, and I don't know that I'd call it fun for her, but she wants to make sure that we all succeed. I think that is her contribution to the overall team. She's also involved in many of the ownership meetings and discussions.

What is your background in?
My background is in a bunch of things. I mean, if I had to distill it down to a couple areas, my school background is in environmental sciences, but my working background is in real estate and real estate valuation. My day job is in the commercial real estate sector, but the entrepreneurial side of my interest got me involved in Blueprint Coffee

How has your work in real estate played into Blueprint Coffee’s business structure and retail space?
My real estate experience is helpful, but what's more important is our ability to identify our strategy as a business, and then we can apply the real estate behind the strategy. I think what I can bring to the company from a real estate perspective will come later as we develop our strategy for growth. As far as where we sit today, I have participated in the lease negotiations and was able

to help us through the process of getting our initial location, but I think the real value of that experience will come later.

What do you view as your role in the company?
My role is kind of always evolving. I've done dishes. I've delivered coffee. Currently, I do some of the business administration stuff — legal work, leases, finding future locations — that sort of thing. A part of me sometimes feels like a band manager in the sense that I don't actually get on stage, but it's really important to me that the band shows up and plays the best they can play. I participate in our company wins and losses, but I feel like the guy behind the guy behind the guy behind the guy.

Do you find it difficult to explain exactly what you do at Blueprint Coffee?
Absolutely. That's probably the biggest question I get. I'm involved on various different levels — I'm very aware of what we're doing as a company, from the products that we're launching, the new coffees that we're rolling out, as well as kind of the bigger projects that we're doing company wide — but I'm not physically here day-to-day. Well, I should say I'm not physically here every day. I’m in and out of both locations every week. It's a challenge to kind of put

let it flow. espresso.

my finger on that myself, nonetheless explaining it to someone else. I guess the way I see it is I consider myself a partner of Blueprint Coffee, and therefore I can contribute my skills and my strengths as often as I can.

Have you worked any shifts as a barista?
I have worked a handful of shifts. I have brewed coffee, and I have done a lot of dishes, and I've done cleanup. I have not spent much time on the espresso machine other than pouring shots of espresso for myself, but I have worked shifts in the café. I wouldn’t call myself a barista, that is a trained skill that I do not currently possess.

Taking a break from sitting behind a desk can be kind of nice sometimes.
It's intimidating coming into a café like this where so much effort and care is put into the product that I am always worried I'll screw something up. So, it was easier for me to come in the café and do what's helpful. But it's fun just being part of the action, so I have enjoyed it.

Customers see the services and final products that Blueprint Coffee provides, but what goes on behind the scenes?
There's a ton of work that goes into having a business. It’s amazing having only

two locations, but the amount of work that goes into driving this company is tremendous.

What are the benefits of having a group of owners?
Being a partnership group takes some of the stress off, in comparison to operating as a sole proprietor or a single owner, but it also comes with its challenges.

What are some of those challenges?
I think the challenges are that we have a lot of strong personalities and talented people, and aligning all of those talents and skills together to move in the same direction to get everybody paddling at the same time to move at a faster speed is a challenge, but when you can do it, it can result in a better outcome.  A big part of what I try and do here is to keep us paddling at the right speed together.

By having more of an unbiased lens?
Right. And just trying to be real and communicative and honest and open about the things we discuss, the challenges we face and the day-to-day operations of our business.

brian levine sorts through his collection for just the right album.
cortlands record stores and coffee shops first made brian discover specialty coffee

What have you learned about coffee throughout all of this?
I've learned a lot about coffee, but I still feel like a total novice. There's so much to it, but I think it boils down to good coffee that's grown and processed in a deliberate fashion. My biggest takeaway is that when you have a great product that's seasonal, that's roasted carefully, and then prepared carefully on the right equipment, you get to experience a great end-product. It's this combination of all these different processes that result in the final product here. I never realized that so many components in the chain were key. I initially thought, "Oh, it must be the coffee is either good or bad," but you can take great coffee and if it's not prepared correctly or if it's prepared on equipment that isn't maintained properly you're not going to get the same product, so it's all of these components working together that produces a great cup of coffee. That said, I have so much to learn in each of those areas before I would feel like an expert in any one of them.

What are some hopes and wishes you have for Blueprint Coffee in the next five years or so?
I think the success of Blueprint Coffee is going to be built upon the happiness

and passion of the people that drive it, and I'm not just talking about the owners but the employees, the partners, and our customers. What's consistently a part of our dialogue as owners is making sure that those experiences, while they don't all have to align, are all generally positive because that's what the driving force is for our business. I just hope that we continue that trend, because I think that's what is going to be crucial to our success moving forward.