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 Coffee.
Meet Mike Marquard: the member leading Blueprint Coffee’s wholesale and marketing initiatives. We spoke with Mike about the winding career path that lead him to the coffee world, and how he is using the industry to shape better business practices and a better St. Louis.
Growing up, did you expect to make a career out of coffee?
Oh no, not at all. Coffee offended me up until I was probably 20. Just sensory wise, I didn't even really like the smell of coffee, but I liked the idea of coffee as I got older.
What was your original plan? What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
I think it's still a baseball player, even though I'm too old to play baseball anymore. That was a thing for a long time. And then a BMX bike rider, and then when I realized I wasn't the most gifted athlete in the world, I thought I was going to be a musician. I am a musician, but not a professional one.
What instruments do you play?
Guitar, bass, little bit of piano. I did music for a while and then I thought maybe I’d go into music journalism, journalism, photo journalism, kind of dabbled in all those fields in school, along with a little bit of aerospace engineering for a brief period. I was thinking I'd probably end up in one of those fields.
What did you end up studying?
I graduated with a degree in communication technology, which was almost like a degree in Facebook. Facebook came out during my senior year. Now it would be a lot of social media, somewhat mass media— a little bit of everything and a lot of nothing, as I like to say.
When did you get your first coffee job?
I took a job in coffee the summer after I graduated college, at a local coffee shop. I won't say which one. I took the job knowing I wouldn't be there longer than 3 months. I had a job lined up to teach in Spain in August and started at the coffee shop in May. At that point, I drank coffee a little bit, but it still was a very cream and sugar kind of thing. It was a cultural job, you know— I thought I was going to talk about Hemingway all day, which, I probably did to be honest, because I was not paying attention to the coffee at all. I mean, it was just like, fill up a basket and push a button. It wasn’t the same thing thing as my later coffee jobs.
Was Kaldi’s your second job in coffee?
Yes. I moved back to Minneapolis after teaching in Spain and I floated for not too long, a week or two, trying to find a job. I did apply to a couple of coffee
shops up there and didn't get a call back soon enough. I ended up working in the mortgage industry in customer service for a few months, and it was terrible. I hated it. I moved back to St. Louis in a very juvenile, though I think enlightened, moment of clarity when I realized I wasn't gonna make a go as a working musician with the circle of people I was surrounding myself with. I had a great girlfriend, who's now my wife, back in St. Louis. She was deep into grad school and was not going to be done anytime soon. So I moved back to St. Louis, decided to get on a bus at 6 p.m. on a Sunday, showed up sometime on Monday, and started working Kaldi’s on Wednesday. It was very much an accident that I got into coffee.
How long did you work at Kaldi’s?
5 years, I think right around 5 years.
Did specialty coffee as a notion click with you during that time period?
For sure. I mean, to me, coffee shops were a place where you studied and drank a lot of coffee and talked about cultural things. I knew of fair trade
and things like that, but I didn't think black coffee was at all delicious. Working at Kaldi's changed that perception pretty quickly. I think within a few months of being there I was a believer.
What year did you start competing?
Early 2008 would have been the first time I competed. It was a little under 2 years into coffee.
What was it like competing from St. Louis in a time before specialty coffee was widespread here?
It wasn't necessarily super strange because the people we were competing against were in a similar situation. The other very well-rounded competitors were coming from Topeka and Kansas City. Kansas City at that point was maybe a little ahead of where St. Louis was, but there still weren’t a lot of great cafés. We talk a lot about how specialty coffee is a small community, but it was really small then. A lot of the same people are still my peers and are a big reason why Blueprint Coffee was successful. I mean, if I had to go back and you know, really focus in on what helped make a lot of the connections that kept
me in coffee, it was competition.
How has your competition experience impacted the way that you train and guide other baristas who are working for you now and competing?
My experiences have definitely made me expect a lot of people, which is good and bad. When you have an intensity for something, and when somebody else doesn't, you kind of have to have a cast iron core. You have to be able to take feedback and be very critically picked apart. And not everybody's great at that, so I think for a while it definitely gave me kind of this relentless pursuit for quality, always trying to find something people could work on. But at the same time, I think it helped establish a standard that did greatly, greatly accelerate the quality of coffee in this town.
What was it like transitioning from Kaldi’s to Half & Half?
Transitioning into Half & Half was just like being thrown into the fire. I quickly realized that I was able to apply my skill set to Half & Half before we even opened. I could apply organizational talent and training, and just things I knew
about management, tracking sales, and thinking about margins. We were on our heels from the day we opened to the day I left Half & Half. I was continually trying to catch up with success, which was pretty fun, it's wild. It's like waterskiing for two years straight. It's like, waterskiing is fun, but at some point you just like lose the skis and are being dragged behind the boat.
What did you gain from working in that quick of an environment?
It gave me a ton of confidence. I was given a lot of free rein at Half & Half. It was like being given the keys in terms of front house management, the coffee program, and the staff. Bringing that confidence into Blueprint was huge. I was trusting myself. Running a business, being a business owner, has a lot more to do with your accountability to yourself. If you're talented at making coffee and managing people, you're going to be a good business owner. It’s not some secret, you don't have to have a degree or a certificate to do it.
When did you realize you wanted to own a café?
I had a couple of kind of entrepreneurial thoughts when I was still at Kaldi’s about opening my own roastery or shop, and I remember being very
afraid of owning a business. I had kind of started up an indie label at one point, in '08 or '09. It was really challenging and I just remember going through that process, trying to understand what it meant to open a business, like, what is an LLC? What is a tax ID? How do you file for taxes? I spent a lot of time studying business form and that stuff seemed really daunting to me then.
Did starting Blueprint Coffee with other members make the process slightly less daunting?
Yes. I had partners that I liked and trusted. The work ethic of the people that made up Blueprint was very reassuring.
How do you define your current role at Blueprint Coffee?
The scope of what I do is incredibly diverse, but at the heart of what I do, I'm a barista. I take roasted coffee and I transform it into brewed coffee, but there are a lot of aspects to that. There's the technical process of brewing coffee that's very straight forward — I think that's what most people think about when they think of a barista. But then there's also the marketing of coffee, the
education of coffee, and a lot of what a barista does is translating what's happened to a coffee before it gets to you and then how that's going to affect the customer’s taste experience.
What's the wholesale process like for you?
I would be the wholesale director, if you had to qualify my position. That role speaks a little more directly to the process of here’s a product, here's how you make it, how you maintain the quality and then can make a profit off of it. It also gets into consulting when somebody is building a coffee bar. Where should I put what piece of equipment? What piece of equipment do I need if I want to make 100 coffees a day? How many coffees do you need to make a day to make a living owning a coffee shop? There’s the economy of scale side of it too, which is actually super fascinating to me. It kind of gets into that math brain, but it's also where I feel the more creative side of me. I feel that fire light, when somebody's like okay, I'm thinking about opening this coffee shop in this neighborhood. Too often in the past, when I wasn't selling my own brand
of coffee, I think I would try to make coffee work everywhere, because when you're a salesperson, that's your job, you're always the right answer. Now I feel like more of my responsibility is sometimes saying this isn't the right opportunity.
How does it feel when you establish a new wholesale partnership?
It varies. Sometimes it's awesome, sometimes it's terrifying. Sometimes it's romantic, sometimes it's tiring. I recently spent 48 straight hours in a mall in suburban Oklahoma and it was not the most glorious place to be, but I was surrounded by good people. They were a really engaged group so it's like, alright, I'll take that in any place rather than being in some super slick, cool part of Austin selling coffee to people who are impossible to please. I'd much rather work with people who are very engaged.
Has the wholesale coffee world changed since Blueprint first opened?
It's definitely changed since I was at Kaldi's, and it's changed some since Blueprint first opened. The whole world of multi-roaster cafés is new. That
wasn't happening when I was at Kaldi's. I mean there were a couple other markets doing it, but it’s been pretty cool to see that world grow. It takes a little bit of pressure off of us, as a wholesale provider, to really just need to have great coffee. But it sure doesn't sustain you the same way as an exclusive account, like more of the old school kind where somebody's working with you as their exclusive or primary coffee provider. You kind of need 6 multi-roaster accounts to equal one good primary account, but it's cool to get your coffee out there and that also, I think, drives our website traffic.
How do you see Blueprint Coffee changing?
I used to do every single invoice for every order. It was fascinating the first year or two seeing the places our coffee would go and you'd make up stories in your mind about who this was and why they had your coffee and what was the connection. It's pretty cool to think about the spread. I see that as more of a promising future in terms of direct home consumers really wanting to try different roasters and different origins. It’s pretty exciting to see people participating and to see the website business grow.
Have any of your wholesale partnerships impacted methods at Blueprint Coffee?
Yeah, definitely methods in the café. There have been plenty of times where I have gone out to a wholesale account, tasted a coffee, and gone wow, this is better than what we're tasting at the café. What are you doing? Let's go look at this, based on what we're doing in the café. So, sometimes quality will be informed, and when that happens, it's so great, because it's proof that our quality can transfer somewhere else. If we're having good experiences of our coffee at other places, we're teaching things the right way or we're setting people up the right way. When we're on bar at places that are cutting edge or innovative with technology or their bar set up, that can be inspiring. A Baked Joint out in DC is a family-owned business, and the people are so nice and gracious. You see things from a company culture standpoint and you just admire it. I think that's affected our business a lot. The Mud House is another good example, to see how people care for their employees and their customers is really inspiring. And sometimes you would see the opposite and you go,
"okay, I am very grateful for what we have."
You travel a fair amount for wholesale. What have you learned about St. Louis by seeing what’s happening in other cities?
There's a lot of originality here, especially for the midwest. I don't see St. Louis very easily going, “I'm just going to copy this or that.” I think bigger coastal cities definitely carry influence, and they can start up an idea quicker, but St. Louis carries some skepticism and is not too quick to jump on a train, which I really appreciate. There are just some dynamite establishments and people that care about being in St. Louis. I think we have a unique identity.
Do you think Blueprint Coffee will be able to impact St. Louis in any ways?
I do. It's definitely a hard thing to pinpoint exactly what our role is as a business. We have an effect on people's lives beyond our own and I think that's a very direct way to look at how we interact with the city. What kind of employer are we? What kind of people do we hire? How do we support our
employees? It's super challenging. Let's treat people better. Let's put a discrimination policy in effect, a harassment policy in effect. Let's talk about these things openly with our staff so that they can talk about them openly with us.
What are your hopes for the second location?
My hope for that location is that it gives us a clear sense of who we are. It will challenge us to do what we should be able to do, which is operate multiple locations. We need to be able to do that to really support the people behind our company. We are a very top-heavy company, and while we don't need to be a 20-location chain, we need to have two stores to really stretch our legs and start to put some support and some financial comfort back into our families. We're going to do things a little differently at Watson, and I think it'll help us better define the Blueprint Coffee experience. It’s also an area of town that doesn't have a lot of specialty, but does have a group of people who want an authentic, locally-made product and will support us. It’s a community
that has a good sense of community and a lot of young families who want to support their neighborhood, which is important to a coffee shop.
What does a varied coffee scene mean for St. Louis?
The spread of coffee has been really good for this town. Having additional, unique voices only helps the consuming public in this town and adds some diversity. It’s kind of like different instruments. Many are playing a beautiful thing, but sometimes you want to hear a guitar and sometimes you want to hear a violin and sometimes you want horn. The different timbres create the quality reputation of this town.