I just left the home and headquarters of Heartbreak Coffee and I look at my clock, it’s nearly 1 p.m. and I am astounded by how quickly the time had passed. Having shown up to their front door nearly two and a half hours prior, I am feeling mixed emotions. I am so unbelievably inspired by the experience I’ve just had chatting with the ladies behind Heartbreak coffee, but I am concerned I may have overstayed my welcome. How could all this time have gotten away from me without my noticing?
Cut to: 10:30am earlier that morning -
Walking down the passageway toward their house, I am greeted by the face of their dog Basil who is peaking his head out of the window monitoring my arrival. I am warmly welcomed into their home with hugs from Michelle and Gretchen, barks and nibbles from their other two dogs, and a gentle, inquiring sniff from their ferret, Pip. I immediately feel as though I am part of the family, or at the very least and old friend. This is the first time we have met.
Gretchen Williams and Michelle Bandach are the team behind Heartbreak Coffee—a small batch coffee roaster based out of Long Beach, California—that is, in my humble opinion, destined for great things. Gretchen roasts the coffee in house and Michelle does the packaging and design work. Together they are a perfect compliment to one another as they are equally as passionate about their individual roles in the business as they are about each others’.
Today, Gretchen and Michelle invite me in to sit with them at their kitchen table, which doubles as their office and product packaging work bench. It is set up for a coffee tasting - complete with a spread of blackberries, strawberries, cacao nibs and dark chocolate squares ready to be savored next to a freshly roasted cup of Heartbreak Coffee. The rustic wood of the table, the white of the milk-glass tasting cups and the fresh fruit against backdrop of their mint green kitchen is something out of a magazine. They indulge me by answering a few questions and sharing the story of how their coffee roasting business came to be.
As it often happens, Gretchen got her start in coffee years ago as a barista. She had moved to Long Beach from Kansas City and took a job at her local cafe serving up coffee, which, at the time, she thought was pretty good. It wasn’t until she had a chance to taste a coffee from Intelligentsia that Gretchen realized what coffee had the potential to be. Her experience at Intelligentsia opened up a whole new world for her, and from that moment on, she had the desire to share what she had learned with others. A seed was planted.
Her goal became to open up her own coffee shop in Long Beach. Gretchen kept an eye out for locations and an opportunity came about to buy the shop she had once worked at. She had her heart set on continuing to serve to community she had come to love and know so well, but after considering the sky-high rent and crunching the numbers, buying her old work place turned out not to make financial sense. Disappointed, Gretchen moved on, left her dreams of coffee and returned home to Kansas City.
A year and a half later, Gretchen found herself back in Long Beach with a rekindled desire to reenter the coffee industry - this time as a roaster. She put in a job application with a local small-batch roaster and after sitting in a few sessions with him, Gretchen was gearing up to be hired. Alas, it didn’t work out and she was back to square one. Totally depressed, heartbroken and anxious about what was next, she fell into a funk. Perhaps the universe was telling her to give up - pursing a career in coffee was the wrong path.
Then something changed. With the support of Michelle, Gretchen realized she didn’t have to wait around for other people to give her opportunities to do what she loved. She started playing around with green beans and experimental roasting from their home. With every batch she tinkered with, Gretchen’s passion for coffee grew and her skills for capturing the inherent flavors of the beans evolved.
Together, Gretchen and Michelle came up with the name Heartbreak Coffee to commemorate all the disappointments and heartbreak Gretchen had faced to get to this point. They developed a brilliant tag line; ‘a testament to all things bitter and wonderful.’ And, the talented Michelle sketched out a few logo designs onto some craft paper—one of which seemed to fit their product perfectly. The universe has been giving Heartbreak Coffee green lights ever since.
As we sit and chat, Gretchen brews two beautiful single-origin coffees on the chemex. We sample a chocolatey coffee from Rwanda as well as a more fruity coffee from El Salvador that, as Michelle put it, tastes like warm strawberries. The flavors of their roast are delicious and highlighted beautifully by the fruit and chocolate they are intended to be paired with.
Heartbreak Coffee primarily gained traction for their home roasting operation through their instagram account and have received an outpouring of support and interest from coffee enthusiasts and rookies alike. In fact, Gretchen and Michelle have been so overwhelmed by the response people have had to their coffee that they often get emotional about it. They are truly humbled and honored by each comment of encouragement made on their Instagram account, each inquiry into their story, the positive feedback they have been receiving about their roasts and every opportunity they are given to share what they have been working on with someone new.
Since their launch, Heartbreak has shipped their hand crafted and hand packaged beans to 30 of the 50 states, Australia (Melbourne, of course) and have even had inquiries from coffee lovers in Ireland and Malaysia. They are kind of blowing up—as it were—and it couldn't happen to better people.
Naturally, all this demand for Heartbreak Coffee is a lot to handle for two artisans working out of their home roasting super-small batches of green and handwriting each label. They have purchased a larger roaster which is currently sitting in storage and Gretchen is itching to get her hands on.
Gretchen and Michelle are now looking for a space to host their new roasting machine that can also double as a venue for their casual pop-ups and tasting parties. Up until this point they have been hosting coffee lovers in their home. You can tell they love having company, but they are also looking forward to the next phase of their growth—having more space to work and potentially hiring another set of hands to keep up with what is being asked of them.
Gretchen and Michelle are so passionate about their craft that it is a pleasure to spend time with them and hear their story. They are not looking to be huge, they just want to be able to share great coffee with people. Having the opportunity to educate someone about coffee—not in a holier than thou sort of way—but in a way that can spark someone's curiosity, is one of their favorite parts about being in this business. It is such a beautiful thing to see people that are so in love with what they do. To them, their job doesn't feel like work.
Maybe it's their passion for the coffee? Maybe it's the fact that they have taken time to share stories about each of their dogs, their ferret, their extremely happy beta fish or their assassin snail. Maybe it's that they so warmly welcomed me into their home. I am not sure. Whatever it is, two and a half hours spent over coffee with these lovely ladies went by too quickly and completely without my noticing.
Heartbreak Coffee and is a testament to why I am in love with the specialty coffee industry and why I am so grateful to have the opportunity to be able to do what I do.