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The Daily Tar Heel

NC coffee vendor blends quality, sustainability and education

counter culture

In 1994, Brett Smith, the co-founder and president of Counter Culture Coffee, was earning his graduate degree at the Kenan-Flagler Business School when he had an entrepreneurial itch.

Smith was looking to start his own business or purchase a small business nearby. Starbucks was still relatively new at the time, and Smith was seeing real potential in the coffee industry.

After viewing a presentation on a mail-order coffee company, Smith met Fred Houk, who worked with a tiny roaster in Durham.

With Smith looking to start a company and Houk looking to go out on his own, they decided to combine their efforts and started Counter Culture Coffee in 1995. They sold their first bag of coffee that April to Pop’s Trattoria in Durham.

Smith said Houk had a good understanding of the industry and knew many of the fine dining restaurants around Durham and Chapel Hill.

“Back then, there were very few coffee shops, believe it or not,” Brett said. “So we really were catering to restaurants, and so we went after the fine dining restaurants.”

He said from the beginning, it was important for them to embrace the triple bottom line — an accounting framework that focuses on social, environmental and financial considerations.

“I think that set us apart and to this day it still does,” Smith said “We have three things we push which is quality, sustainability and education.”

Counter Culture Coffee aims to build relationships with its suppliers and relies mainly on certified organic beans.

In addition to focusing on crafting a quality product, Smith said the framework of the business is built through sustainable models and education in trainings and workshops.

Each regional training center is designed to be a hub for coffee education. They house the regional support teams and allow wholesale partners to train, practice and explore the coffee and equipment.

Paula Gilland, the acting manager of The Purple Bowl, decided to work with Counter Culture Coffee before the store opened. Purple Bowl staff completed all of the training sessions for handling the coffee at the local training center.

Gilland said her son and Smith were both runners at the University of Virginia, which made the partnership an easy decision for her.

“We liked that acai is a berry and coffee is a berry, and we liked the way they went and got their coffee and how they interact with their farms,” Gilland said

Susie Williamson, the general manager of Crook’s Corner, said the restaurant also appreciates Counter Culture Coffee’s business practices.

“We are really proud to serve their coffee just because they are a well-established local business,” Williamson said. “They are easy to keep in contact with, their representatives are very knowledgeable and professional. They make really good coffee, and the way that they conduct their business jives with us.”

Counter Culture Coffee worked with Crook’s Corner to create a house blend of coffee called “Crook’s Corner Blend," which is sold at Whole Foods and Southern Season in addition to the restaurant.

Counter Culture Coffee has regional training centers all across the nation, but the business still aims to be a part of each community they distribute in.

“We are very proud of where we came from and still work with lots and lots of customers in the Triangle and Chapel Hill,” Smith said.


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