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.