Drew Downie
Designer. Creative. Entrepreneur.



A collection of interviews, observations, and ideas spanning from business to design.


A business with Heart

Heart Coffee Founder, Wille Yli-Luoma. Image:  Neil DaCosta

Heart Coffee Founder, Wille Yli-Luoma. Image: Neil DaCosta

It’s noon on a Saturday at Heart Roasters. Inside, a fully operational industrial roasting machine the size of a small car sits perched against the wall. It seems to watch over the busy interior leaving no question that good coffee really is at the center of this business.

As you approach the counter, you can’t help but appreciate the other coffee-centric details. There are custom wood tables, perfect for enjoying a cup with group of friends or simply an afternoon newspaper read. The back counter neatly displays tools-of-the-trade that range from the small one-cup percolators to the most hi-tech precision brewers. Even the ceramic mugs are carefully stacked neatly above the wall. At the register, a friendly barista greets with you with a smile, and after a quick chat about the day, delivers yet another
great-tasting espresso.

These are the elements of a consistent and positive coffee experience that as a customer you tend to notice–especially in the coffee saturated market of Portland, Oregon. It’s here where a local neighborhood is defined by its local roast, and the pride over bean flavor is only matched by city’s infamous love of locally-brewed beer.

Industrial coffee roaster sits the center of the cafe. Image:  Neil DaCosta

Industrial coffee roaster sits the center of the cafe. Image: Neil DaCosta

Surviving in this extreme competition requires more than just good coffee–it needs a solid business sense. For Wille Yli-Luoma (pronounced Veelay), his shop’s success stems from an ability to react, adapt, and always be willing to make things better. This mindset has helped Heart go from a small start-up in 2009, to being one of top five roasters in the nation in 2013.

However, that success has not come without its daily struggles.

“The first year after opening I had a hard time sleeping,” explains Wille. “I don’t think people realize you are sacrificing a lot to start a coffee shop. If it were easy, everyone would do it.”

And sacrifice he did. After starting off strong, the finances, and the bank account ran completely dry after just seven months. “I had a realization. Wow, I have zero money right now,” he recalled.  It was a learning process in the school of hard knocks, and in that school problems need to be fixed fast.

Heart's biodegradeable and resealable bags. Photo:  Neil DaCosta

Heart's biodegradeable and resealable bags. Photo: Neil DaCosta

Part of the issue was the pricing model. “I realized what we were charging for our drinks from the very beginning was far too low. Paying people’s salary plus the price of green coffee, roasting it, bagging it–it all added up,” he explained.

With money out, it was a matter of adapting to survive. “First thing we did was raise our prices at the shop. I was more particular about what we were spending money on. We even sold extra equipment so I had a little money to spend.” Wille goes on to detail the other changes that went into effect in order to increase cash flow; however, he never once mentions regrets about the
rocky start.

A scene set for coffee. Image:  Neil DaCosta

A scene set for coffee. Image: Neil DaCosta

What has made Heart successful since those tough times came down to quickly learning from mistakes until something was done right. Being right, in Wille’s mind, means producing consistently positive results and great customer service.  This really boils down to delivering an incredible cup of delicious coffee to every customer, every time.

“We are not afraid to throw away a batch of coffee that doesn’t taste good,” he explains. “I lose $200 when we throw out a roast. But it happens all the time, and that’s why our coffee is a little more expensive. There is a lot of material that we use just making sure our customers get a great drink.”

Ready for a fresh cup. Image:  Neil DaCosta

Ready for a fresh cup. Image: Neil DaCosta

Every bad shot of expresso or bag of beans that is thrown out actually provides him with knowledge of how to do it better next time. Because in order to make your business and coffee better, you have to really know your business– and your coffee. For Wille, this means keeping track of everything that can be tracked, and testing everything that can be tested. The more you know, the more you are able to make things better.

A cold brew on a hot day. Image:  Neil DaCosta

A cold brew on a hot day. Image: Neil DaCosta

To handle the new data, he’s since brought on an accountant to track the books weekly and ensure that the numbers don’t sneak up again. They are in the process of switching to an
all-digital checkout, so that everything they are selling can be instantly tracked and promoted accordingly. Every little detail is being made quantifiable in some way, even the roasting of the coffee itself.

This is where Wille began to elaborate the most, and it became very clear after a few minutes just how passionate he was about his product.

“When we roast, I love having information,” he says. “We log as much data as possible because everything affects the roasting. We do all kinds of tests constantly. How does coffee age in different bags? How does it change if you add nitrogen, or let it sit for different times? There’s no bullsh*t that way because we are able to track it [the flavor]. I understand that people try and make it romantic, but we have the facts.”

The inside of Heart. Image:  Neil DaCosta

The inside of Heart. Image: Neil DaCosta

That kind of dedication to quality doesn’t go unnoticed. The beans are bagged, branded, and sold within the US and now internationally. The wholesale business has provided Heart with a much needed boost to sales, and to it’s reputation. “We are very much an up and coming top roaster in the United States and Canada. The four best Canadian shops all carry our coffee,” he says. “Getting feedback from those shops and then changing our recipe to make it better is great for us and for them. And because of that our brand is growing in the high-end market.”

When asked to give advice on starting and creating a well-known coffee shop, Wille began to smile. “You have to be completely obsessed with coffee if you want to survive. You have to know how to do it better than the other person. I wasn’t so focused on making money in the beginning. I was passionate about the product and I thought it was obvious we were gonna make money,” he says with a slight chuckle.

Willie amongst the beans. Photo:  Neil DaCosta

Willie amongst the beans. Photo: Neil DaCosta

Good coffee alone is not the first thing that has made Heart so successful. “Location is a very important part,” he said. Then customer service, the feel of the space, and finally a quality product. It’s backwards and I hate it but that’s what it is. If you have a bad cup of coffee but the barista is nice and always remembers your name, you walk away thinking whatever, I had one bad cup but I love that place. I’ll probably go back.”

Its no surprise that a customer that comes back again and again is just the kind of customer that Wille loves to keep track of the most. (B)