What To Look For In A Used Coffee Roaster

Posted by Steve Green on

For everything there is a season…

For most of us, starting a new business means finding ways to do things. Not finding ways to not do things.

In my experience, most people don’t start their first new commercial coffee roasting business because they are totally professionally and financially fulfilled. They’ve usually got more imagination and ambition than money. To start, they need a bunch of stuff like space, machinery, installers, inspections, green coffee, bags, scales, sealers, and a bewildering array of roastery accoutrement. To pull it off, they’ve got to balance all of the money and time and talent they can conjure up to make it happen.

And it’s never enough. If you’re in this position, you’ll always have to make choices and tradeoffs.

This is a scenario where being or becoming a semi-professional scrounge makes sense.

When you are undercapitalized, hope is your business plan. You are going to buy some stuff and hope you sell some coffee. You might roast in your garage and hope the food inspector doesn’t catch on. You might vent your roaster with something cobbled together from Home Depot and hope you don’t ever have a chaff fire.

Then you might hope your wife will forget about that one time you started the basement on fire. Unlikely, but you can hope.

You’ll buy a used roaster hoping that you haven’t purchased someone else’s problem or that they’re not hiding their lack of cleaning, maintenance, or fire prevention. Or hope you can figure out the installation on your own and hope someone doesn’t notice you didn’t pull a permit. Or hope you can navigate National Fuel Gas Codes well enough to satisfy your local regulatory requirements and your insurance company.

You might buy a used roaster and hope the site you found it on has the model number and specifications right because there are a surprising number of locations where you ain’t installing anything legally that isn’t officially badged and certified correctly. Model years can matter a lot.

I’m taking calls from people on a regular basis tripped up by local regulations that have made their “bargain” roaster the world’s most expensive door stop. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

You might take on a wholesale account and hope your bargain roaster doesn’t break and when it does, hope you can figure it out. Typically, that means posting to an internet forum and hoping someone answers your plea and then hoping they were right when you turn the electricity or gas back on.

Thomas Edison nearly went broke blowing up about 10,000 lightbulbs. You’ll hope to stay solvent after blowing up your roaster only once.

That doesn’t mean used roasters are automatically bad. There is a good, better, and best to most things. Start-ups can’t afford to make the perfect the enemy of the good, when good enough is enough to get you started. Then too, sometimes a bad bet is better than no bet at all. Luck happens everywhere all the time and 50% of the time it’s not bad.

You’ve got to do your best with what you have to work with. That means planting a seed and growing where you are planted. If it pleases G-d, your thing will go.

The important thing is to do a fearless and searching inventory of your competencies.

If you’re handy, own a full set of tools, and you’re up for the challenge, you might be okay.

If you don’t, it might be a good idea to reconsider the value of new.

I’m a professional businessman, not a professional fortune teller. About half of what I try will fail. I consider failure the dues paying part of the thing. When I fail, I’m failing small. When a thing succeeds, I’ve got resources to invest and a plan to be all in.

People say “no risk, no reward”, but no one said it had to be an existential risk.

Once I’m generating cashflow, I’m expanding, If I’m building a business, I need to think and act on something like a 5-year timeline. In other words, I’m building the business I want to run 5 years from now with the decisions and investments I’m making today.

That’s a big mental shift from the cobbling together, scrounging around start of a business.

It’s a lot easier to win an account than it is to keep it. Once you’ve got cashflow, you’re purchasing to protect the business. The reliability of a new and competently supported machine ensures you’re not on your own when things go wrong. A solid vendor partnership will ensure your customers aren’t left hanging and forced to start looking for someplace new to source coffee.

If you know what the acronyms VFD, PLC, and PID are and how they interact in a modern roaster control system without Googling it, a used roaster might work for you. If you understand how to wire a motor starting capacitor for clockwise or counterclockwise rotation, you might be okay. If you know how to identify motor frame size, identify the rotational speed and torque spec and measure the diameter of the shaft and keyway dimensions, you might be able to track down a motor replacement on your own.

If you don’t know and understand this kind of stuff, you are insane to entrust your cash flow to a used, unwarranted, and unsupported machine.

I started Mill City Roasters to help people enter the coffee industry as peers. If you can afford us, we’re a support and education brand. The roasters are pretty great, but our people are way better. When you buy a new Mill City Roaster, we genuinely extend ourselves to help make both the roaster and the business work.

When you buy from us, you are not alone. When you don’t, we’re still here, but we’re not a non-profit. Our loyalty belongs to the people that pay us. They come first.

If you can start with us, we’re worth it. If you can’t, we’ll be here when you’re ready to grow.

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