Flying These Beans: Kyle Willingham and Naomi Joe Coffee
Naomi Joe founder Kyle Willingham roasts on an MCR-1, 1 kilogram roaster in a small commercial roasting facility in Tacoma, Washington. Originally his life plan was a piloting career, but after attending flight school in 2017 and finding nothing but minimum-wage contract gigs, he decided to switch to the food and beverage industry. The pivot directed him to bartending, and from there he found his way to entrepreneurship in craft coffee.
Setting the Scene
For Kyle Willingham, bartender at State Street Beer Company in Tacoma, Washington, the lockdown of March 2020 was the perfect incubator for his specialty coffee career. With the bar closed, his boss suggested Kyle take a deeper dive into coffee. He sent him home with a coffee grinder and a Gaggia Classic Pro espresso machine, and from there, Kyle picked up the hobby of home brewing.
The time at home with the Gaggia taught Kyle the cause-and-effect relationship between the machine’s moving parts and the resulting espresso. He tinkered with the machine to see what sort of results he could get. And, after modding, he sold the machine to a friend and used the proceeds to invest in a Nuova Simonelli Oscar version 1 espresso machine, which he took apart and put back together in August of 2020, focusing his mods on temperature stability, adjustable pressure and anti-siphoning.
“With all the tests I was running, I was burning through coffee,” he remembers. His boss offered to supply him with espresso, using the MCR-1 installed in his coffee shop Lander Coffee, but Kyle declined. He wasn’t convinced he couldn’t do it himself, and he wanted to try. So he invested in a Hottop that December, and started roasting his own espresso.
The Way Up
Naomi Joe Coffee started in December 2020, and sold their first batch in March of 2021. The brand is named after Kyle’s late grandparents–grandmother Naomi and grandfather Joe, whose pick-me-up life philosophy he wanted to impart on customers through his product.
To start, he looked for resources from professionals to get him going, with books and courses from roasters like Scott Rao lighting his path. Even with the resources, those early learning days proved harder to navigate than he’d expected. He ran up against learning curves, the steepest of which was deciding when to follow the recipe and when to step away and experiment via intuition or trial-and-error.
“What I didn’t understand is that it’s a craft,” he says. As he went, he found more of a balance between following the advice and practice of others while also refining his own techniques. With more experience, it became possible for him to apply his own taste preferences to the coffee he made.
Kyle roasted single-batch bags on the Hottop until the opportunity to scale came along. Lander Coffee moved from its Mill City Roaster to a Diedrich, opening up the MCR-1 for sale. Kyle snapped it up and took it to his roastery, a production facility shared with Balloon Roof Baking, in September of 2021.
The MCR-1 turned out to be the perfect machine for Kyle. The minutiae of dial turns and timing appealed to him; and having that kind of control made it that much easier to create roast profiles because he knew exactly how variables like fan speed and gas controls affected the coffee coming out.
Once the roast starts, everything happens too fast to rely on reactions to change the coffee’s outcome. There’s planning involved: ‘it reminds me of flying,” Kyle says. “The plane is moving way faster than you can react to.” Instead of flying by sight, Kyle’s method is to set himself up for success beforehand with a plan of action–a plan that always includes roasting software for real-time feedback–to get a reliable outcome.
Because Kyle is Naomi Joe Coffee’s solo operator, directing the company’s growth often feels like an uphill battle. “Resources for small businesses are limited. You have to work very smart,” he says. Right now, the company’s main goal is to generate enough capital that the investments necessary for growth–like a bigger roaster, for instance–are affordable.
Doing it alone is taxing. And as often as Kyle has found helpful coffee people, such as his boss at State Street Beer Co, he’s also found a mindset of doubt in others, who consider Naomi Joe less businesslike because of its size.
“I’m scrapping everything together,” he says. And as much as he’s working to facilitate the company’s evolution, he’s also working to integrate the mindset Naomi Joe Coffee was founded on: an approachable and chipper character, just as its namesakes would have wanted.
The Naomi Joe Coffee Menu
On the menu is Kyle’s launch crop, a curated lineup of three light roasts.
Daily Commute, a post-roast blend with Vietnam, Guatemala, and Ethiopia, with notes of nougat and almond biscotti, is made to be drunk easily and regularly, on its own or with milk and sugar added.
One Hit Wonder, a single origin anaerobic-processed Honduras with notes of pink lemonade and milk chocolate, is the occasion coffee on the menu.
Naomi Joe Coffee also roasts Zero Proof, a decaf Colombia for afternoons and evenings.
His focus on light roasts is intentional. “Right now I’m focusing on a niche entrance,” he says. When customers ask for darker roasts, he recommends other roasters in Tacoma who cater towards balance over acidity and punchy flavor. He foresees a menu expansion in the future, which could include darker roasts on his own menu, but with the current operation’s scope, Kyle would rather focus his efforts on quality over quantity.
The coffees, which are for sale on the Naomi Joe Coffee website, are also available retail and drip at local pop-up events.
At those events, Kyle has also tapped into the power and profit margins of beverages. His signature is The Fizz: espresso on ice with soda water and lime. The drink was created expressly to highlight the pink lemonade tasting note of the One Hit Wonder. The drink is a hit at events, and its sales rival those of the other best-seller, the Daily Commute. The Fizz is also a clever way to cut the costs of toting dairy products to popups.
While pop-ups have been helpful in building a reliable customer base, Kyle’s goal is to create a cafe space where customers can experience his product the way it’s advertised. He calls it an “intentional menu experience:” coffee experienced the way it’s advertised.
The first step in creating that space will be moving from the current roastery to Naomi Joe’s next home, a larger Tacoma brewery called 7 Seas Brewing, where he can open a cafe space and expand a beverage menu to tap into the potential of his bold coffee flavors and his unique espresso machines.
The brewery is open-concept, featuring several other vendors. Naomi Joe will be replacing the previous coffee shop, which moved out to start its own brick and mortar. In this kind of setup, Kyle will be able to limit buildout costs, since he will share seating with other vendors.
Once the company has moved and its demand has increased, Kyle is planning on quitting his full-time job to pursue his venture full-time.
Eventually, he says, he may return to the original pilot plan: but right now, the foreseeable future is a cup full of light-roast coffee.