Springboard Coffees: Alex Behrens and Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters
Alex Behrens of Roselle, Illinois roasts for Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters on an MCR-6, 6 kilogram roaster in a commercial building in a strip mall in town. He built it out himself, turning a relatively blank space into a roastery that feeds a town that’s in what he calls a “coffee desert.” Like a craft brewery or local artisan store, he wants the community to come to him for specialty coffee and an experience that’s more wholesome than the grocery store coffee aisle.
Setting the Scene
Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters stemmed from Alex Behren’s aim to run his own business. When he first started dating his now-wife Lynn, that’s how he introduced himself: as an entrepreneur. He earned his graduate degree in computer science from Roosevelt University in Chicago in the early 2010s. While he went to school to hone his interests in marketing and education, the path took him to software engineering as a full-time job, where he’s stayed ever since.
After graduate school, he started building his first business plan, a record store which he worked to open in 2013 during his off-hours.
The idea behind the record store was to develop a social gathering place centered around a shared interest. “I wanted to give people a place to talk about what they like,” he says.
Despite his best and continued efforts, the record store never opened commercially. In true entrepreneurial fashion, he moved on to the next thing: he wanted to try to grow a coffee shrub at home in Roselle, a suburb of Chicago. When the shrub didn’t grow, he decided to pivot to roasting instead. He invested in a small air roaster in 2015, and learned by doing. It was trial and error that moved him along further in the coffee industry and ultimately convinced him to launch Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters as a business.
The Way Up
Alex credits much of his confidence in roasting to those early days, when he just threw ideas at his air roaster to see what came out. “Roasting at home is great because your cost of failure is so low,” he says. “It’s just part of the process that you’re going to waste. And I found I enjoyed it no matter what.”
As he got better, there was less and less waste, and Alex found too that he became harder on himself, more strict with the quality of coffee that came from his efforts.
In 2017, Alex took what he learned on the air roaster and made the leap to an MCR-2, 2 kilogram roaster. 2017 also marked the year that Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters opened for business.
In the transition from air roaster to professional gas drum roaster, Alex found a lot more cues in the roast to digest and understand. Roasting on the Mill City was also his first experience with roasting software, which both simplified and complicated the roasting process in new ways.
It took six months to prepare the roastery, which Alex opened in March of 2018 after renovating a 1200 sq ft commercial space in a strip mall. He opted against a cafe, citing the price tag associated with meeting city codes as well as the logistics of working around his own full-time schedule. Instead, he chose a roastery to highlight Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters’ uniqueness in the Roselle coffee scene, as well as to offer customers a place to get directly involved with beverage production, a craft brewery.
At Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters, he’s situated between coffee aficionados and newcomers, serving both equally. For first-time specialty coffee customers, “it’s a mindset shift,” Alex says. And for those who know what they’re looking for, the roastery meets that need.
Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters, like the record store, is modeled off of Alex’s want to provide a hub for like-minded people to meet and form kinships.
Between 2018 and 2019, Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters grew enough to warrant a roaster upgrade. At first Alex held off, concerned with the expense. While he considered his next best move, he snapped up a spare MCR-500, 500 gram roaster. “I knew we’d need it,” he says.
Waiting for the bigger purchase turned out to be the right move; it was pandemic relief funds that covered the cost of the MCR-6, which he bought in the summer and put into service fall of 2020.
Shifting to a new roaster reinstilled the lesson he learned in the move from hobby to professional roasting; that the craft is ever-evolving. “The way I think about [roasting] is constantly changing,” he says.
Now, his wife Lynn, who is also an engineer, helps Alex with the business by fixing and maintaining some of the equipment, while Alex focuses on other main tasks like bookkeeping, roasting, and, the bane of his existence, monthly roaster cleanings.
Alex also employs one other employee, who helps to keep Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters’ partners stocked with bags and also assists with the holiday rush.
The Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters Menu
Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters sells fifteen different coffee varieties, including two decafs, which Alex defines as a “chronically underserved market.” Two classic blends stay on, and the rest of the menu rotates with the season. Alex also blends four seasonals annually; those blends are often big hits.
He makes sure to stay as involved as possible in his customers’ visits to the roastery so that he can make suggestions based on their taste preferences. He describes many of his coffees as springboards, which some customers use to get into the deep end of specialty coffee. Still, many of his customers will return again and again to the same beginner coffee. “And that’s totally okay,” he says: “part of the offer is that you can do either.”
His two bestselling coffees are blends: the Toronto blend, which is a bright and sweet medium roast that customers often buy as a gift, and the Hartford blend, a dark roast that’s most often a hardworking espresso but has been used in cold brew and coffee stouts as well.
Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters customers come to the roastery for products that are accessible to the average budget. “They’re not price sensitive, but they’re not price insensitive,” Alex says. With supply chain backups and increases in pricing across the industry, Alex faces the dilemma of eating costs or upping prices, both of which would respectively shift his business model. This is the biggest challenge Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters has faced thus far.
With public safety no longer so endangered by the pandemic, Aleix is hoping to return to hosting regularly scheduled in-person events that died off during the Covid-19 pandemic, such as public cuppings and tours.
And with the momentum from landing four Walmart partnerships, Alex hopes he’ll be able to get Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters, now better-known, into more wholesale accounts that have previously declined.
Most of all, he’s looking forward to returning to the classroom, where he guest lectures once a semester in a culinary course at the College of DuPage.
Bring Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters Home
Maple Leaf Coffee Roasters is now in four Walmarts around Roselle, as well as in Little Red Ribbon and Rebecca’s Cakes by Design in Roselle, and Crema Shop and Picnic and Wine Provisions in Chicago. You can keep updated by following them on Instagram or Facebook, or checking out their website for a full selection of great single origins, blends, and seasonals.