Sweet, Beautiful Coffees: Keith Lilja and Tala Coffee Roasters
Keith Lilja roasts for Tala Coffee Roasters in Libertyville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He uses an MCR-10, 10 kilogram roaster to supply his company, which includes a production space, a cafe, and two more cafes slated to open in the next year.
Setting the Scene
After graduating from Northern Michigan University with a degree in graphic communications, Keith Lilja’s goal was to find an in-between job. Ideally he wanted a pre-career; something to sink his teeth into before starting work in graphic design.
He moved back to Libertyville, Illinois after school and found that the craft coffees he’d grown used to drinking every day in Michigan were not available at home. So he bought a popcorn popper in 2011 and started homeroasting. “It was the best coffee I’d had,” he said, “because I made it.”
At first it was just a hobby, and he didn’t plan for it to become the pre-career job he sought. But his circle took an interest in supporting his passion–his parents gifted him a Behmor home roaster in 2013–and in 2014, he landed at Hansa Coffee Roasters as a barista.
The jump was unexpected. Keith didn’t think his homeroasting hobby was on any professional track, but the barista job quickly felt more permanent. A key component of the story was Keith’s friendship with Joanna and Stefan Tong from Hansa and Ryan Hickman, a friend from outside of work.
For three years, Keith worked at Hansa, and used not only his coffee skills but also his design skills as well. “I saw how incredible specialty coffee was,” he says, “but I also fell in love with the service and interactions.” With the experience he’d gained at the roaster, as well as with his teammates’ interest in branching off, it was soon feasible to take off from Hansa and find out what sort of business they could cook up on their own.
Tala Coffee Roasters launched in 2017 on an MCR-10.
The Way Up
Keith had his heart set on a cafe-roastery until he realized the amount of capital and space necessary to launch both businesses concurrently. So he scaled back his initial plan, deciding to flesh out the roastery first and penciling the cafe in for somewhere down the line.
The building that homed the roostery was sectioned into three separate spaces; Keith started in the middle. With about 900 square feet, he had enough space for roasting and production, but also enough wiggle room to make the place more welcoming for any potential visitors via decor and seating.
For a year, the middle slice of the building was enough to operate from, but after Tala’s anniversary, Keith took the opportunity to expand into the left unit. In renovations, he knocked down a portion of the wall to combine the spaces, and installed windows in the remaining walls.
While the build-out and expansion took some effort because the building wasn’t originally zoned for retail use, the payoff has been well worth the headache.
The internal structure of the company is well-oiled too: Keith roasts and designs for the brand’s digital and physical presence, Joanna focuses on ecommerce and marketing, Stefan oversees cafe operations, and Ryan keeps the team on track with bookkeeping and accounting.
Tala’s team growth happened as organically as the operation growth did, and soon included a production and wholesale manager, a local delivery team, and, once the time had come for a second location to arise, cafe staff.
The cafe opened in August 2018 in a repurposed fire station in Highwood, about twenty minutes outside of Libertyville.
Along with the scaling of the business since the cafe’s opening, Keith has also seen a scaling of its daily and ongoing challenges. Because Keith is the only roaster, his work days are often long and tiring. And because the roasting depends on him, when Keith can’t work–like when he caught Covid-19–the production line takes a hit.
“It’s the thing I love the most,” Keith says. “It’s hard to take my hands off the reins and let other people do it.” That said, he realizes that running a cafe and a roastery, both on the up and up, means he will need to decide how to safeguard the company’s output without burning himself–or others–out. On the table are a few options: a bigger roaster, more hours per week working, or an assistant, any of which would solve the immediate problem.
Although Keith’s daily work is often done alone–”roasting is a one-man sport,” he says–it’s still a career path that he’s come to love, albeit somewhat unexpectedly. The industry has afforded him many quality relationships, with his teammates as well as his customers. “It came from a selfish hobby and now I get to impact people’s days,” he says.
The Tala Coffee Roasters Menu
Tala Coffee roasters sells four mainstay blends and a typical rotating menu of four to six single origins.
The first blend the company put out was called The Danger Zone, a dark roast with notes of baker’s chocolate and molasses. They made it especially for customers shopping for an easy dark roast. Their bestseller, Ruca, is a lighter roast with notes of milk chocolate and apple. The two roasts share the same origins, Honduras and Guatemala.
In the single origin menu, the company serves a spectrum, starting with more approachable flavors and moving towards more adventurous ones. Oftentimes, Keith can persuade customers to bring home a new, more exotic coffee because he’s earned that trust. “People are surprised by what they want to try,” he says.
In the four years the cafe has been open, Keith has seen a marked increase in customers willing to try single origins new to their radar. He attributes it to a combination of the atmosphere of the coffee house and his personal efforts to both educate people and present coffee as an experience as well as a product.
Tala Coffee Roasters works with four importers: Caravela for Central and South America coffees, Red Fox for Africa coffees, the occasional Cafe Imports for samples, and Genuine Origin for the rest of their lineup.
The cafe throws a wide net, serving customers from the nearby high school and college as well as older suburban dwellers. The variety has given Keith an opportunity to create a brand aesthetic that appeals to everyone, as well as coffees that don’t leave anyone feeling left out. It’s a dichotomy that can sometimes be a creative challenge, but one that he’s taken to.
Recently, Tala Coffee Roasters has expanded into the third unit of their building, with a vision of completing Keith’s original goal of a cafe-roastery. It’s the biggest unit in the building, and will allow the company to build out something special. The cafe is slated to open by the end of 2022.
At the same time that the homebase cafe is opening, Keith is also overseeing the final stages of a third cafe opening in an old renovated gas station in Winnetka, which has been in development with the city for over two years. This location will be open by summer of 2023.
Bring Tala Coffee Roasters Home
If you’re in the area, the delivery team–who Keith calls the “milkmen of coffee”–will deliver your order straight to your door. Otherwise you can shop the full lineup at the Tala website, where you can also investigate the Tala Coffee subscription. The service offers bag size and frequency options, as well as a roaster’s choice.
You can also visit the cafe in Highwood any day of the week from 7 A.M. to 6 P.M. Otherwise, you can follow the company on Instagram or Facebook to stay current with the latest news on the upcoming cafes, coffees, and events.