American Infusion: Shelly and Mike Lammon and Peak City Coffee
Mike and Shelly Lammon live in Apex, North Carolina, a town twenty minutes west of Raleigh. They both have day jobs; Shelly is CFO and COO of St. Mary’s School, and Mike is a software quality engineer at Red Hat Solutions.
They roast on a 10 kilogram in a rented 800 sq ft commercial space in the 540 Flex and Business Park in Apex. Because it’s a flex space, they configured it specifically to accommodate their roasting needs such as venting and cupping. That flexibility has helped them scale up and keep pace with their demand, which has increased drastically as Apex continues to grow.
Setting the Scene
Beverage chemistry has always fascinated Mike. For over thirty years, he homebrewed his own craft beers and ales. Between that experience and what he calls his “entrepreneurial spirit,” he saw brewing as the eventual avenue to his own business. But the logistics of starting a commercial craft brewing operation are complicated, and the combination of regulation and expense meant the barrier to entry was too high for the Lammons.
It wasn’t until a coworker, in true water-cooler fashion, suggested Mike try his hand at coffee roasting that he considered it as an alternative to brewing. That coworker, who worked with him in IT at Sysco, also introduced Mike to RK Roasters, which is where Peak City really started–on a grill, roasts made in back-deck batches and cooled on a baking sheet. While this method meant their roasts weren’t exactly consistent, it did give Mike and Shelly an opportunity to explore the world of specialty coffee and its similarities to the craft brewing world. Both are innately sensory-driven processes, and both scratched the itch of a creative scientific process.
For eight years, Mike and Shelly hobby roasted on their outfitted gas grill.
Then, in summer of 2019, they made the trek to Minneapolis and took Roasting 101 at Mill City Roasters. And right after, they decided to move from hobby roasting to commercial roasting. Their first vessel of choice was the 1 kilogram.
While in training, Mike and Shelly were also introduced to Cafe Imports. They stuck with them because of their shared values of high quality coffee and high quality communication. They also liked that Cafe Imports had an open education model much like MCR, and hosted tons of content accessible online for free. “We felt like it was a combination for success,” Mike says.
The Way Up
On the 1kg, they roasted for a whole year before making their roasts purchasable. “We wanted to do coffee as a product,” Shelly says. And that meant riding the learning curve from a grill-top gas roaster to a double-walled gas drum roaster, hammering out the details of executable roast profiles, and building a label.
For much of that first year, they focused on branding. “We wanted to resonate with local residents,” Mike says. They see Apex as an all-American small town; despite its huge population and industry growth in the past five years, it still attracts people with a hankering for a small-town American way of life. So as they narrowed in on their core products; they took inspiration from their surroundings and named coffees after local towns.
They also looked to local artists to help create a recognizable graphic for their label.
In December of 2020, Peak City went live. The buzz they managed to create in their year of planning paid off; immediately, they could see a bottleneck in roasting on a 1kg.
So they took up the reins of their momentum and invested in a 10kg.
Shelly, who is a self-described Type A, uses her background in finance to manage Peak City’s accounts and focus on the financial well-being of the business. But she and Mike share roasting duties equally. She wakes up early to roast before work; he will find quiet pockets throughout the day to get a batch or two done.
“It takes a lot of attention to detail to run the roaster,” Shelly says. “There was a period of time [when we first got the 10kg] that I wouldn’t let him roast on it.” She considers herself the realist in their endeavors; she’s dubbed Mike the “visionary.”
She did eventually come around to letting the visionary use the 10kg. Now they roast in tandem, using spare time as a tool to keep their roastery moving.
The Peak City Menu
Peak City Coffee has five core products: two medium, two dark, and one light.
They also offer a medium limited release during the summer: the All American barrel blend.
Last December, Mike found his background in homebrewing sneaking up through his coffee experiments. In one, he and Shelly combined staves from a decommissioned Buffalo Trace bourbon barrel and green Colombia Excelsio and let the two marry for a few weeks before roasting. “We were amazed [at] how the flavors were absorbed,” he says.
That success opened a door to creating a product. They secured a full-size barrel and made their first barrel-aged roast, All American. To do this they used the specialty-grade coffee they were most familiar with already: a dynamic duo of Colombia and Brazil, key players in three of their five products.
The barrel blend offered customers a new way to experience two coffees they already knew. It also allowed Mike to continue growing into a space between craft brewing and specialty coffee.
All American debuted successfully as a limited release that winter. Now, the blend lives permanently on their website, and will be offered again this winter.
Their local market is one that doesn’t default to buying dark roasts. When Peak City Coffee sells retail at farmers markets, customers often talk about shying away from darker, more bitter flavors. All American was an opportunity for Shelly and Mike to find a new angle on a classic medium roast, and introduce their customers to new flavors without forcing them into the dark end of the pool.
Peak City Coffee is the only specialty coffee roaster in Apex. While that means they don’t have to compete with other specialty coffee roasters, they can sometimes face the challenge of educating customers who may not know about the niche of specialty-grade coffee.
Nonetheless, they love to share their craft, and they’re working through roasts like All American to expose their customer base to a wider variety of options.
While All American infuses coffee with alcohol, Mike has also worked on projects to infuse alcohol with coffee. He collaborated with the local Southern Peak Brewery to give the Peak City house blend a new home–in Southern Peak Brewery’s brown ale. It took a few iterations to nail down, because extracting coffee into beer is much different than extracting it into water. But they succeeded through trial and error, and now the ale, “Channel to Flannel” is on its fourth release.
The ale is another way for Peak City to expand its horizons and find innovative ways to market its products to a wider audience.
After the success of their barrel line, Mike’s looking forward to finding ways to incorporate more alcohol-infused roasts into their regular lineup. He’s thinking in the next round they might look towards rum or wine, and experiment further with the infusing process.
They’re looking forward to bringing in more aspects from Mike’s homebrewing into the Peak City product lineup, such as creating single-serve cold brews.
Both Shelly and Mike hope that the success and continued growth of their roastery will allow them to leave their respective careers in IT and finance and tend to Peak City full-time.
While the future is still open-ended for Peak City Coffee, both Mike and Shelly know that they won’t be pursuing a cafe. “We enjoy being the roaster,” Shelly says. Roasting gives them finer control over their schedules, and means they don’t have to depend on employees to maintain a storefront. Instead, they’ll be focusing their efforts on creating new products and new partnerships to get their coffee into more hands.
Bring Peak City Home
If you’re in North Carolina, you can pick up a bag of Peak City Coffee at six locations of Lowes Foods. The cafe The Peak on Salem in Apex will serve you a cup; you can also buy retail in Cary, at Preston Flowers & Gifts or Whisk Carolina. Mike and Shelly are regulars at the Raleigh Farmers market, too. Otherwise, you can purchase single bags, gift packs, or subscriptions on their website. They’re also on Instagram and Facebook.