Space Coast Coffee: Justin Hilligoss and Pier 13 Coffee Company
Justin Hilligoss roasts on a MCR-3 just down the street from the Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, Florida, in a small cafe/roastery space next door to his wife’s boutique. In January 2023, the second location will open, complete with drive-thru, two thousand sq ft roasting warehouse, and three thousand sq ft cafe floor.
Setting The Scene
Justin is the kind of person who’s always in motion. An engineer, he worked with NASA in the 2010s: but because he started after its shuttle program ended, the job was based in Virginia half the year. For a time, he and his wife Julie made it work; but with three kids, it wasn’t feasible for him to regularly spend months away from Titusville.
By 2016, Julie’s business, a local women’s boutique called Hotpoint, had gained enough momentum that Justin was able to leave his position with NASA to stay near his family. They worked together on the boutique while Justin looked for a local job in his field. While looking, he tried to stay busy, occupying himself with new hobbies, like roasting coffee out of his garage on two used Behmors he repaired with his son.
The coffee they roasted went to family and friends, first as gifts and then as products.
The Way Up
After a year in the garage, the promise of a roasting career propelled Justin to plan out his own coffee business. When his mother-in-law bought a commercial building and parceled it out to rent, he asked if he might take one of the spaces to work out of.
The building, right next door to Hotpoint, was small but ideally located. Initially, Justin planned to use the space to roast wholesale orders only. However, when he explained the move to his customers, he kept getting the same response.
“People expected a cafe space,” he says. He sensed that pivoting to meet expectations would be beneficial to the venture overall, and so he compromised, installing an espresso machine and opening a limited menu of drinks. The space opened publicly in 2019.
The compromise turned out to be the right move. As traffic through the space increased, the menu expanded. Justin saw Pier 13 Coffee Company as two separate businesses at heart: the cafe and the roastery, a feeling fueled by the constraints of such a small space.
For one, he couldn’t roast while the coffee bar was open for business. All the cafe and wholesale roasting had to happen in the afternoons after closing time. The result was a very clear difference between cafe work and roasting work.
Because Justin was the sole employee in the early days, he put in fifteen-hour days to get everything done, starting early to run the cafe and closing late to finish bagging. “It wasn’t sustainable, but it was necessary,” he says.
Once the Pier 13 Coffee Company team grew to include baristas and a second head roaster, Justin narrowed the scope of his working day. Fifteen hour days shrunk down to ten or twelve and he was able to use some of this time to plan for the growth of the company.
Now, Pier 13 Coffee Company has eight employees. “Our staff is one of the main reasons we’ve been so successful,” Justin says. When Pier 13 Coffee Company debuts its second location early next year, he’s excited to bring his core group of staff to help smooth out the leap.
The Pier 13 Coffee Company Menu
Pier 13 Coffee Company keeps a menu of eight core coffees, which mainly includes single origins. Seasonals and limited releases also cycle through several times a year.
When he started, Justin expected to keep his offerings balanced, with an equal number of light, medium, and dark roasts. As Pier 13 Coffee Company started to cater to real customers in Titusville, however, he found the reality weighted towards the darker side of the spectrum.
These days, he only keeps one light roast on the roster, and orders greens from Cafe Imports with flavor profiles that appeal to his market.
Justin would prefer that his cafe menu would feel much more “speciality coffee” traditional, with more emphasis on the coffee itself through drinks like pour overs, espressos and cortados. Instead the menu has evolved to become more sustainable with the reality of Titusville consumers, who like syrups and craft lattes.
Responding to those cues from his customers, Justin’s coffees are usually more balanced medium roasts with flavors a typical Titusville resident might be curious to try. His bestseller is Kraken’s Cove, a medium blend available year round.
Last Christmas, the seasonal roast was pecan pie: this year, pineapple upside-down cake.
Justin also uses local events and landmarks to inspire his seasonal blends. This summer, he put out a blend named after Artemis-1, honoring the rocket’s August launch date as well as his own career with NASA.
Looking to escape the challenges that come from roasting and selling in such a small space, Justin has broken ground on the plot of his next location, located off a major highway and near a college.
The plans include two buildings: one warehouse space for roasting, and one commercial space for baristaing, with a key feature: a drive-thru.
With the physical expansion comes a change in business model as well. With such a small team in a space “the size of a master bedroom,” as Justin says, the best way to do things is often just to figure them out in the moment. In the new space, with a staff double the size, and with Justin’s hopes of opening more locations down the line, procedures will have to be more standardized.
He’s made a point to implement these internal changes before the second location opens to ensure a smooth transition. With a handbook written out, it will be easier to know what is expected of staff, drink quality, and roast procedure.
With more elbow room, more wholesale accounts will be within reach. The majority of Pier 13 Coffee Company’s wholesale accounts right now are local churches; Justin would like to make more connections with cafes and restaurants, to reach as many customers as possible.
Because the new location will also be near a college, Justin hopes that a younger demographic might show more interest in third-wave and lighter roast flavors, opening up opportunities to create a wider variety of roast profiles.
Bringing Pier 13 Coffee Home
If you’re in Titusville, you can visit Pier 13 Coffee Company on South Washington Avenue. Next year, you’ll also have the option to pop by the drive-thru or explore their new cafe.