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Wicked success: Bob and Carmen Garver build their organic coffee business into a commercial hit

PHOTO / Tim Greenway Bob and Carmen Garver, founders and owners of Wicked Joe Coffee, have shown leadership in the craft coffee sector, attaining B Corp status and MOFGA certifcation.
Photo / Tim Greenway Bob and Carmen Garver founded Wicked Joe Coffee in 2004 and Bard Coffee, a retail shop in Portland, in 2009. They share an office at the Topsham headquarters.

Morning Glory Natural Foods in Brunswick sells several Maine-made coffee brands, but the runaway favorite is Wicked Joe, roasted in nearby Topsham and sold in colorful new packages prominently displaying the product's organic and fair-trade status.

“Wicked Joe dominates our coffee sales,” says co-owner Craig Urquhart. “It's a solid product with a local pedigree.”

The pedigree belongs to Bob and Carmen Garver, the husband-and-wife team behind Wicked Joe Coffee and Bard Coffee in Portland, and winners of the 2017 Mainebiz Business Leaders of the Year in the small-business category. Before moving with three young daughters to Maine in 2003, they ran an organic coffee-roasting business in Santa Cruz, Calif., and set out on a similar path here.

“We chose Maine not because Maine has the most developed business climate, but because it was where we wanted to raise our children,” says Bob.“While organic was not a huge category then, our sense was that this would be the kind of community that would embrace those sorts of things.” That sense was spot on. More than a dozen years after starting Wicked Joe, sales jumped 25% in 2016 to a record $5 million. Including Bard, the total was $6 million.

The sales milestone capped a busy year that included getting certified by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association for being 100% organic. It also gained the seal of approval from the non-profit B Lab organization for meeting rigorous social and environmental performance, accountability and sustainability standards, one of only four in Maine to attain B Corp status. And in February, Bard Coffee received a “2017 Good Food Award,” given to food and drink makers who have demonstrated a commitment to help build a tasty, authentic and responsible food system.

Bob Garver gives all the credit to the employees, 25 at Wicked Joe and 12 at Bard Coffee.

“We're nothing without our employees,” he says. “I'm really proud and I think our companies are remarkable in their own ways. We couldn't be great unless there were great people in Maine. Mainers are independent, they're hard-working, they're craftsmen and they have integrity, all of the things we care about, and part of why Carmen and I moved here.”

Early connections

Coffee played a role in both Garvers' lives before it became their business. Bob, a West Point graduate and U.S. Army veteran, fondly recalls his time in Turkey, doing business with people over coffee and chai. “I was a bit impatient the first time,” he admits, “but the next time I went I blocked out a lot of time. We built relationships that transcended work.”

Later, when he left the service, he thought about opening a brewpub before deciding on coffee. “I didn't want to tell my grandma that I owned a bar,” he says.

Carmen, who like Bob is 54, traces her connection to coffee back to when she worked as a clinical psychologist, specializing in HIV/AIDS, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and chronic and mental illness. “Sharing many cups of coffee with patients was frequently an opportunity to break down barriers,” she says. “I later moved to Mexico, only to discover a love for the Latin culture and its people, while also enjoying lots of coffee. Coffee, therefore, was often the common thread that connected me to the people and cultures I adore, while fulfilling the need for human connection and compassion.”

“At Wicked Joe and Bard Coffee,” she adds, “we make many connections and meet many people over coffee and are privileged and humbled by our relationships with the farmers who grow our delicious coffees. I believe our coffees are a direct result of labor and love.”

The Garvers started Wicked Joe in Brunswick in 2004, moving to a former Navy commissary in Topsham a decade later. They opened Bard Coffee in 2009.

They believed strongly in organics and fair trade long before they entered the mainstream, and going back to their time in Santa Cruz. In practical terms, that means paying a higher price for certified organic and fair trade coffee for better-quality beans. They also pay an additional contribution to communities for every pound of coffee purchased, or nearly $150,000 last year alone to partner communities. Bob says the money has been used for everything from running electricity where it didn't exist before to building schools, roads and infrastructure that in turn improves the quality of their coffee. “This drives up the price that we pay the farmers even higher and gives our customers even better coffee,” he says.

The Garvers do more than just give financial support. Several times a year, they visit growers, sometimes in remote regions, to forge relationships with them and help them understand the benefits of fair trade. Their latest voyage in February took them to Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras. “Three weeks ago I was over 6,000 feet on a farm in Guatemala, in a very remote part of the country, visiting producers and meeting one of our farmers for the first time,” Bob says. “We sat down on logs around a fire where the wife of one of the farmers prepared coffee. It was mud, man, no filter. It was just wonderful and delicious.”

At home, they treat employees well, raising salaries of several staff in 2016 and investing in equipment including a new bridge crane system that reduces the strain of moving large sacks of coffee. They also installed a new roaster to boost capacity, and expect to roast over a million pounds of coffee in 2017 from 815,000 pounds last year.

While the Garvers put a lot of their own money into the business, they have also relied on outside financing including bank loans from Bath Savings Institution, which has supported them from the start. “It was very clear from Day 1 that the Garvers demonstrated great passion for their work, for their industry, for supporting the coffee growers and providing an excellent product,” says Julie Wagoner, senior vice president, community development and commercial lending.

The Garvers have come a long way since starting in a cramped space in Brunswick. Not only does Wicked Joe have a loyal following in Maine, it is also now distributed in 48 states, and expects to be in 50 states by the end of 2017. Distributors include Hannaford Brothers Co. and Shaw's Supermarkets, as well as two of the largest natural and organic food distributors in the country, KeHE Distributors LLC of Naperville, Ill., and United Natural Foods Inc., which is based in Providence, R.I.

Before partnering with Hannaford, Bob Garver ran it by the owners of Morning Glory, not because he needed their permission, but out of respect for an early and important retail customer. They gave their blessing, and Urquhart says the added visibility actually helped their own sales of Wicked Joe. He and his wife, Susan Tarpinian, also appreciate regular visits from Bob to their shop. “He's a smart guy and it's been interesting to watch him grow,” Urquhart says.

Green and sustainable

The Garvers' commitment to sustainability extends to energy efficiency, by for example investing in more expensive coffee roasting equipment to cut the use of fossil fuels and overall emissions, using solar power for heating and using electric forklifts and delivery vans.

While annual sales growth for the past decade has remained steady at 10% to 30%, getting bigger isn't a goal. “Our growth has been very strong and extremely steady,” Bob says, “but we want our growth to be sustainable.”

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2017 Business Leaders of the Year

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