Back in 1994, Mary Allen Lindemann and Alan Spear launched Coffee By Design in what was the sketchy neighborhood of Munjoy Hill, Portland, Maine.
During a recession, Munjoy Hill, was not the hippest place to launch a coffee business. But as you will hear in this podcast, Lindemann and Spear’s vision was never about just selling coffee it was focused on creating and building a diverse community around its coffee brand. They are also super passionate about the arts and have been credited as the leaders in the revitalization of downtown Portland’s vibrant and thriving creative arts scene.
So it should come as no surprise that after being in business for 25 years, Coffee By Design won the prestigious 2020 Macro Roaster of the Year award and proudly operates as one of 10 B Corp’s in the state of Maine. If you read up on the criteria for both, it’s no easy feat.
Coming off this prestigious win, I invited Mary Allen to the studio to share the remarkable Coffee By Design maker story and journey as part of Maine’s Bicentennial Food Podcast series.
Right after this picture was taken, Mary Allen Lindemann got on a plane to Africa and upon her return faced a daunting realization that COVID 19 was not going away anytime soon. Her next trip to Africa had to get canceled for fear she would not be able to return or deal with the unknown.
Here in Maine, businesses, especially small businesses, were grappling with laying off their valued employees while frantically applying for PPP loans and also trying to staying open within CDC guidelines, all while trying to stay alive, keeping their core teams safe and operational and NOT shut down shop!
The stress was surmounting all the way around. Mary Allen and Alan Spear and their teams…looked at everything with fresh eyes, reconfiguring how they would stay operational, make new signage, set up news ways of servicing their loyal customers.
But most important, they continued to serve their communities – hand delivering boxes of Maine Made treats and fresh coffee to nearby hospitals and to health care workers who were on the front lines working marathon shifts for days. As she and her team took on the toll of having to lay off a large percentage of the CBD team, she took the time to get back on a call with me and talk about Coffee By Design – through the Pandemic and beyond. What was the next chapter going to look like, with no playbook or anyone to turn to for answers.
Lindemann, Alan and their team decided to take an introspective look at CBD’s core values – the idea that you should as a business owner hold on to those values during your highest peaks and lowest valleys, resonated with me deeply and what provided them with a compass in a world that felt like it was spinning out of control.
I want to thank Mary Allen for sharing these thoughts with me in a follow up podcast. It was heartfelt, eloquent, and so deeply meaningful, I simply had to include it here, unedited, in her very own words:
I am a small business owner. The journey began 25 years ago when the doors to Coffee By Design first opened when the vacancy rate in downtown Portland was at 40%. I’ve gone from sleeping on the shelving in the basement of our first store to owning my own home and running five retail locations and a wholesale business, what began with 2 of us and a part timer became 65 strong. We’ve been through at least three recessions, the tail end of the AIDS epidemic and 9/11. After years of business growth for Coffee By Design and Portland (Maine) which is listed on almost every top 10 list as the City to be in, nothing prepared us for COVID-19 and the impact it is having on our community – locally and globally – our business and we ourselves.
We know we are strong. We have a community which supports all of us. We are Maine. Working together we will keep our team intact and bring them back home. We got this.
These are the words I say every morning I get up and go to work.
Yes, we are fortunate in that we are able to remain open and continue with a small portion of our business but having to furlough 50, 75% of our team who are like family soon after celebrating our 25th anniversary and becoming 2020 Roaster of the Year has brought us from the top of the mountain to the deepest valley.
The truth of the matter is I’m scared. I don’t know a single small business owner who doesn’t feel the same. Every tool in the emotional toolbox is being used in ways that we never even imagined they would need to be.
How do I bring my staff back and ensure that they can be safe. How do I instill in them that I’ve provided masks but they would prefer not to wear and believe the physical distancing is enough along with hand-washing and sanitizer everywhere.
We are afraid that we may get the virus and not be able to continue to care for our families and lead our team. An Asylum seeking friend of mine shared a phrase I had never heard before about sleeping trapped within one’s home to keep outside the danger. Ville Morte Dead City. But what if the danger is inside?
Do the numbers work? Do we have enough to hold on and if so for how long should the doors not fully open again longer than we hope.
Yes, we received the PPP loan money but will I be able to grow the business fast enough as a deemed essential business open in the midst of a state stay at home order at this point for half of that time I need to bring the equivalent of 48 full-time people back. How can I compete against unemployment when people are being given what in effect is a bonus check which means that weekly they are paid more than if they were working with me.
How do I ask people who are scared to go out side to come back out and work with others whom they can’t be sure are isolating appropriately when at home themselves.
On a daily basis, I feel I am being asked to bring people back to work, pay them less and be unsafe. How do I tell people if you don’t come back to work now I can’t guarantee that there will be a job later not as a way to get back but because if I don’t grow the business now, if I don’t come up with creative ways to re-think about what you do I can’t help for every body. I can’t bring everybody back as I had thought initially I could.
What if I should fail?
I think about A.A. Milne and Winnie the Pooh. “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.”
This moment will define who we are as small business owners but more importantly, who we are as citizens of the world.
Mary Allen Lindemann
April 28, 2020
*Published with permission from Mary Allen Lindemann, co-owner of Coffee By Design .