John Puckett retired at age 50, after a career running his family’s Caterpillar dealership in Mississippi. Two years later, he was restless and bought a small business in his native Jackson that imports raw coffee beans in bulk and repackages them for small business and retail customers around the country. It turned out to be a good retirement project.??
A decade later, Puckett has grown what was a $300,000-a-year business into a $6 million company with a retail store in Uptown New Orleans, a thriving online business and preliminary plans to franchise. The store, which opened in early 2023, is called Current Crop Roasting Shop. It sells 78 different raw coffees from 32 countries, teaches customers how to roast the beans and sells small-batch roasters so they can get into the habit of enjoying high-end, fresh roasted coffee at home.?
It's a niche-concept but one that Puckett said is growing and attracting the attention of investors, who want to take his concept and franchise it. In this week’s Talking Business, Puckett discusses how he pivoted form heavy equipment to high-end coffee, how he plans to grow the niche business and what it’s like doing business on Magazine Street.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you open a storefront for this admittedly high-end, specialty type business?
You have to go back to the pandemic, which was very good for our wholesale business in Jackson, Coffee Corral. We blew up over the internet and our SEO was very good and we started teaching customers remotely about coffee and how to roast it. At the end of 2020, I said, what if I went to New Orleans and opened a home roasting school with the supplies all around it? It’s like a cooking school concept. You can come in, take a class or just come and shop and learn to roast. I wanted to do a retail version where customers could look at the beans, see, feel and experience it.
Did you do market research?
No, because I knew it would do well here. I grew up in Pass Christian so we were always in New Orleans. This is a coffee town. And what was really interesting when we first opened was we had people who were coffee connoisseurs, old New Orleans people, who said, we are so glad you opened something else up because we want to claim the coffee capital title back from Seattle.
You searched for this location Uptown and said you wanted to be on Magazine Street.
We had to be on Magazine Street. I know this street well, and have walked it many times with my wife. It's a walking street and has the foot traffic. I knew we would do well here.
So, are you doing well??
We had to draw people in to come see us so I hired a PR firm six months before we opened and worked on a plan so when we were ready to go, we got our name out and did a lot of TV and magazine. Social media helped tremendously. My chief roaster was on one of the morning talk shows and by the time she got back to her car, the Ritz Carlton was calling. We also get a lot of walk-in business, especially on the weekends. We get a lot of visitors but also regulars. We have over 100 routine customers so far. They come in and roast a two-week supply.?
Do they know what to do? How to do it??
We spend a lot of our time educating customers. We spend more time educating than anything else right now. Customers are curious. They had no idea this existed. So education is a huge part of our business. To that end, we teach classes on how to roast and also how to pair coffee with food. Last night, we had a pastry pairing with Maurice’s. We matched coffees with pastries so customers learned how to roast and got to taste pastries. The classes are really popular and are also fun to do with a group like for a party or occasion.
Do you make more profit having people come in and roast or by selling your roasters and equipment?
I need to sell roasters. That is the challenge right now. People come in and learn how to roast then go buy their roaster on Amazon. We don't currently charge customers if they roast their beans here but we may rethink that down the line.?
How did running a family Caterpillar dealership prepare you for a high-end, niche coffee business?
It taught me a lot about customer service and how to talk to people. My background is customer service. We drill that into our employees here. We answer the telephone. I tell my people, I don’t want to see anyone checking their email or scrolling. If we've got customers walking in, you gotta grab them because they are overwhelmed by all the options so you have to make them feel comfortable and teach them about what's available.
Do people come in here thinking you're a coffee shop?
We do but about 50% of those who come in here looking for a coffee shop stay and we teach them how to roast coffee.
You have plans to franchise?
We have been approached by several developers and investors looking for a new concept so I am actively looking for partners to franchise this concept.
What is like doing business in New Orleans?
New Orleans is great. All the businesses are so friendly and helpful. When we first opened, we had business owners come by and give us advice, like these are the days you should close for Mardi Gras, or these are the times you should close on a parade day. They were so welcoming. They offered to let us use their internet until ours was hooked up. Things like that. Everybody has been very friendly.