In what has become a familiar story for many, longtime friends Jordan Carr and Joe McAdams of Minneapolis felt like they had been missing out on a lot of experiences over the past 14 months. And that included going to coffee shops.
So, as fans of good coffee might do, Carr began looking for locally sourced specialty coffee online to fill the void. What he didn't expect to find: nearly 100 coffee roasters in Minnesota.
"I kept finding these great coffees that I really enjoyed," Carr said. "And then my partner said, 'How would you feel about starting a business where we delivered specialty coffee from Minnesota roasters to monthly subscribers?' "
And Winnow MN was born.
From that moment until they shipped their first roast three months later, there was a lot of homework to do, and a lot of coffee to try.
After researching roasters to make sure they follow fair trade and organic practices, Carr and McAdams began buying bags of coffee and started brewing. A spreadsheet keeps track of the roasters' information, along with tasting notes and a grading scale from 1 to 5. Carr estimates that he's already sampled more than 30 Minnesota-roasted coffees, which he said is an important part of the job — they don't ship anything they haven't tasted.
"I would like to reach out to roasters and compliment their product, not just be asking for something," Carr said.
After winnowing down the list (yes, that's how the name came about), Carr started cold-calling roasters, and the response has been positive.
"I didn't have to do a lot of selling, which was great, because I was very nervous about that," Carr said.
Carr and McAdams work with roasters to make sure they're able to deliver the quantity Winnow MN needs for its subscribers, and that the coffee isn't roasted more than a week before it's shipped. ("We want people to get the freshest coffee possible," Carr said.) They have roasters scheduled through early fall — June's featured roaster is Emiliani Coffee, but Carr won't divulge past that — and the business partners will drive to pick up the coffee, no matter where it is in the state.
"Our initial goal was to be able to support a different small and local business each month as well as get people to try a different coffee that they might not have had otherwise," Carr said.
But how do you get the attention of coffee drinkers? Like many startups, word of mouth, family and friends and social media were first steps. Throw in a serendipitous spot on a local television station, and Winnow reached 100 subscribers — its 12-month goal — in four months. Now that number is at 200, and growing.
Winnow's customer base is scattered statewide, much like the roasters they feature. Past roasters include Loxley, from the pair's hometown of Fairmont, to Underwood and Almanac in Duluth. The monthly cost is $17.50 for a 12-ounce bag of beans (see box on how to subscribe), and that price point is exactly why Carr and McAdams do their coffee due diligence.
"I understand very much if someone says $17.50 is a lot to pay for a bag of coffee when you can go buy a gallon of Folgers for $10," Carr said. "That would be my thought if I had never been introduced to specialty coffee. If I'm at a cabin or a tiny diner, bring me anything, I don't care. But when I'm in my house, I know exactly what I'm going for."
And he's found plenty of like-minded coffee drinkers. Winnow MN's success has led Carr, a bartender and lifelong musician, to be able to dial back and focus on family and the business.
If coffee isn't your cup of tea, Carr said, Winnow MN hopes to one day have more Minnesota goods involved — maybe chocolates or jams. They also offer gift subscriptions, which have the option of a handwritten note.
"Over the past year, with people not seeing each other, there have been very heartstring-pulling messages that you see that gives you a little faith in humanity," Carr said. "It's been an incredible experience."
To subscribe: Go to winnow-mn.com by the 1st of the month; coffee ships on the 5th of the month.
Cost: $17.50 a month, including shipping. You can select up to three 12-ounce bags, and there's also a gift subscription option.
Upcoming roasters: Winnow MN likes to keep its roasters close to the vest, but June's featured roaster is Emiliani Coffee, which donates $1 for each bag sold to organizations fighting for kids in the foster care and adoption system.