In 1993, people told Alan Spear it wasn’t worth starting a specialty coffee business in Portland, Maine. The city just isn’t sophisticated enough, they said.
Portland was a long way away from becoming the cultural hub that it is today.
After a year searching for real estate to launch his dream in Boston or Providence, Spear and his partner Mary Allen Lindemann came up empty-handed.
Only then was when they realized, as Spear says, “Our love was truly Maine.”
So they ignored the naysayers and headed north. Within two weeks, Spear and Lindemann had found a spot for their coffee shop, and Coffee By Design was on its way to becoming a landmark Portland business.
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Spear was born in Cumberland and Lindemann had summered in Maine, so they both knew the area and were happy to be running a business in the state. While both had experience with Maine, there was one hiccup: neither had any formal experience with the coffee business.
Spear had earned his B.S. from Cornell University and had been working in Seattle as a landscape architect. It was there that he learned a love for coffee and the way it could connect people around the world to different communities and cultures. So, he decided that was the industry he wanted to spend his life in, and he began to educate himself.
When he started researching, Spear didn’t know Sumatran coffee from Colombian coffee, but eventually he learned the unique taste profiles from each of the different countries. And researching back then wasn’t like it is today – he had to do it all by phone, at the library and with books. It was a years-long process.
But he decided to see if he could make a go of it on the East Coast. In 1993, he and Lindemann attended the Specialty Coffee Organization of America’s trade show in Boston, and that experience cemented his decision. He’d long wanted to go into business for himself, recognizing that while employment meant a steady income, it didn’t offer any control over his own life.
“I was always someone who wanted to give it a go,” he says.
Spear admits he was anxious about going out on his own, but he didn’t have any debt, he had savings and he was in the right spot to take a risk and see what happened.
The property Spear and Lindemann found for the company’s first coffeehouse wasn’t in what many would consider an ideal location. In 1994, instead of being known as the Arts District, Congress Street had a much seedier reputation. The space the two leased was located near the State Theater, which at the time was known more for its adult film showings than its concerts. But it was also conveniently located across the street from the Maine College of Art, home to students in need of caffeine.
By 1998, Coffee By Design was ready to take the next step: expand from just retail into actually roasting coffee. Spear and Lindemann purchased property on India Street in 1998, and Spear and his father renovated the space – just as they had done on Congress Street. Soon, the owners of Fore Street and Street & Co. approached them about buying coffee, and Spear and Lindemann’s dream began to take off.
“It was more work than I ever imagined,” Spear says of those first years in business. “But I was energized by it.”
In those first years, he and Lindemann taught themselves the food service business. They simply had to. After all, it was just the two of them and a part-time employee when Coffee By Design first opened. Today, the company has sixty-five employees split between its retail and manufacturing operations. They have five retail locations, including in L.L. Bean, plus their coffee is distributed by Sysco, and purchased by companies like IDEXX and WEX.
Spear attributes the success of Coffee By Design to his simple approach to business.
“If you produce a great quality product and offer a fair price with great customer service, it’s a formula for success,” he says.
Spear is also adamant about the important role good relationships play in a business’s success. He knows his vendors, joking around with them as they come in and out of the store. Coffee By Design has a long-running relationship with many local companies, including Oakhurst Dairy and LT’s Inc. Spear is also passionate about the need for local banks, explaining how their understanding of the local business climate has been crucial to helping Coffee By Design over the years. Coffee By Design also uses Maine-produced honey and maple syrup.
With over two decades of success for Coffee By Design so far, what does Spear see in the company’s future? For one, he doesn’t anticipate more retail. It’s simply harder to sustain growth in retail, Spear explains. He hopes to increase the percentage of business that Coffee By Design does in manufacturing versus retail, and so far the manufacturing numbers are looking good. They saw 17% growth last year, and are at 23% so far this year. They have over 500 wholesale accounts, and have accomplished all of that without a sales manager.
Updating the India Street retail location is also on the horizon for Spear. Like much else of Portland, the neighborhood is different than it was when he bought the building.
Twenty years ago, Spear was told not to start a business in Portland, Maine. He took a risk, decided Portland was where he wanted to be, and he worked hard to build his company. He’s fostered relationships with other local small businesses, formed partnerships with large companies, provided jobs to Mainers and has never lost sight of what’s important: preferring time spent with his family to all else.
That’s why Alan Spear is a Maine Icon.