Coffee company grew from humble grounds...

(08/18/09 - Sisters, OR) The aroma of roasted coffee permeates the interior of Sisters Coffee Co. as the drone of chatting customers mixes with the sound of espresso machines. Winfield Durham, 56, and his wife, Joy, 52, founded the coffee-roasting business 20 years ago in Sisters. It started in a little cabin on Hood Avenue where the current building, which opened in 2005, now stands. “We are a destination and this is where people come to meet,” Winfield Durham said about the coffee shop. “We wanted to make it a place where people could come and collect their thoughts. 

The aroma of roasted coffee permeates the interior of Sisters Coffee Co. as the drone of chatting customers mixes with the sound of espresso machines. 

Winfield Durham, 56, and his wife, Joy, 52, founded the coffee-roasting business 20 years ago in Sisters. It started in a little cabin on Hood Avenue where the current building, which opened in 2005, now stands. 

“We are a destination and this is where people come to meet,” Winfield Durham said about the coffee shop. “We wanted to make it a place where people could come and collect their thoughts.” 

It all began when the Durhams lived in Sitka, Alaska. In 1984, the couple purchased their first 2-pound coffee roaster and started the Coffee Express, which also sold baked goods made by Joy Durham. 

“We went to town with our little 2-pound roaster and people would come up from Seattle and laugh at our roaster,” Winfield Durham said. “When I got a real roaster, I knew why they were laughing.” 

The Durhams sold the business in 1986 and moved to Central Oregon, starting Sisters Coffee in 1989. 

Other than the Sisters location and numerous wholesale accounts throughout Oregon, Washington, Idaho and even Iowa, the company has partnered with two Subway sandwich locations this year, recently opened a store at the Concordia University library in Portland, and is planning next month to open a kiosk at the Redmond Airport, where it will be the new coffee provider. 

The coffee industry has fared well during the recession, according to the Durhams. Their recent expansion offers proof. 

“People still drink coffee in a recession,” Joy Durham said. “People don’t quit doing that.” 

The Sisters Coffee co-owners have witnessed the rise in popularity of specialty coffee from the beginning. 

Starbucks, which opened its first store in 1971, served its first latte in Seattle in 1984 and coffee’s rise in popularity has continued. 

“It took 10 years and they (customers) realized that it was worth it to pay $1 for a cup of coffee instead of 25 cents,” said Winfield Durham. 

The owners struggled their first five years, they said, but by the mid-1990s, things were changing. 

“I think drive-throughs were the thing that got people hooked on coffee because it was convenient,” Joy Durham said. In the late-’90s, restaurants started serving specialty coffee, which added to the popularity, she added. 

“The coffee industry is changing so much,” said Justin Durham, 28, the owners’ son and director of sales and marketing. “It’s a very exciting business to be in because it doesn’t get stagnant.” 

Joy Durham said the company has been able to stay competitive by serving good coffee and keeping prices low, and has considered its small size an advantage. 

“I don’t think our overhead was as bad as some of those big places,” Joy Durham said. “When you have a mom and pop running things, you just don’t have the overhead. We did a lot of stuff ourselves.” 

The Durhams place a large emphasis on faith and family. Justin’s wife, Leigh-Anne Durham, 27, works for the company as director of retail. 

The Durhams’ other children, Jared and Jesse Durham, also work in the coffee industry. Jared works for a coffee roaster in Seattle, and Jesse is attending New York University to receive an interpretation certificate, which her parents hope she might use to connect with coffee producers and plantations in Central and South America. 

Winfield and Joy Durham expect to transfer the business to Justin when they retire. 

“Family will work harder,” Joy Durham said. “They will stay longer and they will go the extra mile, because they care.” 

A feeling of family is extended to employees and customers as well, according to Justin Durham. 

The company has worked hard over the past two decades to offer innovative coffee experiences, build relationships and educate customers, he said. 

Winfield Durham called it a “pioneering experience to educate people and their palates” about coffee 20 years ago. 

He answered the following questions via e-mail. 

Q: How has the local coffee industry changed in the past two decades and how has the company stayed competitive through that time? 

A: These days, folks know a good coffee, so that helps us in the marketplace. When you go out to eat a lot of times, dessert and coffee are the last thing people enjoy at the end of a nice dinner or getting up in the morning going to work. For just 15 cents per cup, it’s (a) cheap ... cost for restaurants to be remembered for repeat business. As far as how the market has changed, there are more players now. Competition is a good thing for the consumer, it keeps you on your toes. 

Q: What are some factors that makes Sisters Coffee Co. successful? 

A: We are family-owned and we (work hard). When the phone rings, we get the coffee out the same day. People can order their coffee and get it next day pretty much anywhere in Oregon and southwest Washington. When you go to Les Schwab, they run up to you practically saluting. I was always impressed with the way they operate. We at Sisters Coffee want to emulate their business model. 

Q: How have you incorporated new technology, such as the Internet and the company’s Facebook page, into advertising and operations? 

A: We already had a pretty substantial mail order list with our 800 line. We incorporated that data into our Web site and it jump-started our Web sales. If the coffee’s good, it will sell itself. 

Q: What were your expectations for the business when you started it 20 years ago? Has the company taken the path that you expected? 

A: It’s a step of faith to start a business anywhere. We had a passion for coffee and that’s very important. I didn’t care if I worked around the clock to deliver the best cup of coffee out there. A lot of people just go into something for the money and that can undermine the quality of the product and services. 

By Kimberly Bowker / The Bulletin