Batdorf & Bronson: Olympia Icons Then and Now

Whether from their Columbia Street roastery or the newer location by the Olympia Farmers Market, coffee has always been job one. Photo courtesy: Batdorf & Bronson

People say it’s the water that puts Olympia on the map but locals know the truth: it’s really coffee. Since the mid-1980s, Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters has transformed a humble bean into our region’s lifeblood. Over the decades they’ve moved, expanded, grown, and adapted, all while keeping us supplied with fresh roasted coffee…and there’s no sign of slowing down.

Since the late 1980s, Batdorf & Bronson has been a downtown Olympia coffee icon. Photo courtesy: Batdorf & Bronson

As the saying goes, good ideas start with brainstorming; great ideas start with coffee. Larry and Cherie Challain opened Dancing Goats Coffee Bar in 1988 and soon took over Batdorf & Bronson Coffee Roasters. David Wasson started as Retail Operations Manager around that time and is now their President and Chief Operating Officer.

Batdorf & Bronson owner Cherie Challain showing Alfred Peet of Peet’s coffee how it’s done. Photo courtesy: Batdorf & Bronson

“My favorite part of Batdorf & Bronson,” Wasson admits, “is working with the employees and customers. From their first small store downtown, “what appealed was that it’s a safe environment.” It wasn’t unusual to see daily regulars ranging from The Evergreen State College students to business owners like Bob Bigelow, owner of Bigelow Office Supply, or legislators from both sides of the aisle meeting with constituents. “We grew our business because of these regular customers.”

One such customer left behind a small plastic dinosaur when he would visit the café for hot chocolate with his parents. Staffers adopted the dino as their mascot, and he has since moved with the team to their current storefront. Just a few weeks ago the boy—now an adult—came back into the shop and found his Jurassic friend still holding down the fort!

David Wasson started as Retail Operations Manager in the 1980’s but is now their hardworking President and Chief Operating Officer. Photo courtesy: Batdorf & Bronson

“When I was in the little store,” Wasson recalls, “my desk was literally a piece of marine-grade plywood—it was just what we had!” But influential on their growth was the “ability to share our coffee not only in Olympia but through a huge presence in the Atlanta, Georgia area as well.”

Coffee buyer Bob Benck has been on staff since the roastery was on Columbia Street behind their original location on Capitol Way. In 1999 the roastery was moved to its present spot adjacent to the Olympia Farmers Market with Wasson, Benck, and their team driving equipment through downtown on a forklift into what was then “just this industrial wasteland,” recalls Benck. But, they quickly realized, the new Port location provided “opportunities that have been amazing.”

One tremendous improvement has been in logistics. Imagine trying to unload pallets of raw coffee beans off semi-trucks that were either parked in the street, blocking traffic, or squeezed into one of downtown’s narrow alleyways. Working a pallet jack outside in the rain while stopping cars “was a challenge,” wryly admits Benck. “I never thought it would be so sweet to have a loading dock.”

Coffee buyer Bob Benck travels the world to build longstanding, multi-generational relationships with growers. Photo courtesy: Batdorf & Bronson

Benck has been B&B’s buyer for nearly a decade and sources beans from across the globe. In Olympia, locals seem to prefer coffees from the Central America region while their Atlanta stores sell more coffees of African origin coffees. “When we find a source we like,” he explains, “We do a visit, make sure conditions on the farm jive with our ethos, and then go with them.” The rise in technology like video calls and instant messaging mean fewer trips while maintaining real-time communication worldwide.

“We always look forward to developing new relationships, while taking great care to maintain established ones,” says Benck. And it shows. They’ve maintained relationships with some coffee farms for more than 15 years. At Batdorf & Bronson, there can be 14 or 15 different coffees on the board and that’s pretty unique. But, as fans probably expected, “Dancing Goats is our best seller, our flagship coffee, and we spend lots of time keeping it consistent,” he adds.

Stop by and say hello to the Batdorf & Bronson “mascot.” Photo courtesy: Batdorf & Bronson

So with such a big Olympia footprint, why Georgia? “We noticed that a lot of wholesale roasting was being sent to Atlanta,” says Benck. They looked at the numbers and decided to open a production facility there in 1995 to save on shipping costs and deliver the freshest product. In 2007 their first retail store opened and they now have four locations plus the roastery, which is used as a training facility and open for tours. “It’s definitely a magnet for people to come learn about coffee!”

Wasson travels southeast approximately six times a year and Benck heads over frequently as well. But they may soon add two new Tacoma stores to their itinerary with shops in the works for the Market area near Point Ruston and the Brewery Blocks adjacent to the University of Washington’s Tacoma campus.

It may seem contradictory but business success comes from skillfully walking the tightrope between innovative change and reliable consistency. Thankfully, at Batdorf & Bronson, they’ve turned that—and your daily cup of joe—into an art form. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram for updates and find news, product launches, and more through their blog. Have questions? Call 800-955-5252 (ext. 138) or email coffee@batdorf.com. Or just swing by for a pick-me-up. Say hi to the dinosaur while you’re there.

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