Bean There, Done That

Perfection. Excellence. Dedication.

kingbean-pic1These are the three words that King Bean Coffee Roasters founder Kurt Weinberger associates most with his childhood on Hilton Head Island in the 1970s. His lessons about those words have driven him through two decades of building his own business.

Kurt’s parents founded a French fine-dining restaurant, La Maisonette, on Pope Avenue. His mother was the chef and ran the back of the house, while his father ran the front of the house and made customer satisfaction his raison d’être.

“It was controlled chaos, but there was a magic there,” he said. “When I was a kid, my punishment was washing dishes. I saw every part of the operation. It was boot camp for the real world, and I saw the level of professionalism that was required in order to make it in such an unforgiving business.”

He left to find his own way, and became an avionics specialist in the Navy, but Kurt held the memories close during an unexpected cross-country deployment.

“I had asked for Jacksonville or Atlanta, and they gave me Seattle, but it was meant to be,” he said. Indeed, this placed him at the epicenter of the cultural coffee explosion in the Pacific Northwest.

“I saw the espresso kiosks pop up; I saw the sophisticated Italian espresso machines at restaurants, and I just fell in love,” he said. “I knew I wanted to bring this back to Hilton Head.”

Weinberger’s operation started in his parents’ Long Cove garage. He visited espresso pioneer Lavazza in Italy to learn the craft firsthand. Because none of the Italian companies had U.S. operations yet, Kurt collaborated with Italian importers to get his hands on nine espresso machines.

“I remember my dad going with me to the Savannah airport when the machines were air-freighted in. He was puzzled and didn’t know what I was up to, but both of my parents believed in me,” he said.

At first though, Kurt had some doubts. As he made the rounds to Hilton Head restaurants, he realized the island scene was not quite ready to embrace espresso. When he headed to Charleston, he knew he truly had a scalable business.

“We were able to establish a base of clients very quickly. It started with espresso machines, distributing mainstream brands like Lavazza,” he said. And with his machinery background from the Navy, Weinberger was also the go-to guy for repairing espresso machines. Soon, he realized he wanted to roast his own blends.

With the purchase of his first roaster, Weinberger grew the business consistently. Maverick Southern Kitchens was the first client in 1994. This clientele has grown to include most of the high-end Charleston eateries. He says the key to growth has always been unwavering customer service.

“It’s a long-term relationship that we’re looking to build, and because of that, we make sure clients know we’re giving them the highest quality with every bean,” he said. “I’m at the door to greet every client. I learned from watching my dad that personal touch matters so much, and that truly stuck with me.”

Palmetto Bluff is also one of King Bean’s most loyal clients. This relationship began with the Woodland Resort and migrated as the resort’s staff moved to Bluffton to open the Bluff.

“The patrons at Palmetto Bluff are a discerning group; they demand perfection and consistency. Rising to that challenge is why we do this,” Weinberger said. “We’re honored to have a 15-year relationship with the Bluff, and their feedback has been vital in helping us grow our business.”

The relationship goes much deeper for Weinberger. As he worked to expand his business to Hilton Head, he met his future wife Katie at Coligny Plaza client, Java Joe’s. The Georgia native and UGA grad turned from barista to Palmetto Bluff bride in October 2007.

“It was a small wedding. We rented a house and married in the chapel, and we took The Grace out for a sunset champagne cruise,” Katie said.

“That was the highest point in our lives, a memory we hold so dear,” Kurt added. “It had been raining earlier in the day, but the clouds broke, and it became just magical.” The couple now has a son, four-year-old Kyle.

Together they have built the business from servicing restaurants to growing a retail line of blends. Weinberger said that even with the retail product, the growth has been smart, focusing on foodie stores and coffee specialists like Whole Foods, Fresh Market and Southern Season. A joint project with high-end cookware maker Le Creuset led to a King Bean special blend in the company’s stores nationwide.

The operation has grown from one to three roasters, from a 4,500-square-foot facility to a 13,000-square-foot space. King Bean has expanded to 12 employees, and it includes a machine repair and technical services department and a recently-added water purification division.

Weinberger juggles everything from being CEO and front-man to machinist to the all-important sourcer of the coffee bean blends.

“Coffee crops change; weather changes the crops, so we’re constantly building relationships with growers to make sure our blends hit just the right profile,” he said.

As for what’s ahead for King Bean, Weinberger said the company will continue to innovate but will never be focused on the newest, next thing.

“We have great employees, and they all share the vision. It’s about keeping clients infinitely happy and constantly earning their trust. That’s the same philosophy with our coffee,” he said. “We’re always looking to evolve our profiles, always listening to what our clientele is telling us. Always ahead for us is simply making the best coffee we can.”

 

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