Envisioned as a place for local creatives to meet and collaborate, Sparrows Coffeehas always put people first. Roasting came next, when in 2016 Sparrows introduced its very own specialty line to its welcoming café, which features curated work from community artists. Like that space, this Grand Rapids, Michigan roaster is all about approachability and offering seriously great coffee to evoke harmonious, nostalgic, and adventurous feelings.
What do you look for when sourcing coffee?
When Sparrows sources coffee, we look for a variety of attributes, depending on how we plan to roast and offer the coffee. Foremost, we look to develop mutually beneficial relationships with coffee producers. This means we purchase coffees traceable to single producers or cooperatives, who we feel we’ll be able to grow with, and purchase from year after year.
In terms of flavor profile and cup character, we always look for balance and sweetness, but then optimize for the three “feelings” we’re looking to produce for our customers as they sip our coffee — nostalgia, harmony, or adventure.
How did you get started roasting?
We started roasting in late 2016 when we purchased our first roaster, a Diedrich IR-7. We began by roasting coffee just for our café, followed by almost immediate requests for wholesale accounts by local businesses in Grand Rapids. We outgrew our first roaster just about the same time we were acquired by Schuil Coffee, who took the ceiling off of our roasting abilities and allowed us to ramp up our output rather quickly.
Why the name Sparrows?
We actually opened as The Stray Dog Cafe, which did have a long thought out reason about Russian poets and community. However, a month after opening we were asked to change our name by a business with a similar one.
A gifted woodblock print of a bird hung in our shop, inspiring the name The Sparrows. We liked how “The Sparrows” sounds like a hideout, and our artist minds appreciated the symmetry of two “r”s in the middle and the “s” on either end. The bird print has long been lost, but we do still have two dog sculptures beside our menu board as an homage to our original name.
How does Sparrows approach sustainability?
Our café composts and recycles as much as possible and uses compostable to-go cups. We also chose backyard compostable retail bags for distribution in our café, online, and in grocery stores. We also think about sustainability in terms of our sourcing relationships. We look for farms and importing partners where there’s an opportunity to build a long-term relationship — where everyone in the supply chain is happy with the financial and working relationship.
Tell us more about your team.
Our team is:
- Tim Volkema - Owner of Sparrows Coffee, licensed Q Grader, and part of the green coffee team
- Cody Gallagher - Head Roaster, Head of QA, and Green Coffee Buyer
- Lori Slager Wenzel - Founder and GM of Sparrows Coffee, heading up all brand development and marketing
- Frankie Volkema - Tim’s daughter, licensed Q Grader (at 13-years-old, the youngest in the world) and part of the green coffee team
- David Pohl - Green Coffee Advisor and licensed Q Grader
- Tim Novak - QA with Cody
What role has the Grand Rapids community played in your business?
The Sparrows café was founded with the goal of giving creatives in Grand Rapids a place to meet, collaborate, and connect. A mid-sized city like Grand Rapids provided the perfect backdrop for this, and our customers have been fiercely loyal from the get-go.
When we began roasting after several years as a multi-roaster café, our wholesale accounts happened organically by café customers asking to open wholesale accounts for their businesses. Grand Rapids is also known as Beer City USA with a population predisposed to craft beverages. That certainly helped as well!
What excites you most about the third-wave coffee movement?
What excites us most about the third wave coffee movement is the value put on all links of the supply chain, and the celebration of coffee producers. For too long, roasting companies themselves stole much of the spotlight, and we’ve enjoyed observing growers and producers receive more recognition.
Along with higher premiums and strengthened relationships, the third wave’s focus on traceability to single producers lends a romanticism to the coffee experience, before present only in products like wine and cheese. As the movement has continued to develop, it’s also been exciting to see more room for freedom of expression for the roaster. In the movement’s beginnings, light roasts dominated menus, polarizing much of the coffee drinking masses. It’s been great to see more deep and developed roasts accepted in the industry, and common in a third-wave roaster’s offerings.
Which of your current coffee offerings are you most excited about?
Of our current offerings, we’re most excited about one of our Mexican coffees, from the country’s Veracruz region. Although it’s more modest in flavor profile than coffees like our Ethiopian showstopper, it’s just as exciting to observe the advancements made in Mexican coffee production.
We think that Mexican coffees, like the one we offer from Veracruz’s Chocaman province, can often bridge a gap between drinkers interested in traceability and nuanced flavor, and those looking mostly for a deep, rich, and cozy coffee to start the day with. We’re happy to work with our partners at Red Fox Coffee Importers to source this coffee, who have invested in Mexico’s supply chain between Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Chiapas for the past six years. Although it’s not yet offered on its own, it can be found in several of our blends, including our Newsstand espresso-focused blend.
What sets Sparrows apart?
While many companies offer their coffees in tiers correspondent to price and quality, Sparrows believes feeling and emotion are far more fundamental to what our drinkers are looking for.
Some coffees take us down memory lane, with their nostalgic depth and warmth. Others center us, harmoniously balancing crisp, clean, and crushable flavors. Some can even evoke our adventurous spirit, transporting us to beautiful, far-off lands, imbued with a remarkable sense of place.
We think there’s no better way to offer our coffees than something so foundational as feeling, and we’re eager to provide our drinkers with cravable cups, no matter what their feel may be.
What values are most important to Sparrows?
We are serious about our service and coffee, tea, and food, but not about ourselves. We want to be a place where you can get your best creative work done or drink our coffee elsewhere and be inspired in the same way.
Our customers frequently tell us about how they wrote their term paper or business plan or completed their sketch project at our shop. We hope to help them unclench their shoulders and focus. We are intentionally approachable, treating every customer as if they are the best thing to happen to us today. We aim to translate this approachable, yet premium vibe beyond the walls of our shop via our wholesale business.