Todd Carmichael, founder of La Colombe coffee company, scours the world for the best coffee that you can find in highfalutin restaurants belonging to Gordon Ramsay, Mario Batali and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
In the first episode of season two of “Dangerous Grounds,” his reality television show for Travel Channel, Vongerichten refuses Carmichael’s coffee from Bolivia and instead asks for “red-wine like” coffee from Mexico for his restaurant ABC Cocina in New York City. And to meet the demand of his single biggest client, Carmichael, 50, heads to Mexico, where he is later held at gunpoint and navigates cartels.
Vongerichten’s long list of venerable restaurants includes his eponymous Jean Georges, one of only seven restaurants in New York City awarded three Michelin stars in 2014. And Carmichael says exacting chefs like Vongerichten and Ramsay know what they want and, therefore, they’re the easiest people to make happy.”
“People say [Ramsay] is impossible. He’s not,” said Carmichael in his cafe in the trendy Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan, across the street from another trendy New York institution, SoulCycle. “But if you don’t deliver what they want, you’re done. For that reason, they’re the best clients in the world to have.”
More challenging to work with, Carmichael says, is the customer “who doesn’t understand what we’re doing.”
Growing his business from the ground-up, Carmichael is opening his 10th cafe this Friday, again in Washington, D.C. He already has cafes in the nation’s capital, New York, Seoul, Philadelphia and Chicago. His distinctive cafes may be the anti-Starbucks. In his boutique cafes, coffee sits front and center. There are no T-shirts, mugs or sandwiches on sale — not even any signage with marketing. He said he even jams the Wi-Fi so guests “stop working” in his cafe. And on Tuesday afternoon in his packed cafe, his plan for people to “stop working” seems to be working.
Despite the growth of his retail business, he said his biggest money-maker is his wholesale business in which he sources the coffee first-hand. Days ago, Carmichael said he rejected a $52.5 million offer to buy his business. He declined to reveal the identity of the buyer.
It’s hard to believe that 31 years ago, Carmichael was “just a kid stacking the beans” at a Starbucks warehouse in Washington state.
Now with 350 employees and an expert in the global coffee industry, the native Washingtonian standing at 6 feet 3 inches in a baseball cap, says, ”Seattle’s done, burnt.”
“In Seattle, you have the biggest corporations buying the little guy. They’re just not stealthy enough to keep up. We just kill them,” said Carmichael, who now lives in Philadelphia with his wife and children.
He calls Manhattan the “epicenter” of the coffee business, although coffee drinkers in Japan and Korea are also among the most discerning, he said.
But please don’t call Carmichael a coffee snob.
When asked what bugs him the most these days in the coffee world, he said it’s the trend of positioning coffee as an “intellectual and elite” activity.
“Coffee is the ultimate democratic luxury,” he said. “You can have the best coffee in the world for $2.”