Interview - Frank and Lauren Reber
Age: Frank – 33 / Lauren – 30
Frank, you mentioned on your blog that you started your undergrad studies at Ball State in 2009, went on to intern at Electrical Audio in Chicago where your boss, Steve Albini’s particularity with his coffee inspired you to see coffee in a different way, then came back to muncie to teach post audio production as a graduate student while getting your masters and then moved on to a more freelance lifestyle with your music career, is this correct? Could you tell me a little bit more about that journey?
Frank: Technically speaking, I would be considered a high school dropout that transferred to an adult education facility (Muncie Area Career Center) to finish out my Core-40 diploma. By going this route, I was able to graduate roughly 15-16 weeks early and enroll at Ivy Tech to knock out my general studies courses. The plan was always to attend BSU, but I took time off to live, work, and make music. I have been fond of writing and recording music for as long as I can remember. There’s just something about capturing tonal vibrations and preserving a moment in time that I find fascinating to the point of mild obsession. So I spent my late teens and early twenties playing in bands and experimenting with recording my own music (albeit pretty poorly at first). With every new recording session, I learned from previous mistakes and made new ones… Eventually, after recording long enough, you learn from enough mistakes that you make fewer and fewer and eventually other people are interested in what you’re doing and you make the transition to recording other people. That’s pretty much how it happened until I was 26. At that point in time, I decided that it would be nice to finally get around to going to Ball State and get a degree. Again, I didn’t really know what I wanted to major in. Initially I started out with a number of different majors (philosophy, dietetics, religious studies, and etc) before I realized that I was spending too much money treating college like a library. I decided I should probably stick to what I was good at, and do something with music and recording. I originally wanted to be in the Music Technology program, but I wasn’t able to pass the introductory exam for auditioning an instrument. Even though I’d been playing the electric bass since I was fifteen, my ability to sight read music was horrible at best. I learned how to play music because I always wanted to record music and was always in need of a subject. So I became my own subject. Since then, I’ve become infatuated with the various methods that artists incorporate to bring the sounds from their heads into the physical world. Long story made shorter, I opted for the Telecommunications program because they put more of a focus on the production aspects of the industry and didn’t require a background in theory and composition. The program was extremely beneficial to me. I already had a lot of recording experience prior, so the hands-on stuff was familiar; however, the theory and science behind these tasks was what I found so fulfilling. Up until this point, I had known that certain things were done to get desired results, but now I was learning WHY and what was happening behind the scenes. Once I graduated I went to Chicago for a brief time to intern at Electrical Audio. At this point in time my education had been limited to digital mediums and I really wanted to learn the ins and outs of analog tape machines. I’d been fond of the work done by Steve Albini and wanted to learn from one of the best. To be considered for an internship you have to submit a portfolio of recording work. At this point in time I had a pretty large portfolio to send. That, and I think my mindset was compatible with what they were out to achieve. I wasn’t a “fan” and was more interested in the recording process than being overly excited about the talent. That’s not to say that I wasn’t into the musicians, I simply mean that I didn’t let it get in the way. The whole point is to be compatible so that the talent can feel comfortable enough to express their thoughts intimately without feeling judged. I ended up getting the gig and moved to Chicago for a bit. I slept on a friend’s couch in Pilsen for the duration of my stay. Of course, I had to do the typical intern stuff when I first arrived like vacuuming, taking out trash, getting lunch for talent, and etc. Eventually I got to sit in on sessions and learn how to operate, repair, and calibrate tape machines. My plans to stay at Electrical Audio were cut shorter than I had anticipated by a death in the family and so I came back to Muncie. Once I got back home, I started recording people again and started offering free sessions with a photo shoot by my lovely wife, Lauren, to reboot my return. I released the free sessions on the Musical Family Tree website. At the time we were planning on building a mobile recording studio and traveling the country to document bands in their practice spaces, but everything changed when I got invited to attend BSU for grad school as part of the Digital Storytelling program. Whilst doing this, I was also teaching post-audio production in the Telecommunications department. While in grad school I had the good fortune to work on various productions aimed at documenting the progress being made by the Delaware County Historical Preservation Society and do my part in preserving a part of Muncie’s history.
Lauren if you went to college where did you go? What got you interested in photography and music? What was your experience with freelance work like?
Lauren: After I graduated from Delta High School in 2005, I didn’t really have a plan and like most high schoolers, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I ended up going to Ivy Tech after high school to take care of my core classes while I made up my mind. Once I completed my core classes at Ivy Tech, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career, but I was passionate about photography and music. This was a confusing time, because it was difficult for me to figure out how to make a living with music and photography. I wanted to go to Ball State for photography, but my family was quick to talk me out of it because they didn’t think that there would be a sustainable future in film photography. Since that was my passion, I felt defeated in a way because that was my dream. After spending a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do, I decided that I would enroll at Ball State and study business and entrepreneurship to buy myself more time and figured that this would be flexible enough to apply to whatever I would come up with later. My time at Ball State was brief because I felt like I was wasting my time reading about things to get a grade that I could be doing to build a future. I decided to go a different direction and start up a business that focused on portrait and lifestyle photography, where I made most of my living on doing weddings and events. Around this time, I was also spending a lot of time and energy on my family because there were a number of unexpected health and life events that demanded my attention. After everything settled down, I was planning our wedding. Once we got married, we wanted to change our up lifestyle so that we would have more compatible schedules and a more stable future. The freelance lifestyle that we were both living was just not cutting it for us. This was right around the time that we started brainstorming and eventually came to the conclusion that we wanted to open a coffee shop.
What (if any) instruments do you two play?
Frank – I primarily play bass but dabble in guitar and keys as well.
Lauren – I've played piano since I was 2. My Mom was my music teacher growing up.
How did you two meet?
We met through mutual friends and music. I was playing in a band at the time and Lauren came to one of our shows.
Frank mentions he got interested in coffee because of his internship, why did you Lauren? Were you more just along for the ride and your interest grew as you researched or did you have your own passion for coffee formed in some other way?
Lauren: I was never just “along for the ride.” I have always been an integral part of this operation from the very beginning. We did everything together side by side from the initial research and barista training to the behind the scenes operations of the coffee business. Up to this point, I’d always been a fan of coffee, but it wasn’t until we decided to make a business out of it that we took it to the next level. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable opening a coffee shop unless I took it upon myself to learn everything I could on the subject. I’m always learning new things and using that knowledge to improve our shop.
You also say that you decided it would make things difficult when wanting to grow your family but also that you knew starting your own business would be difficult and a lot of hard work, so why did you decide that starting your own business was the best route for you?
Lauren: Deciding to start a business from the ground up is one of the most difficult things a person can do, but there can be no reward without risk. Frank and I did our homework to make sure we were making the best decisions possible, but the risk of failure is always present. We just had to dig deep and work hard because failure is not an option that we are willing to accept. So if the question is, “Why do something if it’s going to be difficult?” The answer is because great change does not come easy. Hard work is necessary.
Also, you say part of the reason you started your business was so that you could have more stable jobs so you could start a family, do you have any children yet or are you still working to be stable enough to have a family?
Lauren: We are the proud parents of two pups and two cats. As far as growing our family goes... I don’t think anyone is ever 100% prepared for that. We’ll cross that bridge when we feel like it.
With your families both owning their own businesses, why did you decide to start your own business instead of looking for steady jobs at theirs?
Lauren: I think the main reason we opted to do something different is so that we could experience everything from the beginning and make it ours. It’s different working inside of something that’s already established. Your role is rooted in day-to-day operations, maintenance, and preservation. That’s not to say that there wasn’t any interest in our family businesses. They just didn’t jive with what we wanted to do. I guess we were both just a little too ambitious for our own good.
With your families experience in business, have they helped you along the way and have they always supported your decision? Do you think having a family with a similar experience is an advantage? Did growing up in a family who owned their own business discourage you from starting your own business at any point? If so, what made you change your mind?
Frank: I think that it did a lot to temper blind enthusiasm. It made us more aware of the amount of work and dedication that goes into making a small business work. It wasn’t out of character for our parents to work long weeks or to have to drop everything to address a problematic situation. These experiences did a lot to prepare us mentally. Both of our families have been supportive of everything that we have done and continue to do. It has been a blessing to have that support system and we realize that we are incredibly fortunate to have them in our lives. Their past experiences have proven to be invaluable resources that have helped guide our decision making process.
What were your initial intentions in creating this business (both personally and for the community?
Frank: We had always known that we wanted to do something exceptional in our home town. Something that was not just considered good for the area, but a world class customer experience. We wanted to do something that would make people miss Muncie. We also wanted to do lead by example and inspire others by showing them that with hard work and careful planning, it’s possible to make the environment you want rather than move away. In a sense, we wanted to be the change that we wanted to see.
You mentioned that you both became certified baristas, how did you go about doing that?
Frank: Anything that’s worth doing, is worth doing right. Starting a new business is already difficult enough, and we didn’t want to complicate things further by trying to learn on the fly. We spent two years doing research before we opened our doors. Part of that research included attending a week-long barista school. After all, it’s difficult to lead and inspire baristas if you don’t understand the job. We made it a point to become the best baristas that we could be so that we could apply all of that research and development into our own training program.
You also mention all the family and social events that you have to miss out on because of your business, why have you decided to do this? What is it that makes it all worth it?
Frank: There can be no gains without sacrifice. We went into this with a decent understanding of what would be expected of us. The thing is, once you get started, there’s no stopping. We have been extremely fortunate to be surrounded by the most amazing friends and family (and we can’t forget our customers) who are so incredibly understanding of our situation and are fully supportive of what we’re trying to do. Sometimes we’re amazed that we still have friends, because we are always so busy! We realize that we’re still paying our dues and that we won’t always be this busy. But for now, it’s the norm.
What is your typical day like? How do you balance your multiple careers? Do you ever regret taking on so much and having so many commitments?
Lauren: For me it took a while to find a balance. Photo shoots, weddings, and etc… So overwhelmed and stressed and tired and just every emotion that you could ever think of, I remember feeling. Trying to do a photo shoot on my one day off after working 70 hours at the coffee shop. I remember having to learn that the importance of saying no and prioritizing. To me, my health is more important than anything. I have to remind myself of that. I mean, weekly, if not daily. I have to mentally just shut off for a day. It takes a while to realize how important it is to have down time.
Frank: I have to agree with Lauren. I’ve become a lot more selective when it comes to taking on any additional projects. We are both extremely protective of our down time. That’s one of the main reasons we don’t open the shop on Sunday’s. We need a day without the public. I mean, we love the public, but we need down time for our own sanity.
Frank, you are often the one who writes blog posts, why is that? Lauren, do you plan on writing for it or is the website more run by Frank?
Frank: While my name is attached to the blog posts, everything we put on social media is a team effort. Lauren is essentially my editor.
In the League of Latte’s latte art competition, Frank, you got second? How did that feel? Did you have to practice before competing? Did you come up with ideas as you went or was there a specific design you had planned out for each round?
Frank: League of Lattes is a friendly competition designed to bring baristas together to build up coffee culture in Indianapolis and the surrounding areas. Each month there is a new winner and although you do win prizes, it’s more about friendly bragging rights. It’s a fun event and we enjoy participating in it whenever our schedule is compatible. League of Lattes is held on the last Thursday of each month and is hosted by a different shop. The last one we competed in was at a place called “The Best Chocolate in Town.” It’s a great way for coffee professionals and enthusiasts to network and learn. As far as preparation for these events goes, I might practice a few new pouring styles the week before, but it’s no different than a normal day. We are always striving to improve quality and technique. The drive to continuously improve is one of the most alluring aspects to being a barista.
I know that you previously had hoped to set up a shop at the Village Promenade, was that going to be a second Caffeinery or were you planning on moving all together? I know you were not able to come to an agreement with the landlord when you first tried, but are you still looking to try again with the Village Promenade or even to maybe add a second location (or, if your plan in the first place was to move from downtown to the village, move)? Also, you had made a blog post about not being able to move in at the Village Promenade and what it would take for you to consider a venue, was this aimed in hopes that the Village Promenade would see it and maybe make coming to an agreement easier, was it aimed at any venue for the future, or just an explanation to readers as to why you didn't end up putting The Caffeinery at that venue?
Frank: We were initially approached by the Village Promenade to create a coffee solution that would serve as an amenity to their apartment complex. We never had any intention of moving our shop out of downtown Muncie. We love being downtown. The shop on campus would have been similar but unique. We spent many months trying to make it work and decided that it wasn’t going to be a good fit for us. The result wasn’t going to be worth all the headaches and stress involved in trying to execute a compromised version of what we felt would be ideal. Once we had made up our minds on the matter, we chose to go our separate ways. We have no intention of revisiting any sort of arrangement with the Village Promenade. Besides, we weren’t really looking to add a second retail location in the first place. Our next move will be to open a coffee roasting and education facility that will allow us to do business on both consumer and wholesale levels. Our focus has always been on quality and we feel that the best way for people to appreciate quality, is to be better educated on the ins and outs of the coffee industry.
The training that your baristas have to undergo is quite extensive and it is unusual that you are looking more for full-time employees as opposed to part time, could you please expand upon this? What lead you to this decision? What do you think this has done positively and negatively for your business? How important are your employees to you? What type of relationship would you say you have with your employees?
Frank: In many parts of the world, being a barista is a trade skill. The title is not thrown around lightly and pertains mainly to individuals that have chosen to make coffee a career. Coffee is the second most consumed beverage on the planet (the first being water). There’s a lot of work that goes into bringing a solid cup of coffee to our customers. There are farmers, processing/washing stations, exporters, importers, roasters, and finally the retail shop. At any point this coffee can be damaged and/or ruined. There’s a lot of pressure on the barista to do these coffees justice as they are the last link in the production chain. A poorly trained barista can ruin all of the hard work of these farmers who stake their entire livelihood on this one export. This is why we spend so much time training our baristas to not only understand the physics involved with coffee preparation, but the agricultural practices, processing methods, and other aspects as well. This gives a barista a sense of humility and respect for the work that they are doing. One of the reasons we look for full-time employees is due to the amount of training that goes into each person. Furthermore, it takes constant practice to consistently deliver stellar coffee and it’s not something that can be mastered by spending 10-15 hours per week. The other added benefit of full-time employees is that they become recognizable pillars of our community. The majority of our customers know our baristas on a first name basis and it makes the experience more than just an anonymous transaction. We consider our employees to be like family. Lauren and I trust each of our employees to represent us when we cannot be there. Our people are one of the most important aspects of our business. We are a small and tight crew and we are all pretty close because of it.
Is adding a new location/moving locations anywhere in the near future?
Frank: At some point in the future we plan on adding a mobile espresso trailer to our arsenal. This will make it possible for us to do remote events, educational demonstrations, and better serve our community.
Do you feel like muncie is a good place to start a business?
Frank: Absolutely. Muncie is still in the process of re-inventing itself from its post-industrial past. This transition from factory work to higher education and healthcare is a long process, but there’s a lot of room for people to roll up their sleeves and create something unique and be part of this change. I feel that putting in the work and making a place better than you found it is far more rewarding than moving away to an already established community. Understanding our potential as a driving force for change can be enlightening. However, understanding the hardships that come with it are necessary.
Now that you have been in business for three years, if you think back on when you were in the midst of creating The Caffeinery is there anything you would do different?
Frank: I think it would be silly to assume that someone wouldn’t do anything different. Three years in and we’ve made countless adjustments and modifications to improve our operation. If we could go back and implement those lessons in the beginning, we would for sure. However, it will never be perfect in our eyes. We will always be looking for ways to improve. Change is our only constant and we’ve embraced that mentality from the beginning.
When first starting your business, did you ever dream that it would become what it is like today? Was this the original dream or did it change a lot along the way?
Frank: Our initial vision was to start a business in downtown Muncie that would have a positive impact on the community and act as an accompaniment to the already established businesses in the area. For a while, we didn’t know what we were going to do. However, after doing a lot of research of similar sized towns, we quickly realized that all successful downtowns had a few things in common. One of those things was a locally owned coffee shop that acted as a social center. Coffee shops have long been associated with uprisings, revolutions, and social change. It provides an environment that promotes the exchange of ideas and an energized medium to actualize those ideas. So if the question is about our initial vision… We set out with what we intended it to be, but once you open the doors to the public, your community has a substantial influence. At this point, you can choose to adapt and work with your community and make changes that meet both your personal vision as well as the needs of your community. Or you can resist and just do what you wanted. We chose to adapt and reflect our growing downtown community in a way that maintains our original vision while incorporating subtle changes.