“There is a conversation about coffee happening in the Twin Cities,” he tells me as the roaster hums in the background reaching the desired temperature and the rotating paddle on the machine syncs up with a Kanye West song.
He is Shawn Person and where we are is Roundtable at the corner of Raymond and Territorial just past 280 in the University neighborhood of St. Paul. Leaning against the white bar and resting his hand on the counter we learn from Shawn that Roundtable is him, it’s his personality and the career path he didn’t see in the coffee business. It’s the intentionality of the storefront and its Shawn-style expressionism, down to the way each bean is roasted.
Shawn first found his love of coffee in Costa Rica. Traveling during the same time he was getting his music business degree, coffee entered his life at every meal in Costa Rica. It was not only situated at the table for drinking, it was there as a conversation piece. It had a place in people’s lives and Shawn needed it in his.
The music business degree was no longer going to work for him. Coffee was his life now and upon arrival back to college in Nashville, he decided to change his major to business administration and he graduated a couple years later.
He had to start somewhere and like any impressionable young adult at the time, Starbucks seemed like a logical place. To many, the mecca of what coffee should be, Shawn got his feet wet in a management position. Coffee being the clearest avenue to connect back with Costa Rica, Shawn found the position to be excellent business training but it wasn’t the passionate focus on the beans themselves. It was enterprise not community, and it wasn’t for him. He was no closer to Costa Rica but his business savvy was sharpening.
“I was comfortable there, it was challenging and the lifestyle was good but I wasn’t fulfilled.” It was a specific moment in 2005 during his three year tenure with Starbucks that Shawn decided to buy a home espresso machine. Quickly, his hands on approach was producing better quality coffee, “...and I’m thinking to myself, why is what I’m doing in my house better than what we’re doing at Starbucks?”
And it’s at this point in the story, Shawn leans back, he crosses his arms and smiles. It’s as if he made the very same motion after sipping his first espresso from that small home machine. The eureka moment forever moved him forward on his breakneck pace to learn as much as he could.
Tinkering with new espressos, Shawn dived into any online forum he could get on the subject. “I devoured forums,” he says and began his personal mission to decipher what made his home coffee better than the commercial product.
At that same time, there wasn’t a Spyhouse, Dogwood or Five Watt but there was the popular Kopplin’s on Marshall Avenue in St. Paul. Shawn started frequenting and soaking in the communal experience behind it. With the new wave of specialty coffee yet to hit the Twin Cities, Kopplin’s brought in more of an Italian experience with smaller portions, lighter roasted beans and all food and drink prepared by hand.
It was attention to detail. It was putting importance on interaction. It was a quality product. It was how coffee should feel. As a frequent patron of Kopplin’s, Shawn began paying attention to these details and going back home to test his own on his espresso machine. He learned to steam milk in a way he had never had before, offering a better beverage texturally and a flavor profile unique to his home.
Yet the home machine wasn’t enough, he had to connect more with the coffee and handed in his notice at Starbucks to take on a roasting position with Dunn Brothers. Being a roaster spoke to Shawn’s personality. A self-proclaimed introvert, Shawn gravitated towards the production processes of roasting. “I was standing next to a coffee roaster for eight hours a day. It’s anything but sexy but it’s very humbling. It’s a lot more introspective and it built up my own development to continue striving to be better at it.”
Shawn was closer. Closer to coffee, closer to production, working with his hands called for that. But his curiosity wasn’t going to end with a position at Dunn Bros. “I realized I still had to drive my own education.” Although stuck in the corporate coffee setting still, Shawn was encouraged to create his own profiles for the coffee and in a rare gesture from store owners at Dunn Bros., Shawn was allowed to experiment and often stayed late to apply the knowledge from online forums he’d read and to take on profiles from his home espresso machine onto a larger scale.
His potential was evident and his interest contagious. Shawn was roasting everyday of the week, also a rarity in the corporate world, and took over all of the roasting for two stores. But roasting wasn’t just a job or even a career. That’s not how Shawn felt. It was a calling from within to begin a journey of mastery in coffee.
While still roasting for Dunn Bros., Shawn bought his first roaster in 2009. A 1 kilo PROBAT roaster that all of those in the industry discouraged him to get. “People were trying to talk me out of it because it’s a lot of work and it is extremely difficult to scale up.” The size was chosen purposefully by Shawn though. “I wanted to get into the habit of working everyday roasting. That’s a hard thing to do when you have a large roaster. Some roasters in this industry only roast one day a week. How do you get better doing that?”
Delving his hands into the beans everyday, feeling them, tasting the small batches, brought him where he wanted to be–closer to coffee. Shawn’s intention buying that PROBAT wasn’t to scale up, it was to experiment and become the absolute best. “Going through an intense learning process and roasting day after day is the best way to achieve mastery, achieve better coffee and the best way to respect the work that you do.”
As the moving parts were getting Shawn closer to the coffee, he needed a way to get the coffee closer to the community. Naturally, the Farmer’s Market was a perfect railway to the people. For six years, Shawn and his wife woke up early, set up shop and began introducing specialty coffee to patrons of the market and opening up the dialogue about what coffee could and should be.
All the coffee was from the little 1 kilo roaster that could and it was incessantly and distinctively Shawn’s.
With the 1 kilo it didn’t matter what size bag of beans Shawn would buy, he had his hands in every single pound. He got intimate with the coffee and could understand it and learn it. To truly drive the passion however, Shawn had to push on.
With mastery still in need of achieving and more coffee profiles to discover, he introduced Roundtable to the community in 2014.
“Roundtable is the culmination of my experiences with my wife at the Farmer’s Market, with my peers. Roundtable is me. My fingerprints are everywhere. This is what interests me about coffee and how I want to work in the industry.” And his fingerprints truly are everywhere. From the wooden landing he constructed leading up to the front door, the leather stitched to cover its handle, the paint on the exterior or the legos in the window, Shawn’s personality and hard work is everywhere. This is nothing in Roundtable he hasn’t personally left his mark on and it’s safe to say the same is said of every bean of coffee that comes through its doors.
Eight hours a day around the roaster is what he prefers. Constantly crafting, manipulating temperatures, bean combinations and time frames.
“There isn’t a lot of money in coffee,” he tells me, a perfect segue to his desire of leaving a legacy. “What I wanted to do was just roast.” But what he wants to do now is express his interests in a knowledgeable way. Roundtable operates as a community coffee roasting space and offers those interested in roasting to pick Shawn’s brain and use his equipment during off hours.
I was a very intentional about having a street level presence. Customers are a part of coffee. Without them you’re not moving forward. Roasting in space where customers can’t access it. You’re not moving forward.
To Shawn, a cup of coffee is a conversation, it’s the customer that comes through his door, fostering a collective around Roundtable and it’s the reminder he gets from embarking towards building a culture around specialty coffee in the Twin Cities.
It’s also sacrifice. He tells me the story about one holiday when he received an order for over 350 lbs of coffee. Never doing more than 140 lbs in a week on his 1 kilo PROBAT previously, Shawn set to work and no matter how hard it was he finished after eight nights with little sleep.
“To this day I sign every single bag of coffee, even then.” When he first started Shawn assumed he would only sign every bag until he could afford to have labels printed but as he kept doing it he realized it was his coffee. Never will there be a day where you’ll see “Shawn Person” on each bag but he sees the signing of the coffee name as his personal signature on each one. Having written on well over 10,000 bags of coffee since starting Roundtable, he explains how his handwriting has evolved. Diving into detail about how he’s spent hours focusing on uppercase Js or lowercase qs, the detail, the thought process, is so exponential and so personal.
As I lean back in my chair and he leans forward on the counter he tells me he’s never taken a sabbatical from this. “I’ve never left coffee,” he says. “It’s nice to be recognized in the community and amongst my peers for producing better coffee and I’m a small voice in the conversation.” The conversation of coffee. The conversation of learning and the conversation of passion. Of not seeing a career path, so he created his own. Of deliberately staying small because it’s not about the money. And of roasting everyday because it’s the only way to get better.
There is a conversation around coffee in the Twin Cities and with people like Shawn, it’s only choice, is to flourish.