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Mattie Finch believes your morning coffee should be a ritual, not a routine.
As founder of Sage Marie’s Coffee and Tea, a Charlotte-based purveyor of premium coffee, espressos, teas, and beauty products, Finch takes java very seriously. Eschewing mass production, her all-woman team roasts each bag of beans by hand, just like Finch’s mother did when she was a child.
“My mother worked at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston for 45 years in labor and delivery. She started her morning with the best cup of coffee possible — she would get up an hour early each day just to prepare it,” says Finch. “I didn’t understand the big deal, but eventually I got it.”
Other people are starting to get it too. Today, Finch’s customers include the likes of diplomats and scientists attending the Concordia Annual Summit, a yearly conference hosted by the United Nations where Sage Marie’s is contracted to serve specialty drinks. But the brand also caters to regular, everyday people who want quality products.
We shared a cup with Finch to hear more about how a music major learned to hit the right notes in the coffee industry.
How much did you know about coffee or tea before you started your own business?
I knew a little about coffee roasting. I grew up watching my mom roast coffee by hand and I would say to her, “Why do you do this? It’s so tedious. Just go to the store and buy some.” She would say, “No. There is nothing better than having a fresh cup of coffee.”
What about roasting makes it taste so much better?
It’s an experience. You can get a cup of coffee from Dunkin’ or Starbucks, and it will fulfill the need, but there’s something different about fresh-roasted coffee. It has a different taste and a different flavor. I call it “love in a cup.” When you have coffee prepared the way it’s supposed to be done—the way it is done in Ethiopia, where coffee originated—then you understand.
You are obviously very passionate about good coffee. But which came first—your passion for coffee or your passion for business?
When I was old enough, I started traveling the world and I would bring my mom coffee from different countries because that was her thing. When I brought her back some beans from Blue Mountain Coffee in Jamaica, she said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just travel the world, buy beans, and roast them for a living?” I looked at her and said, “Let’s do it.”
I was on medical leave from my job at the time and when I got my first check, it was barely enough money to buy dog food for my dog. I knew I had to do something different. I started watching coffee blogs and talking to baristas and roasters. I decided to go grassroots and learn how to start home roasting. I found a coffee warehouse in Kernersville, North Carolina, called The Captain’s Coffee. So I got out of my sick bed and drove an hour and a half to Kernersville. A lady opened the door and explained that they don’t really have customers show up at their door — they are a warehouse. But I told her my story and they let me pick from thousands of beans. That’s how I got started.
What was it like in those early years? Did you instantly have a knack for roasting coffee beans?
In the beginning, I was roasting beans in a popcorn popper, setting them on fire, and running outside to throw them onto the lawn. My husband was spastic — he was like, “You’re going to burn the house down!” He eventually bought me a roaster because he couldn’t take it any longer. But he also saw my dedication.
I started to roast using the roaster and taught myself using videos. Then, for about two years, my business partner and I just traveled to learn everything we could learn about beans — the different regions, where they come from, the taste, the notes, all of that good stuff. I started pitching to small mom-and-pop coffee shops around town but many of them were afraid to buy outside of the main coffee bean supplier in North Carolina because it’s such a huge conglomerate.
But I pitched to one coffee shop on Central Avenue. They were Ethiopian women and they were intrigued. They took me under their wing and did a coffee ceremony for me — which is a very prestigious event in the Ethiopian community and is only done for very important people. When I saw this, I couldn’t believe what I was watching. I was like, “This is incredible. Why are we not doing this more?” It changed the trajectory of how I roasted. I knew I had to figure out how to incorporate hand roasting into the coffee world. Everybody has their own blends and creates their own magic but no one was roasting coffee in the traditional way.
Being self-taught, did you ever feel like you didn’t belong in the coffee industry? Was imposter syndrome ever a problem for you?
Yes. At first, I didn’t think anyone would take me seriously. I studied music — I didn’t come from the coffee world. People often gauge how good of a roaster you are by the awards you win or the places you travel to. I was intimidated by that until we were contracted by the Concordia Summit, United Nations (UN). They came to us and said, “Listen, we have these events we do, and we’re looking for a coffee company like yours to supply our coffee.”
Still, in the beginning, I definitely felt like nobody was going to take this girl who is singing seriously. But you know what? Now I sing and roast coffee, and it’s good stuff. When you hand roast, there is a set of skills you must have. You have to listen, you have to smell, you have to know when to take it off the heat and when to put it back on to get the right roast. So I feel like you can take me seriously or you can choose not to, but when you take that first sip of coffee, I’m pretty sure I will change your mind.
Wow. Can you talk more about working with the UN?
So the UN puts in ther huge events throughout the year. The major one we do is called the Concordia Annual Summit and it’s where all these world leaders converge in New York City every year. We’re given a room and we essentially set up a coffee shop. Between 1,000 and 1,500 people come each day and that’s all we do all day — we serve coffee.
Once people saw what we did at Concordia, we had different branches of the UN contact us for different events. We have had people from all over the world tell us that our coffee is the reason why they came back to Concordia.
Besides learning how to make that perfect cup of coffee, you surely had to learn basic business skills, right?
Oh, in the beginning, we made a lot of mistakes. I did everything on the fly. I was literally running around town to get our business license. We had to get insurance, I had to get business accounts set up, I had to call the Department of Agriculture to get inspections. There were so many things we had no idea we needed to run a business.
We were fortunate that we got this big deal with the UN that made us get it together very quickly. Every time they asked us for something, we delivered. But behind the scenes, we were like the mouse at the wheel. We definitely learned from that.
Can you briefly discuss what you did professionally before entering the coffee world? What was the appeal in self-employment?
I started in music. I traveled the world, had my own record deal, and did that for a short stint. But when music took a turn, I went to work in corporate America. I knew it wasn’t something I would stay in forever. I felt like I had all of these skills that I couldn’t use the way I wanted to use them. That’s why I say you have the ability to create whatever type of job you want to create for yourself. Because only you really know what’s going to make you happy.
In the end, I’ve worked in all these places and have seen people that come to work every day unhappy. I want to create an atmosphere where people come to work for us, and they get up every day happy to come in and do the job because that’s what they love to do. I don’t believe that you will reach your full potential until you’re happy.
Your business makes you happy. But is it hard to balance running a small business and your mental and physical wellbeing?
In the beginning, it was hard. Unfortunately, when you start off small, it’s your baby. You have to do work when nobody else wants to. Everyone else may be asleep, but you’re up roasting or packaging orders. It was definitely hard in the beginning to find that balance but I just had to figure it out. Because if I go down, who is going to run it?
I now choose one thing that makes me happy and during my day I have to do that thing. I don’t care who needs me or what needs to be done, don’t bother me for those 30 or 45 minutes. For instance, I love naps so I will just shut down for half an hour. Even if I don’t sleep, I will just lay still for 30 minutes and refocus. When I get up, I’m ready to go.
Who inspired you to pursue your dreams?
I got my entrepreneurial spirit from my grandfather. My grandfather came to Boston from Alabama at nine years old with no formal education. He couldn’t read or write, and he didn’t learn until he was in his 50s, but he made something of himself. He was a Merchant Marine and he built his own cleaning business. After he bought his first house, he bought a second one to turn into a rooming business. He took all of that money and invested it in himself. My grandfather created this amazing legacy.
Are there any new skills you’re currently learning?
Well, I’ve become somewhat of a chemist. Our line of beauty products is made all by hand. Everything is natural, so you have to know what goes together, what doesn’t work well together, how much of each ingredient, how to preserve the products and more. I’ve actually been working with a chemist on some of our products because they have to have a shelf life if we get to the point of being in stores like Target.