Kohi Coffee: Building a business, one perfect cup at a time

Filed Under: June 2018 Issue

By Deb Boucher Stetson
It’s a challenge to be humble and ambitious all at once, but the founders of Kohi Coffee seem to have struck that balance.
With Kohi Coffee’s flagship Provincetown location now in its fifth year, owners James DeRosier and Ryan Campbell have launched a new location in Brighton, and are planning a third shop in Boston, set to open in August. They have also recently reopened the café at Spindler’s, a seasonal restaurant at Provincetown’s Waterford Inn, which the couple bought two years ago.
Busy as they are, they never forget their main goal in launching Kohi Coffee. “We really focus on serving a delicious cup of coffee,” DeRosier says. “We are very humble people. We know we produce a great cup of coffee, but we’re never going to say we do it better than anyone else.”
Both West Coast natives, DeRosier and Campbell moved to Provincetown – via San Francisco, New York City, and Boston – with the intention of becoming business owners, although they weren’t sure initially what that business might be.
“We had decided to make some life changes,” DeRosier says, explaining their demanding corporate jobs had involved long hours and a great deal of travel. Campbell is an architect who designed health care facilities, traveling to places as far-flung as the Middle East for his work. DeRosier, who holds a degree in organizational behavior, worked in human resources, most recently for Bank of America.
“We were thinking of the hospitality industry, so we looked at some guest houses,” says DeRosier, explaining that they came close to buying one, but the deal didn’t work out. “Then we found this,” he says, smiling as he looks around the compact coffee shop that has just four seats and enjoys a view of the beach and harbor.
With just 300 square feet, the space was perfect for the kind of coffee shop they envisioned: Simple and approachable, yet very focused on high quality. Both originally from Washington state, DeRosier and Campbell know good coffee, and felt there was room in Provincetown for the kind of shop they wanted.
They needed a name for their new business, and they wanted it to be distinctive. “We were on a trip with a whole bunch of friends, so we brainstormed ideas,” he says, and talk turned to how careful the Japanese are in making coffee. “So we decided on Kohi, which is the Japanese word for coffee.”
Their logo, a stylized ram head, is based on the history of coffee. Ethiopia is thought to be the place where coffee was first discovered, in the 10th century or earlier. “Goats were eating the coffee cherries, and goat herders saw it made them more spirited,” DeRosier says.
Located on busy Commercial Street but set back from the sidewalk in an area approaching the quieter West End, Kohi Coffee prides itself on preparing each cup to order, using a refined pour-over method that allows adjustments in strength and highlights the roast DeRosier and Campbell check on daily. In this, they partner with Portland, Maine-based Tandem Coffee roasters.
“We have a great relationship with our roaster,” DeRosier says, noting they worked with Tandem to create their own private label coffee blend called Race Point. “It’s like our own product.”
Although the shop is small, it doesn’t feel crowded, thanks to an elemental design by Campbell. “As a designer, I take the approach that each location should reflect, complement and improve its surroundings,” Campbell says.
“Because each space is different, the Kohi brand becomes very important as the unifying element between our shops. Beyond the logo, we view brand as an overall approach to hospitality and feel within a space.” The Kohi brand, he says, “breaks down the traditional boundaries to design creativity that often exist in businesses with multiple locations.”
From the beginning, the partners knew they would open other locations. “We wanted to plan for beyond Provincetown from the start,” DeRosier says. “This has scalability to other locations.”
Asked why they chose Brighton for a second location, ReRosier says they could see great potential there. “Brighton is an interesting space in many respects because it’s a developing area,” he explains, noting there are now two professional sports practice centers there – the Celtics and the Bruins – and New Balance and Harvard Business Press have moved their headquarters there. The Brighton location is “more than a coffee shop, we have breakfast and lunch,” DeRosier says, noting that location has 1,300 square feet of space versus only 300 at the Provincetown Kohi Coffee.
In August, they will open a third Kohi Coffee location at 125 Summer Street in Boston, near South Station. That too is something of a developing area, as the building has undergone a redo. The shop will be accessible from the lobby, enticing o­ffice workers, and will have a walk-up window on the sidewalk.
In managing all the various aspects of their growing business, the partners, who are also partners in marriage, work from their respective strengths. “Ryan is branding, marketing, construction, and designing the shops. I do all the operations, HR, accounting,” DeRosier says.
In addition, “We have been fortunate to find good people to help us,” says DeRosier, whose HR background helps him zero in on candidates with potential for growth. “I try to find people who can meet our needs not only for now, but in the future.” Between all the businesses, he says, “We now have about 75 employees on average throughout the year – of course, it’s more in summer.”
The two think this is something of a “pivot point” in developing their business. Right now, they work almost constantly, but “I’m thinking in three or four years it will be easier,” says DeRosier.
Starting a business, he reflects, is “a great thing to do but you have to know why you’re doing it. And you have to plan. You need to have a business plan and you need to think through the details, but there comes a point where you can get bogged down in the details, and you just have to jump in.”
He notes that doing business in a resort town means ignoring some of the rules. “In a resort area, you have to be flexible rather than taking a more conservative approach.” For example, Kohi Coffee’s flagship shop is open year-round.
“People said we were crazy to stay open in the winter in Provincetown,” he says. “But this is our home. Why wouldn’t we want to bring something to the community? We don’t make any money here in the winter, but it’s good for the town.”
In creating their own business, DeRosier and Campbell set out to make life changes, and they have. Where their former corporate jobs meant they hardly ever saw each other, now they are together almost constantly. “I don’t know that it’s simplified our lives, but it has created the opportunity to have ownership and make an impact,” he reflects. “It’s a labor of love for the two of us.”