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[Interview] Passion House Coffee Roasters

By Kim Bellware in Food on Feb 17, 2012 10:05PM

When coffee roaster Joshua Millman kicked off his brand-new business last April, he welcomed two of his most life-changing arrivals on the same day: a daughter, and the first order for his other baby, Passion House Coffee Roasters.

"My wife was at the hospital and I get my first order. And then my daughter arrives," said Millman, still clearly moved by the memory. After his baby arrived, he dashed out to package the inaugural order before rushing back to the hospital.

In less than a year, Millman has launched his own roasting company, snagged Chicago coffee maven Shannon Steele (formerly of Caffe Streets) as its brew specialist and generated a--well, buzz--for Passion House's high-quality beans and its community-focused approach to the coffee business.

While hard work and coffee savvy are big factors in Millman's success, the cornerstone is his passion for coffee—something his former boss at the San Diego-based Caffe Calabria told Millman he lacked, before unceremoniously dropping him from the Calabria fold.

It was a huge blow for Millman who, up to that point, had spent roughly half his life in the coffee business.

"I started off as a barista at Starbucks when I was 16," said Millman, a native of Northbrook. "Then I went to college in Colorado, then moved out west to San Diego. I started to do latte art competitions and learned how to service [coffee] machines. But then I worked with a roaster and learned how to roast from them."

When the opportunity to head up Caffe Calabria's Chicago operation went bust, Millman explored a few avenues before ultimately coming back to coffee for good.

"Right before Passion House, I was working for Casteel Coffee in Evanston for about four and a half years," said Millman. "When I left them at the end of November or beginning of December, I started this company four and a half months later." He adds, "I was also freaking out because I had a baby on the way! It was looking for space, game planning, trying to get the roaster in here."

Roasting isn't the obvious choice for those looking to make a career in coffee. For Millman, he considered a cafe of his own, but his passion for roasting won out.

"I thought, I could either open a small cafe and use someone else’s coffee, or I could open a roaster and work on building the brand and then get the cafe open," said Millman. "And I love roasting coffee. It thoroughly geeks me out, the whole roasting process. Finding coffee, the different styles of roasting, roasting and predicting."

Millman traces his interest in culinary nuance back to childhood. "My whole family is basically a bunch of foodies," said Millman, whose brother is a chef at Sable Kitchen. "I grew up with my parents saying “Taste this wine! Taste that wine! Are you getting any of the body out of it?" So this is just the avenue of cooking for me. I just knew I wanted to develop the brand with the coffee and move that momentum into a cafe-not that I don’t have great respect for baristas. But I couldn’t forsee not roasting.”

The early grind

Millman may practice a zen-cool attitude about his business and the general turn of events in his professional life, but he admits Passion House started with a few hiccups.

"My roaster shipped to me in the big snowstorm last year, and it was stuck in New York for about two weeks," said Millman. "It was totally nerve-wracking. I bought the roaster before I even had the space. I just didn’t quite figure out what I was going to do with it, I just knew I had to get it here. I knew once I got it here, things would take care of themselves."

In addition to coffee, Millman had dabbled in promotions, DJing and a few "side jobs." Passion House, he said, is the first time he's had an actual business.

“I don’t know how things are supposed to go! It feels smooth, and I think a lot of advice people have told me is ‘Where you’re at, be happy,'" said Millman. "It’s challenging, what we’re doing, but it’s exciting. There’s ups, there’s downs. It’s a roller coaster ride, but I like it.”

Passion House is no longer a one-man operation, now that Steele has joined him as the roaster's official Brew Specialist. Steele, who's been on the coffee scene roughly ten years, was formerly in charge of Specialty at Whole Foods (beer, wine, coffee, chocolate and cheese) and worked with the highly respected Caffe Streets coffee shop.

"I've always been a coffee geek," said Steele. "I became a barista because I was obsessed with coffee."

Before Steele came aboard, Millman said running Passion House "was really challenging."

"At one point, after Shannon got here and was helping package some things up, she said 'how did you do all this?'" Millman recalls. "I don’t know!"

"It’s stressful and it’s challenging, but that’s kind of what life is all about. I think the rewards are everywhere," said Millman. "People at the farmer’s market saying “Man, I really loved that coffee. Are you coming back next week?” A reward was having Shannon come here and work. The root--besides trying to source the best coffee possible--is really about building community; working with other people, and helping the people and the community you build become successful. I know success is different for each person, but if I can help someone, that’s a huge reward. That’s all we’re trying to build."

Community Through Coffee

Millman and Steele work out of an incubator in the Kinzie Industrial Corridor that's part of the The Industrial Council of Nearwest Chicago (ICNC).

"It's a facility that helps businesses start or continue to grow," said Millman. "It's the largest incubator in the United States."

Millman said in addition to affordable rent, the ICNC offers the businesses it houses help with grant writing, employee sourcing and training in software like Quickbooks and Excel. His favorite bonus, however, are the fellow tenants.

"There are all these different amazing people here. The people next door are fashion designers; they have their own little space and make their designs called Imaginary People. They were just in Chicago Fashion Week and did a great job. And there’s a wood shop with an artist named Theaster Gates who takes old wood and rehabs it into cool projects. He’s blowing up, he’s huge. Theaster’s awesome. The people upstairs have a machine shop. There’s a guy who makes Element bars--"

"They're awesome," said Steele. "They’re granola bars where you get to pick your own ingredients and they custom make them for you."

"And you name them after yourself!" said Millman.

Keeping in step with his desire to use Passion House as a means of building community, the company's 1600 square feet of space is used for more than just roasting.

"Once a month, second Thursday of every month we have a live art show," said Millma. "We put up artwork from a local artist, live artists painting on the spot, local DJs, and we get a type of beer. And all the proceeds from the beer sales goes toward some kind of benefit; last month it went to a cultural center in Hyde Park, so I think we'll do that again."

"And, there's always Shannon pouring lots of coffee," said Millman. "It’s another avenue for community building. We want to grow Passion House, but it’s also about featuring these amazing local artist and giving them a place to show their work."

For the weekly 10 a.m. cuppings every Wednesday, Steele explains that the open house feel is mean to invite the coffee curious and experts alike.

"It’s a chance to start talking about coffee, and provide a safe place for people who don’t know coffee lingo," said Steele. "It seems like everyone gets deterred because they don’t know how to say something or how to describe what they’re tasting or what’s going on in their palate. And coffee is one of the hardest things to taste with regard to getting all the complexity in there."

Growing Passion

Millman said he'll define success for his company with a physical expansion of some sort, with Passion House continuing its focus on the current crop of six single-origin varieties and their two to three blends.

"I think success, or the next step, would be to have some outlet, a retail outlet," said Millman. A coffee food truck?

"I said “outlet.” I don’t want give any hints away or anything (laughs). We’re looking at having some kind of outlet in eight to twelve months. We love our current outlets, but we do want to have some way to showcase our roast. The next goal is to have everything under one roof."

Pushing forward

Millman's feel-good story of bootstrap success and entrepreneurial spirit glows warmly enough to makes it easy to forget how the story actually started. His ex-boss' kiss-off didn't galvanize Millman to be any different, though it did administer some character-testing.

"I don't like revenge," Millman said, explaining that he never felt Passion House was fueled by a desire to prove people wrong.

"I’ve always been a really hard working person. And I know a lot of times what I set my mind to I’ll do it," said Millman. "I think that when you get knocked down, you have to look at is as just a strength-builder--that you’re not really getting knocked down, you’re growing up and getting stronger and stronger. More so, what can you learn from what’s going on or what happened in your past? When things don’t work out, it pushes you to get up. Not that the one particular instance pushed me to work harder, because that hard work was already instilled, but I could see more clearly where my path should go."

When asked if he still thinks about being burned early on by his former boss, Millman sounds content.

"I think about it in the sense that I’m grateful that [my former boss] came back to me and apologized right before I opened. That was pretty big for me," said Millman. "You try not to hold on to things, but that was one thing that was challenging: letting go. I’m grateful for how much I learned from [Cafe Calabria] and that he pushed me onto this path. Now, we’re just trying to be as innovate as we can. Push forward, and do some neat stuff."

Now that Passion House has a home, a community and some early success--not to mention plans for the future--Millman is happy for his present fortunes and doesn't regret his early setbacks.

"I’m glad a lot of things happened differently. I definitely had moments where I didn’t think I’d be able to get to this point," said Millman. "When I bought the sample roaster...I though it was a dream. Our main roaster is a dream, too. But I was putting it together, connecting the gas line to it and started getting all emotional. I looked around at everything and started thinking, “Wow.”

Passion House Coffee is located at 2021 W. Fulton St. Live art events take place every second Thursday of the month (free and open to the public) and weekly coffee cuppings take place at 10 a.m every Wednesday (free and open to the public)