Kyle Jensen / The Record — Mukilteo Coffee Roasters co-owners Beth and Gary Smith built the company from the ground up and have been in business together for 25 years.

Whidbey coffee business brews success overseas

Tucked away in the woods off Crawford Road, truckloads of coffee beans are roasting.

They’re destined for Whidbey’s caffeine fiends, but also hundreds of coffee shops throughout Asia. The reason behind the well- traveled coffee is a deal Mukilteo Coffee Roasters has with Hong Kong-based Pacific Coffee Company, which sees whole beans shipped across the Pacific Ocean. And as their Asian counterparts demand more of their product, co-owners Gary and Beth Smith continue to grow their company accordingly.

“They’re going to double our business as a result of them recently coming with us to Costa Rica to see one of the farms we buy our beans from,” Gary Smith said. “They won’t buy our beans all at once, but a deal is in place that’ll see orders greatly increase as they open new cafés across Asia.”

Growth is apparent at Mukilteo Coffee Roasters and the connected restaurant. The company that once had one roaster now has three, with another coming soon. There are two large barns next to the café that house the roasting facility, where teams of employees can be found on a daily basis roasting, packaging and sampling new beans. Coffee bags are piled high, indicative of the massive shipments that travel across the ocean. The barns can’t fit all the product, so an old plane hanger behind the facility is utilized as a storage unit. Smith says he also plans to build two more storage units and a 25,000 square foot building in the near future.

The café is also undergoing some changes as part of the growth. A new barn structure is nearing completion behind the restaurant, which will increase capacity and hold a performance space for live music.

According to Gary and Beth Smith, there’s room for more business expansion.

“We once had one roaster, and Pacific Coffee Company once had two stores back in 1990 or so, but 20 years later they keep opening more and more stores and that allows us to grow,” Gary Smith said. “We’re ready for anything they throw at us.”

“We could easily grow another 60 percent and be fine,” Beth Smith said. “As long as we can still be hands-on with the coffee, we’re willing to grow.”

The booming business is miles from Mukilteo Coffee Roasters’ humble beginnings as a coffee stand at the Mukilteo ferry terminal. Gary Smith started the company in 1983, and eventually established relationships with other Seattle roasters, including his wife and business partner and the founder of Seattle’s Best Coffee, Jim Stewart. Before too long, Mukilteo Coffee Roasters became a breeding ground for some of the area’s best roasters, including Dan Ollis and Mike Donohoe, owners of Whidbey Coffee and Honeymoon Bay Coffee Roasters respectively. Gary Smith says they’re all friends who at times offer their roasters to others, despite being in competition.

“If you’re a lone wolf, that’s how it’ll stay,” Smith said.

Gary Smith says Pacific Coffee Company is a big player in the growing coffee scene in Asia. The company has expanded to mainland China, Malaysia, Singapore and Cyprus, and continues to buy from the Whidbey roasters due to a trustworthy relationship built over the years. It can be traced back to Gary Smith’s early days as the owner of a small coffee stand in Mukilteo, hence the company name, in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Pacific Coffee Company’s owner got his start in the coffee industry in Seattle prior to what the Smiths call the “espresso boom.”

The deal and subsequent growth has allowed Mukilteo Coffee Roasters to take some business gambles. Gary Smith says the Cafe in the Woods doesn’t pay the bills, but he wanted to build a meeting place for South Whidbey to enjoy a cup of joe. The influx of cash from Hong Kong also allows the company to pay its large staff a decent wage, something that’s evident in the low employee turnover at the roasting facility, Gary Smith said. The co-owners also regularly bring their employees on overseas trips to coffee farms from Costa Rica to Sumatra as an educational trip they hope will enthuse their employees about working in the coffee industry.

So far, it seems to work to work for them, despite electing against maximizing profits.

“I’m a two-time cancer survivor, so I’m not after the almighty dollar at this point,” Gary Smith said. “But what we do means we get better qualified employees who are passionate about what they do, and we give them artistic freedom with their work.”

Kyle Jensen / The Record — Mukilteo Coffee Roasters co-owner Gary Smith regularly watches over the roasting operations, and built his office on a mezzanine overlooking the roasting facility.

Kyle Jensen / The Record — Roaster Jake Torget operates the vintage roaster at Mukilteo Coffee Roasters.

Kyle Jensen / The Record — The roastery prepares beans both for Mukilteo Coffee Roasters and their Hong Kong-based business partner, Pacific Coffee Company.