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Camino Island Coffee Roasters and Selling with WooCommerce

In today’s podcast we have the pleasure of talking directly with an online store owner. We love bringing in the various eCommerce experts, but there is nothing better than hearing the story from the perspective of the shop owner. TJ Fittis is the general manager of the successful Camano Island Coffee Roasters. In this show you will hear the unique story behind their business and how they have made a success of an online subscription retail site. If you are thinking of or starting a subscription site, this is a must-listen-to show.

We chatted about:

  • The story behind their ethical coffee
  • When they took their product online
  • If WooCommerce was their first choice
  • Their challenges when working with the subscription model
  • What unique challenges there are to selling coffee online
  • How education and support has helped with both sales and customer retention
  • TJ’s two top tips for running an online retail business


Hey everyone and welcome back to the WP eCommerce Show. Bob Dunn here, also known as BobWP on the web. As you may know, we occasionally bring on online store owners to share their stories with us. It's always great to hear from our experts in marketing, social,  shipping, and many other aspects of running your eCommerce site. But there's also so much to learn from the folks out there who actually run these online stores. There’s nothing better than hearing it firsthand. Today, I’m delighted to introduce TJ Fittis, owner of Camano Island Coffee Roasters. Hi, TJ. Welcome to the show.

TJ Fittis: Hey, Bob. Thanks for having me.

Bob: You bet. As I kept thinking about this, I thought,  "Coffee, coffee. I'm going to get tempted to have a cup of coffee while we're talking."

TJ: I've got some here in front of me.

Bob: Oh, man. I can almost smell it. Can I smell it? Before we get into the the main stuff, I do have some questions I want to go through with you. But first, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your company?

Meet TJ Fittis, General Manager, Cameron Island Coffee Roasters

TJ: Sure. Yeah. I've been with the company for about six years now. I started in 2011 and became the marketing manager in 2012. Through a series of various growth hacker techniques, we ended up doubling our subscriber base. Our main product offering is our online coffee subscription program. We started that in 2012. Then we increased it by another 50% in 2013 with another project that I led called BuzzBox Coffee, which is a secondary coffee brand that we use on the East Coast.

What's pertinent to our conversation today is, after that, we got to a point where our different growth hacking tactics were manually band-aided together. But there was nothing really codified in one system that supported it all. We realized, as we were growing, that it was like a house of cards that was going to fall. So we took a step back in 2014 and 2015 and developed a series of plugins that make up our proprietary coffee subscription system. I project managed that project as well. Fast forward to today and I am the general manager of the company, overseeing day-to- day operations and specifically, the project management of our eCommerce piece.

What inspired Camano Island Coffee Roasters to Go Online?

Bob: Cool. Now, you said you've been with them the last six years. Did they initially go online with the product when they first started, or have they been around quite a while? Do you know what inspired them to go online at whatever point?

TJ: Sure, yeah. In fact, the whole online and subscription part of the process is really baked into the DNA of the company and why it got started, actually. So, it's a great question. The company was started about 20 years ago in my father-in-law's barn here on Camano Island. It was more of just a hobby and something he was doing here locally for the community and for his friends here on the island. But he ended up going to a conference where there was a man named Skip Li speaking.

Skip Li was the founder of a non-profit based here in Seattle called Agros. What they do is they help the indigenous poor in the developing world buy their own land. When they buy their own land, they can command a better price. They're not basically just indentured servants working on a plantation. It's that whole entrepreneurial streak that really hit Jeff, my father-in-law. So, the whole idea was, "Why don't I take this little coffee company that I've started and try to expand that and create a channel for these farmers to be able to sell their coffee?"

He worked with Agros early on, helping them source the coffee and get it here to the States and sell it to our customers here on Camano Island. If you know anything about the coffee industry, you know that, for most coffee roasters, it's all about roasting coffee for big wholesale accounts. Or if you're going direct to consumer, your only path really is through the grocery stores. The grocery stores and the distributors take a pretty sizable chunk of the revenue and you mark up your coffee based on that.

The idea here was that instead of working with the grocery stores and the distributors, if we went almost exclusively online, we could take that markup and pass it on to our members, our customers, in the form of a discount, but also as a greater percentage that can be sent back to our farmers, which would then be used to help them diversify their businesses and branch out from things like coffee.

What used to happen is if one monsoon came through, or an episode of coffee rust, their entire year's worth of production was could be wiped out in a matter of months and they had no alternative form of revenue. So we've worked with our farmers to help diversify their businesses, but also maintain a consistent channel for them to sell their coffee, year in, year out.

Because we know how many members we have in our subscription base, we know how much coffee they're going to use a month from now or a year from now and we're able to make sure that we're only buying what we need, so we can pass on some of what would be the grocery store markup back to our farmers.

Bob: Wow. That's a great story. Most of the time when I ask somebody, "When did you go online?” they say, "Oh, I think it was mid-2011 and we did it because we just needed to reach more people," and that's the answer. It's like, "Okay. This is really cool."

TJ: Yeah. We do have a retail presence here on Camano Island. So, lots of people who live here on the island stop by our store. But most of our business is actually in the form of the thousands of shipments we move across the country every month.

Was WooCommerce your first choice?

Bob: Now, getting into the technical side of things, I connected with you was WooCommerce and somebody who had helped to develop your site. My question is: was WooCommerce your first choice and did the decision to go with WooCommerce because of the subscription site. How did that all play into your plans?

TJ: It wasn't. You can imagine, 20 years ago, WooCommerce probably wasn't even an idea. There was actually an eCommerce platform early on that we worked with that was a proprietary closed system owned and managed by a company out east. They specifically marketed their platform to coffee roasters. Going back to what we talked about before, most coffee roasters, they're selling to wholesale accounts.

So, we're taking this system that had a subscription component to it, but really wasn't the robust user experience we wanted. We were hodgepodging and band-aiding and hacking our way through this system to make it do stuff it was never designed to do, in order to create the user experience we wanted for our members. For what it was and for what we paid for it, it was an awesome system. Definitely no complaints from us because they bent over backwards essentially to help us achieve what we wanted to do. But at the end of the day, their business wasn't what our business was.

For a few years prior to moving to WooCommerce, we had looked at various other options. We looked at Shopify for a while and some of these other eCommerce solutions. But at the end of the day, the user experience that we wanted around coffee and the flexibility that we wanted our members to have just wasn't there with Shopify and some of the other platforms.

Shortly before that, in 2011 I think it was, we had moved to WordPress as our site’s content management system. In those early days, we were becoming more aware of what was coming available as WordPress took off and became more and more popular. We saw WooCommerce and thought, "This looks like it's going to be the future and it looks like it's open enough that we could do exactly what we want and build out the features exactly how we want them." So in, I believe it was early 2013, we started seriously looking at WooCommerce as an option. At that point, commissioned to have some work done on that.

Did you face any challenges applying the subscription model to WooCommerce?

Bob: When you decided you were going to use WooCommerce, I know, having worked with developers and designed some WooCommerce sites myself, there were probably plenty of challenges. Are there any that stand out for you, obstacles you encountered when you looked at applying the subscription model to WooCommerce?

TJ: Yeah. We offer 20 different coffees. They're all organic, they're all shade-grown, they're all freely traded. But more than that, because we pride ourselves in providing the best coffee for home brewing, that means a variety of different brewing methods: espresso, French press, drip, pour-over, percolator, you name it. We have nine different grind options service a variety of different brew methods.

It's like, "Okay, do you have a medium roast coffee? Great. Do you have a ground coffee version of that?”  Okay, that's a whole other product. What we wanted to do was create multiple layers where you could pick your coffee, pick your roast, pick your grind setting (or keep whole bean), and then bundle the coffees together. So, because it's all subscription, the idea was as a member, you save more money per pound with the more coffee you add to your shipment.

Over the course of 20 years, we learned a lot about what makes subscriptions successful because you have a lot of people sign up and you have a lot of people cancel. If you're going to boil it down to one word, flexibility is really the biggest thing that we were focused on. If it's not flexible and it doesn't meet our members' need, then they end up canceling, no matter how good the coffee tastes, because they have a frustrating experience or something happens, and they end up canceling.

It's not so much the case today, but particularly back in 2011, 2012, 2013, and before that, most of the basic out-of-the box subscription systems you could use, you got product every single month and you couldn't delay it and you couldn't adjust it. You got it every month whether you wanted it or not. But our members’ coffee drinking habits change, whether it's summertime or wintertime or they go on vacation, they go to Europe for three weeks. They would say, ”I can't drink the coffee; I'm not at home."

So we changed the system. We customized the system so that they could receive shipments anytime from every two to every 10 weeks.

What that enables people to do is, if they're willing to do it, they can take on four pounds of coffee at a time, get a bigger discount than if they're getting two pounds of coffee at a time, and decide to get that shipment every other month instead of every month. They're also able to delay shipments as many times as they want and pick specific ship dates.

We have some members who are snowbirds. They might live in Seattle during the summertime but travel around the Southwest during the wintertime and they don't really have any set spot, so they need to just delay their shipment for three months. We have a way of doing that with their shipment so that, say October time comes around and they're leaving, they say, "Hey, I don't want another shipment until February or March," they just pick the day in February or March that they want and they don't have to worry about it. The shipment resumes at that point.

There are a lot of different customizations that we paid to have built that extended WooCommerce beyond what it does as standard, out-of-the-box stuff, that really matched the user experience that we had been envisioning for our members ever since day one.

Bob: So you had a lot of variables there that you needed met.

TJ: Absolutely. Yeah.

What are one or two of the challenges in selling coffee online?

Bob: Now, to step over to the actual product side of things, I found that whenever I talk to somebody, everybody has their own unique challenges based on the products they sell online. What do you see as one or two of those unique challenges when selling coffee online?

TJ: I's a great question and it takes us right back to how I got started with the company. One of the first things we did was doing a series of farmers markets and fairs to just talk to people about our products. One of the things that immediately stood out for me was, once people tried the coffee, it was like the scales dropped from their eyes. They immediately were just shocked at how good the coffee tasted.

The reason the coffee tastes so good is because we're basically roasting and shipping to order. Usually what happens is you'll get your order roasted the day before the day it ships out. By the time you get it, particularly if you're here in Washington state, your coffee is maybe two or three days old by the time you get it. For most people, they've never had coffee this fresh before. So, that's what really knocks people's socks off when they try our coffee.

So, when it came to the challenge of selling the coffee, one of the things we encountered, particularly in 2012, was, how do we get people to just try this coffee? There are millions of different coffee options. Based on what they get in the grocery store, maybe they got a coupon or they're getting a bag of coffee for seven bucks. So, what we ended up developing was our promo shipment where you basically get your first bag free. You pay the shipping and handling on that first bag. You try it, see if you like it.

Three weeks later, you'll get your next shipment, which you're already setting up when you sign up. You choose what coffees you want on that next shipment. So, there's no confusion about whether or not you're signing up for a subscription. But you also know when you're signing up, because it's our promise to you, as you try that free bag, if you don't like it, you just give us a call to cancel and that's it. You never get charged for that free bag.

That was a huge turning point for us in terms of conversion because it gave people an opportunity to try the coffee in their home and to take the challenge: taste test it against what they already have at home. It's not just me coming and saying this is the best coffee in the world and here's why. It's like you decide that for yourself by tasting it. Once we started doing that, combined with the fact that our coffee was so incredibly fresh because it is subscription-driven, that's what really changed things for us with selling online.

Bob: That's cool. That is amazing. That is some seriously fresh coffee. Wow.

TJ: Yeah. It's pretty fun to work here. I come in and I see them doing it every day and I can smell it walking into work every day. Of course, I'm drinking it every day. So, it's a really fun business to be in.

Has your education and support helped along your sales and customer retention?

Bob: I bet. Now, you had already mentioned something about the different kinds of brews that you have. I visited your site and saw that you have all the different brew guidelines on your site to help customers get the best from specific kinds of brews. Has offering that education and support  helped you with sales and customer retention?

TJ: Yeah, absolutely. Content's been a huge part of our growth. It was one of the first things I worked on when I first started working with the company. I was an English writing major in college.  I'd done some sales and marketing in college, but most of my background was in creative writing. So, I spent a lot of my early days here creating content.

Most coffee drinkers are just brewing it in a drip coffee maker or they might have a French press. But there's a world of different ways to brew coffee. So, developing the brew guides was a fun project because we got to test all kinds of unique brew methods that we hadn't tried before. It gives you something to talk about. It gives you something to experiment with.

It also shows you the breadth of flexibility that our coffee offers, both in terms of the different flavors that we offer through our 20 different coffees, but also the fact that we will grind it for you. So, if you don't have a really nice grinder at home and let's say you get three coffees per shipment and maybe you're doing it every six weeks and you're thinking, "Well, normally I just get drip, but there's this one coffee I've been wanting to try in pour-over or in French press," we have members who will get, each of their different coffees, they'll get a different grind. So, one will be drip, one will be French press, one's probably espresso even. The beauty of our subscription program is that they have that ability to try these different coffees in different avenues.

We're trying to take really high-end coffee, the top 1% grade of coffee available on the market, and make it accessible to the average Joe. We're not snooty about it.  But if people want to explore it further, we've got these resources available and we're always willing to have a conversation with somebody about how they can explore it further.

What’s your best tip for getting new customers in your subscription program?

Bob: I loved that content education part that you pulled in there. So now I want to get a couple tips from you, your top two tips, because you've gone through this whole experience of starting a subscription based site around your products. First, give us your best tip for getting new customers as far as your subscriptions.

TJ: The biggest thing is giving people an option where they can try your product and see what they think of it. There are so many different options out there: hundreds of coffee subscription companies. How do you get someone to just give you a shot? Oftentimes you just have to eat that cost initially, give them a promo shipment to give them that opportunity to try your product.

More than anything, when it comes to the membership itself, I think the most important thing to keep in mind is communication. People don't want an auto-ship just show up out of the blue. They want to know when it's coming. You want to have, if you can afford it or you can manage it with your schedule,  customer service hours available during regular business hours. Have someone, a live person, available in your business who will answer the phone, who will be an advocate for them to make sure that they're getting what they need.

Of course, having timely notifications or communication around the product. A huge thing for us in customer retention is just making sure that our members are as happy as possible by just being available for them. It's not one of those things where we give you coffee, you give us your money, and we never talk again. We want to have ongoing communication and relationships with our members. So the first tip I have, most important one I think, is good communication with your customers. Don’t  treat them as just customers essentially. Give them a different level of customer service.

The second tip that I have is around operations. For years and years, we tried to do a lot of this stuff by ourselves. Running a coffee company is not the same thing as running an eCommerce site or being a web developer. So, we would learn things on the fly to make things work.

But at the end of the day, when something broke, we had no clue how to fix it. And who really suffers more than anyone? It's not us or our business. It’s  our members because then their experience is not what it's supposed to be. And ultimately, who ends up getting impacted is our farmers because if our members decide that they're going to take their business elsewhere, then we have coffee beans from our farmers that are not getting sold.

So, one of the big things that we found back when we decided to jump into WooCommerce was finding a really good web development agency. Depending on your business, maybe all you need is a really good freelancer, just one guy or a couple of guys who can do it for you. But for us, with the level of customization that we were adding to WooCommerce, we did our research and found a really awesome web development company here in Seattle called Cool Blue Web. We've been working with them for the last three or four years now and they've been really fantastic. From maintaining our site or helping us when bugs come up and there's things that we just don't know how to fix, to coming up with new features and helping us build that.

I think there's enough going on in your business day-to-day that you're specializing in. For me, it's roasting coffee and getting it shipped out the door and sourcing the coffee and working with farmers and handling customer service. The last thing I need to do is try to pretend that I know how to do jQuery when I don't. So, that's my second tip. Make sure you partner with a great agency or freelancer that knows what they're doing, that can really help you make your eCommerce site the best it can be.

Bob: Those are both great tips. Yeah, you've got plenty to do and plenty on your own plate. Having somebody there to take care of all that technical stuff is huge.

TJ: Absolutely. For me, it's one of those things where tech and web development and all that kind of stuff, eCommerce, it's fun. It's really interesting. So, you think, "Well, I can do this. I know the basics of this stuff. I can figure this out." Maybe you can. Maybe you will surprise yourself and you do more than you think you can. But you really learn your limits when something doesn't work and you have no idea why.

Bob: Exactly.

TJ: You've got people, live people in your database that are like, "Where's my coffee?" So, finding someone who can back you up and teach you and help you and be that safety net for you is really important.

Bob: Yeah. You don't expect your customers to wait while you try to Google a solution.

TJ: Sure, yeah. "I found this message board. I'll be right with you."

Bob: Really. "There's a video I'm going to watch here. It might answer my question. I'm not sure, though."

This has been great. This makes me want to have another cup of coffee right now. But then, of course, it would have to be your coffee and it's not in front of me. So, oh, well. I will get by.

TJ: We’ve got to get you some of our coffee, Bob.

Where can we find TJ on the web?

Bob: That would have been great. I could have been sipping on it. Okay. Give us your website, the URL for people can check it out. Also, tell us if there's any other places on social that are good for existing, prospective, anybody that's interested in what you're doing to connect with you.

TJ: Sure. So our website's just Camano is a weird word. It's C-A-M-A-N-O. So, Right there on the front of the website, you'll see our link to get your first bag free. So, feel free to take advantage of that. If you want to quit and cancel and not buy our coffee anymore, you're welcome to do that. But just be forewarned, once you've tried our coffee, we have a lot of people who quit and come right back because they can't get it anywhere else. So, feel free to take advantage of that.

Then also, one of the things I think that's been a testament to how well our members enjoy our coffee has been our reviews. So, if you just go to Facebook search, Camano Island Coffee on Facebook, you'll see hundreds of our reviews. We have lots of five-star reviews. People just love the product. You're probably going to find a few reviews in there that detail what I just said, that, "We tried to cancel it and then we realized that we couldn't live without it. So, we came back." So, we get lots of that. It's just a testament to how great the coffee is.

Bob: Great. I really appreciate you taking the time. This has been fascinating. Like I said, I love talking to the actual store owners rather than always the developers, although they have great insights, too. So, again, thank you. I appreciate you taking the extra little time out of your busy day.

TJ: Yeah. Thank you, Bob, for having us. It's been great chatting with you and sharing our journey and what's worked for us. I look to any questions anybody has or hopefully people will give our coffee a shot and tell us what they think.

Bob: Very cool. Have an excellent day.

TJ: Awesome. You too.

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