Todd Carmichael is the co-founder and CEO of La Colombe Coffee Roasters, a coffee chain headquartered in Philadelphia. Todd and La Colombe president JB Iberti founded the company in 1994, on a mission to bring better coffee to the United States through direct trade sourcing and an eye for the best aspects of ancient and modern coffee roasting traditions around the world. In the years since, La Colombe has expanded beyond in its initial café in Philadelphia and into locations in New York, Washington, DC, Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles—with more on the way.
Todd is also an adventure traveler and television personality. In 2008, he became the first American to complete a solo trek across Antarctica to the South Pole—on foot and with no assistance—breaking the World Speed Record. His trek was the subject of the documentary film Race to the Bottom of the Earth. Additionally, Todd currently hosts the Travel Channel’s Dangerous Grounds and Uncommon Grounds, in which he travels to remote areas of the world to sample unique coffees, which he sources for La Colombe. He has been named Esquire Magazine’s “American of the Year” and Philadelphia Magazine’s “Person of the Year”, as well as Food Republic’s #1 most influential figure in its Coffee Power Ranking.
EDWIN WARFIELD: Tell us about starting the company. You grew up in a farming family, and traveled across the country for college. What took you from there into the coffee business?
TODD CARMICHAEL: The lens that’s best used to understand the compilation of my life and that of La Colombe is that I’m a disrupter. My life as a disrupter began when I was 13 or 14 years old. If my mother were here she would testify to that sorts of things that I had in my mind. I get obsessed with an idea, and I need to carry it out until it’s done—I’m hard to console. It began with jumping on moving trains, climbing mountains, trekking across deserts; trying to challenge myself to engage with the world in dramatic ways.
No one in my family had ever been to college, so that was really disruptive: to leave my little hometown and go to the big city of Seattle and study with all these people. My graduating high school class was 23 people, and here I was in a college of 50,000, and I took this leap towards business. I liked the idea that behind everything I touch, that I consume, I see, I entertain myself with, there was some common element, and that was business. I felt the the draw of that.
Now, I wasn’t qualified to do any work. They wouldn’t have even hired me at Olive Garden. You know, I wasn’t qualified to do anything but carry hay bales or grain sacks, or weld a tractor or dig a ditch—this what I knew how to do. And it’s hard to find that kind of work in Seattle, until I found this warehouse, with these big bay doors—I can still see it in my mind’s eye—and there were all these guys about my age that were dragging these grain sacks around. I asked, “Could I get a job?” And they said no. And so I did what farm boys do: I came back every single day until someone didn’t show up, and one day it was my shot. When I got in and I took a closer look at the grain sacks, I realized they weren’t grain—it was raw coffee beans from all over the world, and this amazing places that I can only imagine, like Burundi, and Uganda, and Tanzania, and Peru, and it really excited my sense of adventure. It was the sort of thing that reminded me of the mountains that I would climb or the trains that I would jump on when I was a kid—that there were some giant adventures behind every single one of these bags and I wanted that to be part of my life. When I looked at the roaster, I totally got that: this is gas fired boilers, this is electricity, this is molten metal—it’s like mechanics meets agriculture, and that’s right in the crosshairs of everything that I understood from my earlier life. So, in a lot of ways, coffee found me. And when I graduated from the University of Washington, and as I propelled my life forward I then chose it back, and I realized this was my life. But when you’re in that really tiny birth part of the development of an industry, everything seems so critical.
Q. How did you meet co-founder JB Iberti?
A. I had heard of this French guy who had come from the south of France, and he was roasting in Seattle. I was standing at a bar. It was grunge bar—I mean, it was like, shots for 50 cents, they sold beer in a can, they didn’t trust anyone with glass, there would be fights—it was just that kind of college-era, Seattle sound, and this guy pushed his way through the crowd right next to me and orders: “Yes, may I have a champagne?” This guy is ordering champagne in a Seattle grunge bar, and I realized it was him. So, we struck up a conversation and what this is—I don’t know how many years later—we still share an office. This is my co-founder, he’s my brother, he’s the right brain to my left brain, and he embodies a big part of who we are as a company.
Q. Have there been any challenges working together?
A. I think that we break new grounds in so many different areas, whether that’s how we approach a café, or whether we’re omnichannel business, but we also do it in other categories. We are two partners who really get along. It’s 24 years of slaving at it, and we’ve only had two arguments: one was about how to properly train a dog, and the other one was about squash. That’s it, and they lasted 3 minutes each. We show people within our organization the importance of being a decent person with the people who you work with, and that’s what our company is about.