“We each spent quite a bit of time as passengers… Whether on an airplane or in the back of a truck driving through coffee lands.”
Founded by three frequent flyers, Passenger joined the specialty coffee scene in 2014, when this trio brought home big-city roasting to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Here, Co-Founder David Stallings brings us on the journey.
Why the name Passenger?
“Passenger was started by Kyle Sollenberger, Crystal Weaver, and myself. The three of us are all native to south-central Pennsylvania, but have spent significant amounts of time in other parts of the country. In fact, when we were first conceiving Passenger — and into its early days — I was living in Brooklyn, Crystal was back-and-forth between the Seattle area and Lancaster, and Kyle was between San Francisco and Lancaster. We each spent quite a bit of time as passengers, traveling between major metropolitan areas of the US for work and our hometown of Lancaster. As I started traveling significantly more for coffee (in both 2016 and 2017 I spent roughly the same amount of time in the US as I did in producing countries), the experience of being a passenger took on even more significance. Whether on an airplane or in the back of a truck driving through coffee lands, I began to view being a passenger as one of the most interesting times for my mind to process experiences.”
What sets Passenger apart?
“Our offering menu. We have structured our menu, and even our production space and schedule, very specifically to be able to simultaneously present an incredibly high degree of focus and also a remarkably expansive list of coffees. We have what we refer to as our Foundational Offerings. These are five coffee-producing partners that are the focus of our menu. These five coffees are available year round and also are the components that make up our two blends. By focusing so much energy on just five producers, we are able to have more meaningful purchasing with these producers. The Foundational Offerings represent the focus. The expanse is found on our Reserve Lot menu. These are exceptional coffees that are an excellent representation of plant genetics, processing, or a time and place a coffee was produced. Many of these coffees are producers that come back to the menu year after year, but some of them are coffees that were too good or too interesting to pass up and represent a one-time buy. What makes both of these menus possible, and is something else that sets Passenger apart, is the fact that we freeze all of our green (raw, unroasted) coffee, when it lands in the US. This completely halts the aging process and allows the coffee to stay fresh indefinitely. Specialty Coffee guru George Howell was the first person to freeze green coffee and I have been doing it for seven years at this point. Passenger has been doing it since day one.”
Tell us about your team.
“We have an absolutely amazing team of hardworking individuals. Crystal and Kyle own Passenger, along with Commons Company — a B Corp certified parent company that oversees Passenger along with a number of cafés, a commercial kitchen, and a small catering company. Kyle’s background is in tech, and Crystal is an incredibly gifted entrepreneur — I have never met an individual who is so incredibly talented and compassionate, and also great at running businesses. Our wholesale team consists of our Director of Education, Carl Bakey and our Director of Wholesale Partnerships, Justin Smay. We aren’t super aggressive with sales, mostly letting partners who want to work with us find us. As such, when there is good energy in a relationship, Carl and Justin really have the time, energy, and excitement to dig in. We try to provide the absolute best customer service possible. Nick Smay, brother of Justin, runs our production floor and does a phenomenal job keeping inventory straight on the absolutely insane number of coffees we have in house and at our freezing facility (located a short drive away). Rounding out the wholesale team is a production assistant, Tyler Watkins, and our insanely talented tech, Tom Zeiset.
In addition to wholesale we do also have a café in Downtown Lancaster (with a second in the works). Overseen by Tyler Goodling, who has been representing Passenger since our Airstream days, our retail staff is a delightful mix of intelligent and capable women and men. We currently have 44 coffees on our menu and each of our staff is able to engage customers regarding what coffee they may enjoy, knowing each offering incredibly well.
We are working hard to diversify Passenger. Women hold very important roles at our flagship coffee bar, but are sorely lacking from our wholesale department. That said, we are very proud to be a woman-owned company. Further, across all of our sister companies women are in half of the positions of leadership.”
How has the Lancaster community shaped your business?
“It is a very interesting time to be in Lancaster. Growing up here, there was very little reason to spend time downtown. This could not be further from the truth now. It is a remarkably affordable city and that is allowing makers of all sorts to call Lancaster home. Its proximity to Baltimore, Philadelphia, DC, and New York is exactly what gave me hope that we could start a successful wholesale roastery here. It is also this fact that has allowed us to have an incredibly progressive café in small-town America. Many of our customers are visitors from out of town, or relocated from larger cities.”
“The most wonderful coffee they have ever experienced — devoid of ego”David Stallings
“That said, there is still plenty that we need to be conscious of, being in a small town. We wanted to create a space, and a brand, that could please the full spectrum of customers. We want to have a space and baristas that could engage in the most nuanced, detailed conversations about a coffee, how it was produced, how it was extracted, and also have a staff that was capable of taking care of the customer who comes in and “just wants a cup coffee” and nothing more, the most wonderful coffee they have ever experienced — devoid of ego. While we are of course always working to do things better, I think we are doing quite a good job striking this balance.
Also, I would say that being in this community has let us experiment way more than being in a place like New York or San Francisco. That may sound crazy, but it comes down to simple economics. Our rent is a fraction of what you would pay for a similar space with similar foot traffic in New York. We can sell far fewer coffees and still keep the doors open. As such, it has allowed us to really create a special, unique, courageous retail experience that simply might not make it elsewhere.”
What is the most exciting part of the Third Wave coffee movement?
“The potential that we might possibly be able to break ties with commodity coffee and along with that the neo-colonial industry that is coffee. I am convinced more than ever that the commodity side of this industry is one that depends on keeping marginalized people poor in order to give people who have traditionally experienced a higher quality of living an artificially deflated price for a cup of coffee. That sounds dramatic, but it isn’t. It is the truth in most cases. I think specialty coffee has a significantly higher chance of being able to disrupt this (even if only for some coffee producers) than charity does. When we create a demand for quality in the marketplace we create a need for producers who are willing and able to produce specialty coffee. This puts the controls in the hands of the producers, where they should be.”
How did Passenger get started roasting?
“I have roasted for a quite a number of years. When I first reached out to Crystal and Kyle I was a Production Manager in Brooklyn. I left to help my dear friend Dillon Edwards start Parlor Coffee. But, my wife and I knew that we wanted to leave New York and start a family. Founding a roasting company in my hometown seemed like the perfect way out of Brooklyn! To be completely honest, I thought I would consult through getting Passenger up and running, then work on other projects. Not the case. Passenger has become my passion project, a place where I have been able to pour all of the crazy ideas I have been cooking up for the past decade. I am incredibly lucky to have employers and colleagues who have faith in my crazy ideas.”
How do open collaboration and continuous learning principles shape your approach?
“Continuous learning manifests as the ability to fearlessly try things! For us this is evident in many different ways. We freeze insane amounts of unroasted coffee, we freeze massive amounts of roasted coffee for our café, we use a sieve to remove fines from ground coffee before making pour overs. We do crazy stuff in pursuit of stellar quality. We think everything through, but there is always the chance we will make a mistake. That said, we are more dedicated to learning than we are worried about being wrong about something.”
“If we want more customers who appreciate great coffee, what better way than to share what we have learned with those who are interested?”
“As far as open collaboration goes, we share quite a bit with quite a few people. Generally speaking we want to share information and knowledge when it comes to everything from freezing coffee to roasting coffee — and beyond. As cliché as it sounds, we really do believe that a rising tide lifts all boats. If we want more customers who appreciate great coffee, what better way than to share what we have learned with those who are interested?”
Tell us about your process of freezing coffee.
“Freezing green coffee completely halts the aging process. All unroasted coffee, if left at room temperature, will eventually start to ‘age.’ This ‘age’ manifests as paper or woody flavors in the cup. Any given coffee typically has a shelf life of four to 10 months before it will start to taste old. By freezing the unroasted coffee you can have fresh-tasting coffee year round. This is so important to the concept of our Foundational Menu where we want to present the same coffee year round and year after year, but always want it tasting fresh! Freezing allows us to do this. Further, freezing allows us to do fun things such as present multiple harvests from the same producer. There are just so many possibilities when you freeze coffee that do not exist when you don’t.”
How is Passenger able to offer so many Cup of Excellence winners?
“The Cup of Excellence competition was started in 1999 by George Howell and Susie Spindler. Its purpose was, and still is to this day, to find the best coffee producers in any given country of production. This is done via a rigorous process of blind analysis, first by a National Jury of roughly a dozen people (who, themselves, are rigorously vetted for the honor of being a Cup of Excellence judge), and then by an International Jury comprised of roughly 20 industry professionals from around the globe. The coffees are then auctioned off via an online platform.”
“These lots tend to be very expensive and very small.”
“The reason we are able to offer so many is because we freeze coffee! These lots tend to be very expensive and very small. As such, a roastery will purchase one, do a handful of roasts of the coffee, and sell it all in a very short period of time. At Passenger, however, we have two roasting machines: a 15 kg Loring that we roast our blends and Foundational Lots on, and a 5 kg Proaster that we roast our Reserve Lots on. When we get a coffee destined to be a Reserve Lot in our warehouse, we repackage it into small, batch-size increments before freezing. This allows us to roast only as much as we need each time, as opposed to large batches and wasting the extra coffee. This, coupled with the fact that it stays fresh in deep-freeze storage, allows our menu to swell with these gems.”
Where do you see Passenger in the next five years?
“Looking for a place to build a freezing facility of our own, ha! (I kid, but not really…) We currently have roughly 80,000 pounds of coffee in the freezer, and we are about to head into the time of year when loads of coffees are arriving.”
— David Stallings, Co-Founder of Passenger
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— Photo Credit: Damien Weidner Photography