Little River Roasting Company

It's fitting that a company called Little River Roasting would have, over its 11-year history, so many changes in direction. Much like a meandering upstate stream seems to search constantly for the most efficient way down to the coast, Gervais Hollowell has never shied away from forging new paths for his coffee roasting business.

Hollowell first purchased the business from a friend in Tuxedo, North Carolina in 2001, and after making the drive for a while, he decided to move the operation a little closer to home. In March of 2002, Little River Roasting opened at its current location on Marion Avenue in Spartanburg, and at first, roasting organic and fairly traded coffee for the wholesale market was the name of the game, selling flavored coffees to large retailers like T.J. Maxx and Tuesday Morning.

Gradually though, that began to change, especially after the Mary Black Foundation Rail Trail, a multi-use biking and walking urban trail, opened next to Little River Roasting's warehouse in 2006.

The smell of fresh roasted coffee brought curious trail users to Hollowell's door. "People would come in and ask for pounds of coffee, we were like 'okay,' reluctantly at first," Hollowell remembers. Before long, the roaster's location had become a kind of impromptu coffee shop, offering $1 cups of coffee brewed a few feet from where the beans had been roasted.

A few comfortable couches were brought in, local art and empty burlap bags used to transport green coffee beans from around the world adorned the walls, and the retail side of Little River Roasting's business blossomed. Soon a few of Hollowell's regulars approached him with an idea for a new coffee shop, and in August of 2009, The Coffee Bar opened along with Hub City Bookshop and Cakehead Bakeshop in the ground floor of the Masonic Temple on West Main Street, selling coffee and espresso drinks and quickly becoming one of the most popular hangouts in Downtown Spartanburg.

These days, between 40 and 50 percent of Little River Roasting's coffee bean sales have shifted from the wholesale market to retail walk-ups and internet orders, and many of the company's remaining wholesale customers are local restaurants and other businesses in Spartanburg. Hollowell likes to keep it that way. "I don't have a lot of wholesale customers, and I kind of stay away from that, because people tend to like to get into the coffee business, and then they tend to like to get out of it. The wholesale customers I have right now really want my coffee."

The focus instead for Little River Roasting has been to grow further into the community, opening a second drive-thru coffee bar location on Spartanburg's east side last month, and by finding new ways to innovate not just with the coffee beans and espresso drinks the company sells, but through dynamic new business practices as well. Starting last month, the company began partnering with Joseph McMillin and his new company Junk Matters LLC to turn Little River Roasting into a "zero waste" company.

Using compostable plastic cups and straws made from corn starch, and paper cups made from 100 percent renewable resources, practically everything at Little River Roasting and The Coffee Bar that once would've found its way to the landfill is instead either recycled or composted. "It's a step beyond just the recycling bin," Hollowell offers. In addition to the items businesses more commonly recycle like cardboard boxes, Little River recycles a litany of other items like used batteries, ink cartridges, and pens. Even the trash bags are fully biodegradable.

Even with all the changes, Hollowell says he doesn't expect waste disposal costs to rise for the company because the price of most new compostable materials is comparable, and is offset by eliminating the cost of dumping Little River's trash in the landfill. The new venture has even led Hollowell to rethink how he disposes of waste at home. "I drive my wife crazy, because I'm saying, 'you can't throw that here; you've got to put it over there.'"

Going with the flow, and adapting to what's around the next bend has been the hallmark of the Little River Roasting experience in Spartanburg over the last 11 years, and for Hollowell, the real revelation has been that success in the coffee business doesn't mean conquering the world; it means creating a business brand locally by bringing a quality, gourmet coffee experience to the people in the town he calls home, and building that brand in a way that's both environmentally responsible and locally sustainable. For Little River Roasting, the ebb and flow that brought them this far, seems finally to have found its ideal course.

Christopher George is a freelance writer and multimedia professional from Spartanburg. He is a former editor and publisher of the Spartanburg Spark, and his writing and video work has appeared in numerous online and print publications including Mountain Xpress in Asheville, NC and in titles by the Hub City Writers Project.