At the far end of Jane Healy’s two-story hardwood house off Highway 1 in Tomales, dozens of burlap bags sit stacked against an old Diedrich roaster that her father, Jack, bought in 1978, when he began roasting his own coffee. It was from him that Jane learned how to roast, and much of his advice about the art has stuck with her long after Jack’s death in 1993.
“The only thing you can do for coffee is to let people taste it,” Jane said on a recent afternoon, quoting from her father’s wisdom. She added, “You can’t chase every dollar and every good idea.”
Since 1990, the house—which Jane calls her factory—has served as the headquarters for Tomales Coast Roast Coffee, a small, family-run roasting company owned and operated by Jane and her husband, Richard Oppen. Together, the couple has raised three daughters and earned a living by selling organic coffee beans in grocery stores throughout the Bay Area.
Jane graduated from San Francisco State in 1985 and worked for a time as an exercise therapist in Petaluma and as a gardener in Tomales. Richard worked as a metal sculptor. But money was tight after the daughters were born, and the couple decided the time was ripe for moving into small-business ownership.
Coffee, they decided, was want they wanted to do. To get started, Jane used money set aside from a bad 1978 car accident, when she was caught in the middle of an 11-car pileup and sustained a severe concussion, cracked vertebrae and a broken wrist. That money paid for the first batches of Coast Roast coffee beans, and since then the company has imported and sold around 21 tons of organic coffee beans every year.
“I sell it all,” Jane said. “We’re a company that’s small by design, and we’re not trying to be big.”
Coast Roast imports single-origin Peruvian, Guatemalan and Sumatran beans that pass organic inspection. One reason Jane chose the coffee business in the first place is that she wanted to sell a product that would help improve living conditions for people in coffee-growing regions; so, to that end, she dedicates a portion of the company’s annual revenue to help bean growers purchase their own crop-processing equipment.
“I feel that we should have businesses that promote families overseas,” she said. “That’s the way we can create change from the grassroots.”
Promoting families is nothing new to Jane. Until recently, the business employed several women with young children; often, the kids would play in the backyard while the women worked.
Over the course of its 25-year span, Coast Roast has seen its share of success. All five family members pitched in to help, and from their efforts the daughters were able to attend Berkeley and graduate with honors. (Coast Roast also offers $500 scholarships to college-bound Tomales seniors who have produced outstanding art portfolios during their tenures.)
Along with their success, Jane and the company have also faced tough setbacks.
Coast Roast began selling coffee around the same time that Whole Foods was rising in the grocery industry. For over 15 years, Jane and her family crew kept up a solid relationship with Whole Foods, in whose stores, at one point, Coast Roast coffee was a top seller.
But once newer small companies began to undercut prices by giving Whole Foods free bags of coffee to gain exposure, Coast Roast slowly drifted away from the large grocery chain. It took 10 years for Coast Roast to finally break away from Whole Foods, and the company has since recovered its losses by opening other accounts with many small local groceries.
“Grocery is our backbone,” said Jane, whose father opened a small natural foods grocery called Greentree Grocers in San Diego in 1978 and ran it until 1990. “The Bay Area is rich in good food stores.”
Coast Roast sells almost exclusively to grocery stores like Mollie Stone’s, Good Earth Natural Foods and Petaluma Market. The stability of grocery sales compared to the trendy whims of many cafes attracted Jane to the store-heavy wholesale model, and she frequently drives across the county to deliver her beans to grocers.
And this factor—the distances of West Marin—is one of the more difficult aspects of running Coast Roast today. Every few weeks, in one fell swoop, Jane picks up imported beans from the Port of Oakland—often accompanied on these trips by what she calls “the male voice”—meaning Richard—roasts them in a South San Francisco warehouse and trucks them back up to Tomales.
Jane also insists that, regardless of the headaches that come from verifying bean sources and submitting to numerous inspections, all of Coast Roast’s beans must be certified organic by the Organic Crop Improvement Association. To select organic growers, she collaborates with overseas brokers to lock down definite and reliable stock availability by “futuring” beans—buying certain quantities at a set price over a set amount of time.
For Jane, the effort is worth it to abide by best coffee-growing practices in developing countries and to limit the use of herbicides. “It seemed wrong to sell a product at top dollar for something that may contaminate the area where people are growing it,” she said. “I think conventional commercial coffee should have to go through what organic producers go through, in terms of certification.”
Now, Jane’s children are grown, and she and Richard live in a different house a few blocks away from “the factory.” But the work to keep Coast Roast afloat is as demanding as ever, and Jane has no intention of slowing down.
“We’re pretty confident in our little coffee company,” Jane said. “Who knows what the future holds.”