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Commonplace Coffee shares culture of good java

| Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
TJ Fairchild, owner of Commonplace Coffee in East Liberty, shows his roasting equipment in the company's facility on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
TJ Fairchild shows green coffee beans at Commonplace Coffee on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Jamie Lesh carries newly packaged coffee in Commonplace Coffee in East Liberty on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Roasted coffee beans at Commonplace Coffee in East Liberty on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Steaming, freshly roasted coffee beans pour from the roaster in Commonplace Coffee in East Liberty on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Bags of coffee are displayed in Commonplace Coffee in East Liberty on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013.

TJ Fairchild got an unexpected answer when he walked into a Squirrel Hill coffee shop looking to sell the beans he was roasting in Indiana, Pa.

“They said, ‘We're going to sell this. Do you want to buy it?' ” Fairchild, 39, said about the 2010 encounter on Forbes Avenue. “That was the last thing on our radar.”

Fairchild; his wife, Julie; and five or six employees had kept Commonplace Coffee Co. small since it was founded in 2003, brewing and roasting specialty joe in a college town where the population doubles only to 30,000 when school's in session.

Nevertheless, they bought the store to help spread their love of good coffee. Three years later, Commonplace has 20 employees working in six facilities in Indiana and Pittsburgh — four retail stores and two warehouses where they roast beans.

Fairchild, who studied philosophy instead of business in college in North Carolina, said he has kept to an organic style of growth, relying on face-to-face contact with retailers and word-of-mouth advertising.

“We're not a huge client for him, but I've never felt like I wasn't. He always makes you feel like you're getting all his attention,” said Matt Gebis, owner of Espresso a Mano in Lawrenceville, who met Fairchild through another coffee company.

In addition to operating coffee shops and selling beans, the company provides specialty services, such as barista training, to other shops and restaurants. Its beans are sold in its coffee shops and to the public, and to wholesale customers from its website.

Commonplace is gaining some national recognition among mom-and-pop coffee purveyors. Two recent online reviews placed it among famous roasters in Portland and New York as having the best coffee in the country. Its popularity among coffee connoisseurs is leading to new business.

“We got our first email from out of the country, in Canada. They're opening a café soon and want to offer some of our coffees through his space,” Fairchild said.

Fairchild might start selling coffee to people he's never met and businesses he's never visited, which he called weird.

“We're definitely in for it. We don't want to turn that away,” he said.

Fairchild declined to disclose sales figures for the company. But its success and growth can be measured in beans. The company is roasting 1,000 pounds of beans a week, up from about 500 pounds a week in late 2009, Fairchild said.

Gebis said selling to a wider region will help Commonplace and the Pittsburgh coffee community.

“Once people get turned on to good coffee they won't go back,” he said. “But Pittsburgh is only so big. And you can't sell coffee to all the stores here.”

A recent addition to the Commonplace family will help.

In October 2012, Commonplace partnered with East End Brewing Co. to open a brewing and roasting facility in Larimer. Fairchild met brewer Scott Smith through an IUP professor.

In the warehouse, Phil Johnson performs what often resembles a ballet with a roaster about twice his size.

“You really need to be in tune with it all to do this right,” Fairchild said as Johnson, 31, of Lawrenceville jotted notes, whiffed beans as he broke them below his nose and swept them up in his hands from a drying rack.

While other roasters monitor just time and color, Johnson gets to know his beans and plays with drying time and temperatures to find the right roast.

“Similar beans have similar tendencies and behave similarly in the roaster,” Johnson said.

Nearby, a worker Fairchild met at IUP packs boxes for shipment. Commonplace was able to start roasting more coffee since Fairchild and the workers don't need to spend half the week on the road driving coffee in from Indiana.

“Two guys can work the production side right now. Will it be hard to manage that if we keep growing? How do you prepare for that?” Fairchild asked.

Some space remains in the warehouse near East End's taps and coolers. Commonplace uses some of it for teaching.

Fairchild views education as part of his company's mission. Clients come to the warehouse, or he goes to their business to teach how water temperature, grind size and other factors influence the taste of his coffee, which is not nearly as darkly roasted as most Pittsburghers are accustomed to.

Business for this former philosophy major sometimes seems more like a collaboration than a competition.

“He wants the whole scene to keep getting better,” Gebis said about Fairchild's support of fellow coffee purveyors.

“We all realize we're all small business owners trying to do something special and provide really good coffee,” Gebis said. “The better it is, the better it is for all of us.”

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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