Behind the Build: Interview with Joel Shetterly, Head of Design, Compass Coffee

joel shetterly compass coffee

What’s the secret to Real Good Coffee? While coffee beans and brewing techniques certainly play a role, we’d say that good construction and people also contribute greatly to the coffee drinking experience.

Hear us out. Whether they’re brewing coffee or buying it, how people feel throughout the process influences whether the end result — i.e., drinking that cup of Joe — would be an enjoyable one. 

No one understands this better than the folks at Compass Coffee, a DC-based coffee roaster. Founded by two Marines, Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez, Compass has 12 cafés and one active roasting facility in Washington, DC. 

The teams at Compass obsess over the design of their brick-and-mortar locations, and they strive to construct spaces that make it easy for both employees and customers to have the best coffee experience possible. 

Here to talk about how they do it is Joel Shetterly, Head of Design at Compass Coffee. As the brains behind Compass’ locations, Joel shares his inspiration for designing cafés, the challenges that he and his staff face, and how technology helps Compass' small, scrappy team take on massive projects and goals.

Let’s dive in. 

Tell us a bit of Compass Coffee and the inspiration for designing approachable, friendly, and intuitive cafés.

Our philosophy at Compass Coffee is that everything must be as good as the coffee. We’re a small coffee roaster that does in-house construction and design. At first, that might sound totally crazy, but it actually makes a ton of sense. We knew our cafés had to compliment the customer experience by being as good as the coffee. 

For years we have struggled to explain what makes Compass special to the outside world, yet for anyone who has ever visited one of our cafés, it’s self-evident. The flow is intuitive for customers and ergonomic for baristas. Every detail has been thoroughly considered to create an amazing experience for our customers. When you taste the coffee, you know that it is something truly special and unlike anything else you have ever tasted, but it’s still hard to identify why. This is the challenge.

No single thing that we do makes Compass Coffee awesome. It is the culmination of a thousand small details coming together. From the relationships that we form with individual farms where we source our coffee, through importing, roasting, and packaging — all the way to how we design our cafés and train our team to deliver an amazing customer experience. Through it all, we know that in order to create something truly special, everything — every step of the way — must be as good as the coffee.

We put a tremendous amount of thought into how our spaces can create a great experience for customers. We are wildly specific, not just in the design elements— like the specs of all of our finishes and furniture — but also in how the space flows.

In order for us to create a café environment that is intuitive and inviting, we have to consider how a customer naturally moves through the space. This is especially important at our busiest downtown locations where we will serve up to 1400 people a day! The first step of deciding whether a space will work for us is laying out the customer flow. We map out everything — from the front door to the barista, to the register, and to the spaces where you wait and pick up your drink. Is the condiment bar intuitive? How easy is it to find milk to add to your coffee?

The idea is to create an experience that is worthy of the coffee we designed.

Also, our cafés are designed very deliberately not to introduce any feelings or experiences that detract from the positive interaction between the customer and the barista. 

For instance, if you walk in and can't see the barista, you don't know where to get in line. When you get to the register, that negative experience has already impacted how you're going to interact with the person behind the counter. That makes the barista's job harder and makes you feel like you didn't have a great experience. What we hope to achieve is spaces that not only don’t detract from the customer/barista interaction, but actually improve it! 

That’s why we're very attentive to the entire customer flow throughout the space. We are hyper-focused on creating cafés that are easy and intuitive for our teams to run.

Walk us through your career and what led you to become the Head of Design at Compass Coffee.

I graduated from college in 2012 with a philosophy degree and no plan. 

I moved to D.C. with no idea what I would do, and I took a political job doing lobbying work for nine months. I absolutely hated it. At the time, I was living in a row house in a city neighborhood of D.C. and had a garage. There were six other people in this house and me, and we couldn't afford IKEA furniture, so I started building them myself. I would walk with wood from Home Depot to my garage, and I set up an impromptu woodshop. 

Slowly, I realized that I was thinking more about furniture than I was about anything else. So, I Googled “best design firm D.C.,” and cold-called them if I could apprentice for them. That led me to apprentice for a design shop in D.C., making custom furniture and doing steel work for a year. I worked unpaid just learning the trade and worked nights at a pizza place. 

My first real job at this design firm was the first location of Compass Coffee. I was the project lead on the first café and roastery and fabrication package. After working on that location, the two founders, Michael and Harrison, asked, "Hey, we want to open more of these. Do you want to work together on developing our in-house design build team?" Of course, I was onboard. 

We had an architect and GC working in-house at that period. Over time, I’ve subsumed those roles. Now, I manage the engineers and architects we work with, as well as the fabricators and all the outside consultants. 

What is your proudest accomplishment over the past seven years? 

My proudest accomplishment so far has been the opening of our fifth and sixth locations, our two really important downtown locations. 

One was a block away from the White House, and the other was a block away from the Washington Post. These were two of the busiest corners of downtown, and we, for some reason, had decided that we would open these two cafés on the same day. 

We had one GC and three fabricators, and in order to hit same-day openings for both cafés, we were pulling consecutive weeks of all-nighters. I physically installed the ceiling panels at 3:00 a.m., and we ran into a lot of hurdles. We have new people working on our project management team who had no skills a year ago — who are now able to work with our project managers as apprentices.

The morning that we opened both of them at once, I looked back over all the craziness that it took to get there and realized that we could do this.

Everything after that has felt easier, and that was a turning point for me, where I thought, "We can actually grow this company from six to 100 cafés.”

What are the biggest challenges you face in your role? How does technology help you overcome those challenges?

We’re a small company, and we don’t have the budget to hire a team of surveyors and project managers to handle all the pieces of coordination that a larger construction company would have. 

We use technology at every phase to make it possible for a small and scrappy team to do the work of a much larger company. 

This is where Autodesk saves us because we are leveraging their cloud technology from minute one of every project. We start by scanning the base building space in Recap then build the model in Revit on top of the scan so that we have a BIM representation of the space. 

Once we have the base building model from the scan, we can go to work drawing and modeling, knowing with confidence that we're not going to have to go back and re-measure 100 times and run into issues.

Revit also allows us to budget our buildouts with confidence - we create material and equipment takeoff schedules with cost as a parameter - wall type 1 has a per square foot cost of x, for example, so we have a good idea as we are developing a design of what it is going to cost to actually build. 

We use technology at every phase to make it possible for a small and scrappy team to do the work of a much larger company. 

We don't have slack in our budget to get hit with multiple $1,000 change orders. The whole proposition is we've had to learn how to do this in a really tight, efficient way so that we can afford to continue growing even as a small company. Without Autodesk technology, we would not be able to do it.

What learnings from your first 12 cafés are you incorporating in your future buildings? 

Our entire body of knowledge on design and construction lives in our Revit template. We have libraries of every decision that we have made — including equipment specifications, architectural specifications, and MEP elements that we’ve used. 

We have a log that goes back to our first locations of the first equipment that we ever used. This has created an amazing historical snapshot of that café and your best thinking on design at the moment you built it. 

I can reflect and say, “Okay, what were our best practices in 2016? What were they in 2018? What were they in 2019?” The record of all of these decisions lives on in Revit!

For us, a huge part of doing this is iterating quickly. You can't iterate if you don't have a view of what you're doing if you never look around. You need to look back to see what you've done and figure out how to change and improve. 

How have things changed for you and your team due to the pandemic?

At the onset of the pandemic, we were doing drawings for the next ten cafés. Then on March 15th, we saw sales drop 80%. We knew immediately that we were not going to be able to afford that investment with café sales sitting at a fraction of our projections. We put everything on hold, and it quickly became a question of, “how are we going to find work for everyone?” 

We were in the middle of building out our massive new Roastery in the Ivy City neighborhood of DC, and with cafés down in sales, paying a GC to finish all the work was going to be a stretch. So, the design team became the construction management team. It was just me, and overnight, I found myself training a crew of 20 baristas how to hang drywall and paint and do fabrication. Getting in every morning at 5 am to make coffee for the team so that we would be ready to go when they all showed up to work — especially early on in the pandemic when the world was basically going crazy — it was so important to provide a setting and a work environment for people that was predictable and stable.

The design team became the construction management team. We literally taught a team of espresso techs, who had only ever worked on espresso machines, how to install motors and sensors for our roasting equipment. 

It was basically me and a squad of people pulled from the cafés who wanted to keep working and we knew that if we ever wanted to get the roastery built and make it to the other side, we were going to have to do it all ourselves. COVID completely transformed design and construction at Compass.

It was crazy. Practically overnight, we put these people to work building so that they would still have their jobs. But we installed so much machinery. We literally taught a team of espresso techs, who had only ever worked on espresso machines, how to install motors and sensors for our roasting equipment. 

We’re on the other side of it now, and the roastery is about to come on line. What’s amazing is that the people who learned those new construction skills during the pandemic are still on our team and that many of them want to continue on in careers in fabrication construction.

We have new people working on our project management team who had no skills a year ago, who are now able to work with our project managers as apprentices.

Tell us about the new roasting facility and headquarters.

Our new roastery headquarters is in the Ivy City neighborhood of Washington, D.C. It’s a 60,000 square foot, fully automated coffee roasting plant. It has a café, publicly accessible, and we offer tours. We're going to be roasting 10 million pounds of coffee a year here. 

You're also going to be able to walk up to the counter, have interactions with the roasting team , get a cup of espresso, and watch coffee being roasted. There will be  a beer and wine bar. We also have a beautiful mezzanine and patio outside where you can study for as long as you want or watch the sunset over DC with a coffee cocktail. 

It is a world-class, top-of-the-line, automated factory that is also an  amazing place for people in the community to come and hang out. 

This is important for us because the whole proposition of Compass is that we're real. We're authentic, approachable people who love coffee, who love our customers, and we want to create a great experience. Roasting and packaging  the coffee is a huge part of that, so putting the production process front and center of the customer experience here made a lot of sense for us. We could never have done it without Autodesk.


Alyssa Jaber

As Manager of Customer Marketing at Autodesk, Alyssa Jaber has been partnering with Autodesk customers in the construction space for 5+ years to build their brands and powerfully tell their stories. Alyssa is a human-first leader who supports a team of talented individuals who always put the customer experience first.