Creative upskilling keeps coffee chain's baristas employed during tough times

Compass Coffee retrains workers to build a new roastery, creating an ad-hoc construction crew that thrives on flexibility.

July 21, 2022

5:42 min. video
  • Compass Coffee in Washington, DC, upskilled its baristas during the pandemic, taking them from behind the espresso machine to the construction site of its new headquarters.

  • Employees learned how to review plans, weld, and complete other hands-on skills.

  • Thanks to 3D walkthroughs in morning meetings, Compass Coffee employees were able to learn construction on the job while accounting for existing conditions.

Compass Coffee is a Washington, DC–based chain with 12 cafes in the Washington metro area and plans underway to open 10 more. Founded by two former Marines who love a good cup of joe, Compass does everything in-house, from designing the cafes to roasting the beans. The company is currently completing construction of a new roasting facility and headquarters building.

In 2020, when COVID-19 shuttered the cafes and the baristas faced layoffs, Compass offered a number of them construction jobs instead. The new members of the construction crew learned skills on the job, from welding to reviewing layouts and plans in Autodesk BIM 360.

“Lots of people have built coffee roasteries,” says Joel Shetterly, Compass Coffee head of design. “We’re not the first people to do that. Ultimately, this is the story of a team coming together to build something amazing during an incredibly challenging time.”

View transcript

Joel Shetterly, Head of Design, Compass Coffee: In 2019, we opened six cafes. I would say that it was busy, with a very small team. We were doing all the things. We were doing the drawings; we were designing the furniture. And then, at the start of the pandemic, it all came just crashing to a halt.

Harrison Suarez, Co-founder, Compass Coffee: We were newly commissioned infantry officers; we were stuck out in the field trying to stay awake; and we were learning how to navigate with a map and compass. So we teamed up, started drinking coffee for energy.

Michael Haft, Co-founder, Compass Coffee: Coming back from deployment to Afghanistan, Harrison and I were looking for things that we really enjoyed. We loved coffee. We loved the community that was around coffee. And we’re both from Washington, DC, and decided we’d come here and start a coffee-roasting business. We didn’t know anything about roasting coffee. We didn’t know anything about construction or sourcing beans, and we literally took it one step at a time. And that’s really what inspired us to learn fabrication and welding and interior design and all of the various skills that go into making a coffee shop.

How Compass Coffee Staff Pivoted During the Pandemic

Suarez: The pandemic hitting was probably the most challenging week of our personal and professional lives. We tried to keep people on initially and started coming up with projects that could advance other goals. Even then, though, it was pretty clear that we weren’t going to be able to preserve every single person’s job. And so it was at that point that Michael and I and the team went back to the drawing board and said, “How do we stay productive, because this is going to be more than just a two-week lockdown?”

Chris Comer, Cafe Manager, Compass Coffee: When I got the call to come back, they said, “We don’t think we have room for you in a cafe right now,” because most of them were still shut down. It was more like, “Are you cool with doing other things?”

Haft: Our new roastery is in Ivy City, a neighborhood in Washington, DC. We’ve been working on this for six years. We had a fab team at the time; we had a lot of these skills, and there was work that we could have baristas do.

Comer: So I said: “You know what? Why not go and do construction? I’m game. If you want to teach me how to weld, teach me how to weld—whatever you need me to do.”

Shetterly: Overnight, I went from thinking about the next five locations that we were going to build to being construction manager to 20 baristas.

Our first step in designing a cafe is to scan the existing conditions so that we capture all of the built elements and can confidently proceed with the design, knowing that we’re not going to be surprised by having missed something that would make our design impossible. We were able to literally drop in equipment and draw a pipe from one piece of equipment to another in whatever way we wanted, and we knew that it would actually be buildable in that manner.

Bringing BIM Models Into Morning Meetings

The way I used technology with our team to communicate the work for the day: We would sit down, and I would say, “All right, cool. Three people. We’re going to pull up the model in BIM 360, and we’re going to walk through this cable-tray layout, or we’re going to walk through this floor plan, and I’m going to point to the four things that we’re building that day. And then we’re going to walk downstairs, and we’re going to mark them out on the floor together, and we’re going to review the tools and techniques. And then we’ll check in every hour, and we’ll see how you’re doing.”

Comer: It was exciting. I caught on pretty quickly. We’d have teams, and each team would be assigned to a different thing. And if we had questions throughout that neither one of us knew exactly what to do, we’d go to Joel or someone who had been with our fabrications team for longer. It was like, as you needed training, you got it. I started learning welding, and I did a little bit of projects here and there, which is supercool to be able to say now, “I work in coffee, but also I know how to weld.”

Shetterly: We must take advantage of all of the efficiencies that we can in technology and software. The coordination that we’re able to achieve using scanner to [Autodesk] Revit to 3D walkthrough, that coordination means that we don’t make the big mistakes that you will make if you don’t properly account for existing conditions.

Upskilling During the Pandemic Becomes Part of Compass Coffee Story

Suarez: This is such a crazy project for us to have undertaken. I don’t think either of us necessarily appreciated just how large of a chance we were taking. For us to actually be here and be talking about it and to be pointing things out that we’ve been dreaming of for six years at this point and to see them real—it’s pretty cool.

Shetterly: It’s more than coming out of the pandemic feeling like: “Okay, cool. We all came together and built a great coffee roastery.” Lots of people have built coffee roasteries. We’re not the first people to do that. Ultimately, this is the story of a team coming together to build something amazing during an incredibly challenging time—and how that will forever be a part of the Compass story.

This article has been updated. It originally published August 2021.

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