FDC - Giejo Magazine Article

FDC – Giejo Magazine Article

Fire Department Coffee: Building a Brand with Heart and Humor

The marketplace is overflowing with coffee brands. And why not? Americans love coffee. The entire world loves coffee.

But what does it take for an upstart coffee roaster to carve out a place in this vast market, to build a brand and a following, and to share its rich, smooth roasts with coffee lovers everywhere?

It takes drive and dedication, passion and integrity — and of course, a really good sense of humor.

That’s the story of Fire Department Coffee (FDC), a company founded less than a decade ago, yet one that has built a name for itself by staying true to its mission, roasting amazing coffee and having a lot of fun in the process.

FDC is driven by a passion for high-quality coffee and a deep understanding of the important role it plays in the day-to-day lives of hardworking people — from firefighters to construction workers to office workers. The company is motivated by a desire to give back and show support for sick or injured first responders.

The foundation of FDC’s success is its popular roasts, which range from Light, Medium and Dark to collections of Espressos and Donut Shop coffees to its game-changing line of Spirit Infused Coffee. But the company, founded and run by firefighters and coffee aficionados, has grown in popularity because it’s fun and relatable and because its heart is always in the right place.

It’s how the company has evolved from a tiny roaster in a strip mall to now operating a much larger roasting facility capable of producing 6 million pounds of coffee a year and a fulfilment centre capable of shipping 20,000 orders per day, even as its products are now lining the shelves in grocery stores and convenience stores nationwide.

A Veteran, a Firefighter and a Love for Coffee

Luke Schneider discovered his love for coffee in the United States Navy. His dream was to become a professional firefighter, and he enlisted because he knew that his experience in the Navy would give him the skills and credibility he needed to earn that full-time firefighter job and become the very best firefighter he could be.

In the Navy, they say that every sailor is a firefighter. The best, most well-trained firefighters in the Navy are Damage Controlmen. Those are the sailors responsible for responding to emergencies aboard the ship, whether they be fires, floods or any other potentially dangerous or catastrophic event.

That was Schneider’s introduction to long shifts and endless hours on duty, which naturally became his introduction to coffee. Or at least his first opportunity to appreciate the important role it played in keeping him and his fellow sailors alert and clear-headed hour after hour after hour.

The Navy gave Schneider the opportunity to hone his skills across multiple overseas deployments and many long tours at sea. Yet after four years, he was ready to chase his dream of becoming a civilian firefighter.

After leaving the service, he joined the Rockford Fire Department in Illinois as a firefighter-paramedic. 

Yet coffee remained a constant in his life, even more so after he met and married his wife, Kate, who happened to be a barista.

The two took their love of coffee to the next level when they began roasting their own coffee at home, eventually sharing it with friends and family. The response was immediate and overwhelmingly positive.

Thus, in 2016, Fire Dept. Coffee was born.

It began with a small 5-kilo roaster in a tiny space in a Rockford strip mall. Schneider recruited friends and fellow firefighters to join the effort on the side. The firefighters, naturally, loved coffee and took to the task with enthusiasm.

The venture grew quickly on the strength of its high-quality roasts and the ease of online ordering through FireDeptCoffee.com. It grew even more popular with the introduction of FDC’s line of Spirit Infused Coffee, bold roasts amplified with the finest tasting notes of premium spirits like bourbon, whiskey, tequila and rum.

From the beginning, Schneider knew he wanted Fire Dept. Coffee had a mission that went beyond slinging cups of caffeine and so the company set aside a portion of proceeds to benefit sick or injured first responders. That mission helped the brand connect even more deeply with customers.

In what seemed like an instant, Fire Dept. Coffee was building a community of coffee-craving customers that far exceeded Schneider’s modest early expectations.

The Lesson for Entrepreneurs? Follow your passion and carve out your place. Luke Schneider is passionate about coffee and firefighting. He also knew that every fire department in the country kept its kitchen stocked with coffee. Combining his passions created an opening for him to develop a niche for his brand that was focused and yet brought enough that non-firefighters still feel connected to the brand.

Smart Partnerships Help Expand the Audience

From its earliest days, FDC expertly leveraged social media to grow its base of supporters. Naturally, it made quick connections with firefighters around the country and much of the social media content took a lighthearted look at the shared daily experiences around the fire station.

Soon, Schneider connected with Jason Patton, a Florida firefighter who was building a large online audience of his own with his Fire Department Chronicles brand and his hilarious videos based on the firefighter’s life.

In Patton, Schneider saw a like-minded colleague who just so happened to love a good cup of coffee. Their earliest collaborations on social media videos were an instant hit, and the cross-promotion between their brands helped both grow rapidly.

In 2017, Patton joined the Fire Dept. Coffee team in a more official capacity, assuming the role of Vice President and becoming an active ambassador for the brand, helping FDC seize new opportunities to shine a light on the company and the coffee.

Patton has also helped recruit other hilarious online personalities to promote the brand, including many up-and-coming first responder comedians.

In addition to online entertainment, FDC has also become popular for its shirts, hats, mugs stickers and other gear celebrating the brand and celebrating first responders. The success in the merchandise arena stems from exceptional design, as well as a knack for creating products that balance an insider’s perspective with a broad appeal.

So Fire Dept. Coffee has become much more than a coffee company, even as it continues to elevate its roasting game to the next level with better roasts and find new ways to get its products into the hands of thirsty customers.

The Lesson for Entrepreneurs? Partnership and teamwork will elevate your business. Collaborating with Jason Patton and eventually bringing him fully onto the FDC team not only added a talented professional to the team but also brought along Patton’s already engaged online following. The same has been true with Firefighter Fenton, Ginger Billy and others. Make connections, make friends and seek out mutually beneficial opportunities.

A Spirit-Infused Coffee Revolution

While Fire Dept. Coffee stands tall with all of its roasts, its Spirit Infused Coffee has been one of its earliest and most profound differentiators in the marketplace.

In 2016, Fire Dept. Coffee developed a proprietary method for infusing coffee with the tastes of bourbon, tequila, rum, Irish whiskey and many more fine spirits.

The experiment began by ageing the coffee beans in used barrels of high-quality bourbon before roasting. Coffee beans are absorbent and can take on the characteristics of their environment. The idea was promising, but the results were inconsistent.

They tried different barrels and different spirits. They tried different char levels and moisture contents. 

The results were disappointing, a harsh taste generated from the charred wood. It detracted from the taste of the coffee and the taste of the spirits.

In response, FDC developed a proprietary way to directly infuse the coffee beans before roasting. The result was sheer perfection. The best part is that the process was easily replicated using different types of coffee beans and different spirits.

So for the last seven years, Fire Dept. Coffee has created an endless string of Infused Coffee roasts that tap into the creativity of the roasters and the undeniable great taste of the coffee and spirits.

Of course, it’s a non-alcoholic beverage because alcohol content is removed during the roasting process. That makes it perfect to enjoy any time of day, no matter where you are.

Fire Dept. Coffee’s standard line includes Bourbon Infused, Irish Whiskey Infused, Tequila Infused and Rum Infused. But there’s also Black Cherry Bourbon, Vanilla Bean Bourbon, Salted Caramel Bourbon and a rotating cast of favourites that are roasted special each month for members of FDC’s Spirit Infused Coffee Club.

The Lesson for Entrepreneurs? Find a great product and add a twist. It’s a quick and smart way to separate your product from the others. Though more spirit-infused coffees are on the market today, FDC was among the very first and its signature spirit-infusion process remains the gold standard in the industry.

A Foundation Established to Support Those Who Need It Most

For as much fun as the Fire Dept. Coffee Crew is doing what they do best, its appeal to coffee drinkers is equally enhanced by the brand’s commitment to giving back to the community of first responders.

Fire Dept. Coffee, from its earliest days, has directed a portion of its proceeds to charitable causes. As it became apparent that this would become a growing and complex part of the business, Schneider created the Fire Dept. Coffee Foundation is a 501(c)3 charitable organization.

The purpose of the foundation is to responsibly direct funds to ill or injured first responders or to reputable organizations that are dedicated to supporting them. Over the years, the foundation has supported a wide range of worthy groups, including the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, the Tommy Cullen Foundation, the New Jersey Firefighter Mutual Benevolent Association and more.

FDC frequently receives a request from the friends, family or colleagues of a sick or injured first responder, and often the foundation is able to help with a financial contribution that can help them ensure their bills are paid while they focus on their recovery.

FDC’s Clubs Invite Members to Enjoy Coffee, Gear and Giving Back

To further expand its charitable efforts, Fire Dept. Coffee recently launched two new clubs: the Fire Department Coffee Club and the Fire Department Shirt Club. Both of which are available via one-time purchase or a subscription option.

Every month, club members receive a specially crafted coffee roast or a new, limited-edition T-shirt design. Each club benefits a new fire department or charity each month, and the coffee and shirts are created with a clear connection to the charity of choice. The Fire Department Shirt Club gives back $5 with every order and the Fire Department Coffee Club gives back $2 with every order.

The clubs are a way to reward loyal customers with fresh new products each month while giving them the satisfaction of knowing that by supporting the Fire Dept. They are actively giving back to first responders every month of the year.

The Lesson for Entrepreneurs? Make customers feel good about purchasing your products. If the Fire Dept. Coffee did nothing more than sell great coffee, it would still be an amazing company. But because giving back is central to its mission, it has allowed the brand to grow faster and reach more people than otherwise possible. Why? Because doing good makes people feel good. And if you’re doing good simply by purchasing your favourite coffee, that’s even better.

New Platforms, New Products and New Opportunities

Fire Dept. Coffee has continued to experience exponential growth, year over year. For much of that time, sales were nearly 100% online with customers placing one-time and subscription orders through their website and waiting for the coffee to arrive at their door.

It’s a successful model, but it has its limitations. So in recent years, the Fire Dept. Coffee has placed an emphasis on getting its coffee onto the shelves at grocery stores and convenience stores. In 2022, FDC signed with Albertsons and Meijer, two of the nation’s largest grocery retailers. 

Now Fire Dept. Coffee products can be found in grocery stores nationwide, introducing the brand to countless more coffee lovers who had not yet discovered FDC online. 

And it’s not just the popular roast coffee that they can find on shelves. Also in 2022, FDC introduced a line of Nitro Cold Brew Coffee in ready-to-drink cans, perfect for grabbing and drinking on the go. 

The ready-to-drink coffee comes in Nitro-Charged Latte and Nitro-Charged Espresso, plus Nitro Irish Coffee and Nitro Vanilla Bean Bourbon Coffee for fans of the Spirit-infused roasts.

Beyond new products and growing presence in stores, Fire Dept. Coffee in 2023 also became the official coffee of the National Hot Rod Association, and they’ve taken the opportunity to be a constant presence at tracks across the country, honouring a local first responder Community Hero at each race. 

FDC is also the lead sponsor for Sam Hunt Racing’s No. 26 FDC GR Supra, driven by Kaz Grala in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series. Throughout the 2023 NASCAR season, the car can be seen speeding across the track bearing a custom design showcasing Fire Dept. Coffee. They’ve unveiled multiple paint schemes highlighting popular products or other themes.

It’s all part of a strategic effort to introduce Fire Dept. Coffee to more people around the country, sharing their delicious roasts and ready-to-drink coffee and continuing to grow one of the fastest-growing communities in the coffee industry.

The Lesson for Entrepreneurs? Growth is all about timing. Be patient, then act decisively. FDC built a loyal customer base through years of consistent efforts in its online sales. That alone enabled them to expand and move into a new fulfilment centre. Then with the potential for greater capacity in place, they began a focused push to get their products onto store shelves and tap into new markets.

What’s Next for Fire Dept. Coffee?

The future is wide open. The possibilities are endless.

Plans are in place to continue the upward trajectory of sharing their delicious roasts with as many people as possible while continuing to establish FDC as a broader lifestyle brand, grounded in the hardworking ethos of the first responder and always focused on giving back and supporting those dedicated men and women who do so much to keep our communities safe.

The team that Schneider has built now numbers around 50 people. They’re a creative, coffee-loving crew that works hard to uphold the reputation the brand has built. They’re focused on roasting the best coffee they can dream up and making an impact that will be felt for generations.

Pour a cup and come along for the ride.

Julia Davis

Mental health expert
MS, University of Latvia

I am deeply convinced that each patient needs a unique, individual approach. Therefore, I use different psychotherapy methods in my work. During my studies, I discovered an in-depth interest in people as a whole and the belief in the inseparability of mind and body, and the importance of emotional health in physical health. In my spare time, I enjoy reading (a big fan of thrillers) and going on hikes.

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