Coffee Is Serious Business For Bellingham’s Black Drop Coffeehouse
The Black Drop is one of Bellingham’s most iconic independent coffee houses, largely thanks to the passion and dedication of its owners and employees. The shop’s 12 year history is a little complicated, so bear with me as I lay it out. The Black Drop was opened in 2002 by Teri Bryant and Alexarc Mastema, two coffee roasters with a vision influenced by Mastema’s experience judging the US Barista Championships (USBC). Bryant and Alexarc emphasized providing specialty coffee to their customers and holding their employees to the high standards of the USBC. Although they took their coffee very seriously, they also treated their employees like family, an attitude which has carried over to the current owners.
After seven years of growth Bryant and Mastema decided they wanted to focus on roasting coffee, and offered their three employees at the time the option to buy them out. On Christmas Eve 2009 the employees decided to accept the offer, and so ownership passed on to them. By 2011 two of the employees had sold their stakes to Oppelaar and Scott Casey (an employee hired by Oppelaar), and in 2012 Casey decided to follow suit, leaving the shop with only one owner for the first time since opening.
No Rest For The Generous
Oppelaar has done a lot for The Black Drop over the years. Originally hired in 2004 as a barista, she has worked at the coffee house for most of the last ten years. Immediately after becoming a co-owner in 2009, Oppelaar enrolled at WWU to pursue a bachelor’s degree. Six months later she discovered she and her husband were expecting their first child, and attempted to juggle pregnancy, school, and owning a business all at once. Oppelaar also does all of The Black Drop’s accounting, and she found herself working up to 75 hours a week for the business. The extreme workload, combined with a difficult pregnancy, led her to forgo attending Western. Even without the added stress of studying, however, Oppelaar continues to find herself with very little free time trying to balance being a mother to (now) two children, and being the sole owner of a successful downtown coffee house.
Despite Oppelaar’s many commitments, she and her husband also do their best to use the business as a means to make a positive impact on Bellingham society. Channeling their passion for community engagement, they have used their own proceeds from the shop to support low-income housing developments, organizations for protecting women and children, and an annual holiday giving tree for underprivileged children.
“As a business owner, you get to choose how you interact with your community,” she explained when I asked how owning the business differed from being an employee. Oppelaar’s compassion and open-mindedness has made The Black Drop a popular destination for many different kinds of people, including artists, gamers, and college students. The community engagement certainly hasn’t lessened her workload, but she recently began the process of bringing on an old employee as a partner, allowing her to share some of the responsibility for the first time in two almost three years.
Coffee Like No Other
Since The Black Drop was founded it has been distinguished from its competitors by the emphasis on specialty coffee drinks. The shop’s creed is make exceptional coffee accessible to the public. Part of that process involves continuing the training program originally started by Mastema; every employee receives training based on US Barista Championship specifications. What that means is that in addition to being experts at the technical work involved in creating a perfect espresso drink, the employees must also strive to make each beverage appealing across dozens of metrics. That might seem like an overly complicated approach to coffee, but the results are hard to argue with.
Although the coffee at The Black Drop is serious business, the work environment is anything but oppressive.
“We like to take coffee seriously, but not ourselves,”
That’s Oppelaar’s approach to running a coffee shop, and she explains that its always been that way at The Black Drop. The dynamic really is like a small family, including the occasional argument over choice of clothing or significant other, but always with an underlying sense of support and affection. The original owners helped Oppelaar through a period of joblessness by buying her groceries, and she tries to carry that mentality forward. All employees receive vision benefits and unlimited coffee, and those who work more than 30 hours a week earn full health benefits.
To help foster the family atmosphere, Oppelaar and her husband close down shop for a few days every summer to take the employees camping. They also go on field trips to gain more knowledge about the craft. This year the World Barista Championships will be held in Seattle, and Oppelaar plans on taking the entire staff to watch the event. The Black Drop also has its own internal Dungeons and Dragons campaign, run by Oppelaar’s husband, which they play in the shop after hours a few times each month.
Keeping Things Interesting
The Black Drop’s community engagement ranges beyond involvement with local community support groups. Even in the early days of the shop the staff had a penchant for eccentric methods of getting customers into the shop.
“Scot used to walk around with a big sign that said ‘the end is nigh, get coffee before it ends,” laughs Oppelaar when asked about how they interact with customers outside the shop.
The shop also hosts an ugly mug contest, during which participants post pictures of themselves alongside their own ‘ugly mug’, and customers can vote on who has the ugliest… mug. The winner receives merchandise and every mug entered into the contest. The Black Drop is also an active participant in Small Business Saturday every year, offering special deals on coffee and merchandise for the event.
By far the most effective means The Black Drop employees for community engagement is its interactive games. In the past the games were simple, involving mugs hidden throughout the city with free drink coupons which customers could hunt down. The store’s most popular event, however, is their annual Zombies vs Survivors event. During the event, the store takes over downtown for a massive game of waterballoon tag. Last year’s event involved QR codes designed to look like guts, which led customers to zombie themed videos created by a photographer friend of Oppelaar’s. The event gets more popular every year, and provides great engagement for The Black Drop’s social media outlets.
The Black Drop also uses more traditional forms of community engagement, like Facebook. An employee is currently also working on creating a Tumblr page for the shop, providing one more avenue for the company to show off merchandise, special beverages, and the fun environment the brick and mortar location provides.
How To Get Your Coffee, Now And Later
My personal favorite part of getting coffee at the Black Drop is the handy flowchart that guides customers to their ideal drink. The depth of the chart is proof-positive of The Black Drop’s commitment to specialty coffee. Oppelaar also has her own personal flowchart for new customers to help them find their favorite drink. Outside of the charts, however, there are some clear standouts. The Level 10 Fireball, which has chipotle steamed in the breve, is a shop signature, named after Oppelaar’s husband’s favorite Dungeons and Dragons spell. The Black Widow, made with molasses and Ghiradelli chocolate, is another local favorite. During the Holiday season the most popular beverage by far is the Electric Chog, an eggnog chai latte with a shot of espresso. Oppelaar says that the shop only sells eggnog drinks in November and December because demand for the Chog is so high, it dominates their sales.
The Black Drop is also notable as the only coffee house partnered with Viking Food. The owners had attempted their own delivery coffee service in the past, but demand wasn’t high enough to justify devoting the labor. Oppelaar says Viking Food is a great way for locals to get great coffee alongside any of the food offerings the service currently delivers.
The current goals for The Black Drop are modest, but important. The immediate plan for Oppelaar is to finalize bringing on a new partner, so she can spend more time with her family. A second location and a remodel for the original storefront are both ideas that get tossed around from time to time, but the cost and time required make both plans several years off if they occur at all. The path for the next five years is to continue growing the business, with the eventual goal of allowing the employees to take more agency in running the shop. The Black Drop has always operated with an emphasis on employee/owner partnership, and Oppelaar seems determined to continue the trend. That attitude ensures that The Black Drop’s operations are best suited to the people working there, allowing them to produce the highest quality beverages they can.
By virtue of its community engagement, high standards for employees and products, and a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere, The Black Drop is a Bellingham icon. We love our coffee, and we love our community, and The Black Drop is a wonderful combination of the two.
Do you have a special experience or favorite beverage from The Black Drop that you would like to share? We’d love to hear from you, so let us know in the comments!