Driven to Espresso: Drive-through Coffee Stands in the Northwest

If you think coffee culture is cool, you have come to the right place. I have loads of information and opinions to share about espresso in the Pacific Northwest, especially the drive-through phenomenon.

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Location: Edmonds, WA, United States

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A red hot drive-through business in Louisville

Sondra Powell and her brother, Jason Powell, own Red Hot Roasters, a premium, small-batch, USDA-Certified organic coffee roaster and drive-through coffee stand in Louisville, Kentucky.

Sondra's involvement in the coffee industry began when she and a partner started a wholesale roasting operation in 2006. The original idea was to open a drive-through, though, and they added that a year later. It was Louisville's first drive-through coffee stand.

Both of the businesses are in a converted Ashland gas station which allows them the space to roast their own coffee as well as have a drive-through business. Sondra sometimes finds herself roasting, packaging, and pulling shots practically at the same time. Besides this multi-tasking efficiency, there are some unique features that this combined business present, not the least of which is that they are able to sell coffee to customers who prefer to make their own coffee at home. These are more or less the two markets that the "giant green mermaid" is in, but Sondra and Jason don't have the burden of providing a cafe setting for the laptop crowd.

Entrepreneurs planning to open a drive-through know that zoning and permit processes in each community differ and there are usually some nuances that need to be discovered. In Red Hot Roasters' case, their drive-through is in a business zone that doesn't allow drive-throughs, but because the building they renovated had an existing drive-through window, they were "grandfathered in" and replaced the old delapidated window with a new one.

In terms of the economy duldrum we are all in right now, Sondra reiterates what many drive-through owners have told me, that many of her customers are now unemployed, so business has slowed down from time to time. Plus, unlike the Seattle area, Kentucky, just like many other regions in the country, had record high temperatures during the past two summers. Basically, as Sondra says, "If you're getting up at 9 in the morning, you're not getting a cup of hot coffee, when it's 90-degrees outside. You're getting a Red Bull or a Mellow Yellow."

Here is where the dual sales approach of their business may come to the rescue. Much of their afternoon business is customers who pick up a can of their coffee from the drive-through window to make at home or office. Their coffee is also sold at several retailers around town, and is served at several restaurants as well. It is also available for online orders at

As a coffee roaster, Red Hot Roasters has received recognition far and wide, not just in Louisvile. They have been featured nationally on CNN,, and in Marie Claire magazine, and recently did an event for the Breeder's Cup, hosted by Bobby Flay from the Food Network. Clearly they have a premium coffee and a unique offering. Perhaps part of their success is that, as Sondra says, they listen to their customers palette, rather than try to tell them what they should like.