Native American Coffee Grinds It Out

Here’s a real hallmark for a successful Native entrepreneurial company: call them on a Saturday afternoon and they answer the telephone. And it’s the chief executive, the last guy still in the building, who answers the phone.

Bill McClure, whose grandmother was a full-blooded Creek Indian, has been in various online businesses for the past 20 years. He started NativeAmericanCoffee.com with his daughter, Ellie, in 2008. But he attributes a lot of his success to hustle and old-fashioned business practices.

“We’ve operated this online business like we were an offline hardware store or butcher shop where you came in and they knew the customers,” he says. “We answer the phone. We talk to you.”

Native American Coffee, a business-to-business and wholesale company, has sent out 40,000 handwritten notes with its orders, and generally includes cookies with each one. About one million cookies to date, in fact.

McClure has a strong hire-Native preference at his 12,000-square-foot operation in Fort Smith, Arkansas, which he has grown organically. Three quarters of his 14 full-time employees are Native American, he says, from the Choctaw, Cherokee and Creek Tribes.

“I love training young people,” he says. “It opens the door for young Native Americans to build a new career.”

Bill McClure launched Native American Coffee in 2008. Now the company grosses about $5 million in annual revenue. (Courtesy Native American Coffee)

He also counts some Tribes as his customers, including the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, where he supplies both their casinos and some of their offices as well.

In addition, the firm supplies a number of small airlines, as well as Campbell’s Soup, a number of different Fortune 500 companies, and some hospitals and hotels.

McClure has invested heavily in domain names, owning more than 1,000 URLs in the coffee and other businesses. He has a bunch of sexy ones in the coffee sector, like coffee,org, coffeesupplies.com and coffee.club. A portion of the subscription fees at coffee.club goes to help Native American kids through a charitable organization called “First Kids 1st.”

“We bought coffee.org from a growing family in Hawaii along with a number of other URLs. We’ve just been grinding it out since.”

Besides the URLs, he has a heavy social media presence for branding.

“We have 256,000 on coffee.org’s Facebook page,” he says, and they hear from 20,000 of them every week. “That’s more than Folger’s, Maxwell House and Green Mountain combined. We have been very serious, making sure we were communicating something that coffee drinkers like.”

He and Ellie also make themselves available for radio and morning television shows for branding purposes, he says.

“We roast and ship about 150-160,000 pounds a year,” he says, and with monthly revenues at around $420,000, that’s about $5 million per year, more than double the business they were doing in their first years.

“We roast some really special coffee,” he says. “We have one that’s called Dancing Rabbit, after the Choctaw Dancing Rabbit treaty, and it’s a really fine coffee. We blend three different beans, a Guatemalan, a Costa Rican and a Columbian, to make it a really great coffee. We also roast a Buffalo blend. It has some Sumatra in it which is an Indonesian coffee.”

He makes an effort to buy some of his coffee beans directly from Indigenous farmers overseas, and to give them better prices.

McClure says NativeAmericanCoffee.com belongs to a “third wave” of coffee producers. “The first wave was canned coffee that came in either a red can or blue can. Then there were Starbucks products in 1970s and 1980s, using sugar and milk for lattes and cappuccinos.”

Then, “four to six years ago small artisan coffee companies started launching across the country and started roasting a better grade of specialty coffee. It’s not mass produced. It’s hand picked and hand roasted in a small batch.”

McClure is still enthusiastic about the operation. “I love the coffee business. It’s new every day. We’ve been able to dance on our feet and expand our business and grow our family business. Our son Gabe and different family members are involved.”

His secret? “You have to pick something you’re really passionate about. The online business is up and down. Just when you think you’re about to lose, you win. We work hard. It’s Saturday afternoon and we’re still at it.”

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