Wide-Eyed in Ft. Gibson: Necessity Gave Flight to Wise Owl Coffee
To hear Jason Hathcoat talk about coffee you would never guess that he has not always been a coffee drinker.
“It was out of necessity,” said Hathcoat. “It was survival for me.”
That necessity stemmed from working nights as a conductor with the railroad. While working, Hathcoat began drinking “bad coffee” to help him make it through the night.
He knew there had to be better options and began searching for them. Little did he know where his research would take him. Once he discovered the culture of coffee, there was no turning back.
“The more I researched it the more I learned the best way to control everything is to roast yourself,” said Hathcoat, 41. So he did. In 2008, with no experience, he began roasting his own beans out of his garage using dryer vents to exhaust out the door. He had already learned the flavor profile he liked and began roasting beans to achieve that taste. Once he established the right balance he began sharing those beans with friends and family.
As the popularity of Hathcoat’s coffee grew, the idea for an alternative roasting location and a storefront came to fruition and, in February 2012, he opened the doors to Wise Owl Coffee Company in Ft. Gibson. When he is not working on the railroad you can find him roasting beans or working the counter with one of his chief baristas, his mom or dad.
Hathcoat focuses on micro-lot, seasonal, single-origin coffees from small farms that are picked infrequently throughout the year. This affords Wise Owl the opportunity to provide a higher quality coffee.
Because the focus is on superior, high-end beans, Hathcoat wanted to be able to showcase many different coffees from multiple sources and share their varietal flavors with his customers. In order to do that he sources beans from places that will let him buy what the business calls “broken bags.” This allows him to buy smaller amounts of multiple varieties of coffee, instead of large amounts of just a few coffees.
Another deciding point on Hathcoat’s bean choice is selecting coffees that customers might not be able to get anywhere else in his part of the state. His choice of locational rarities, combined with the nature of seasonal coffees, means that a majority of the offerings at Wise Owl are always changing. But even with all those rotating beans, Hathcoat does keep a few coffees all the time.
One in particular is the only blended bag of coffee he roasts and he affectionately refers to it as the Mudcat. It is a combination of Colombian, Sumatran and Ethiopian coffee beans and it is by far the most popular coffee they sell. In a year’s time he typically roasts more than 20 coffees depending on how he thinks his customers will react to different beans.
To hear Hathcoat explain how his necessity turned into a hobby and now a business makes it easy to see why he has been successful. His enthusiasm and respect for the process are palpable. He makes the case multiple times, almost like a mantra, that coffee does not have to be complicated. He says he always encourages coffee drinkers to try the product first without milk or sugar and really enjoy it for what it is. He even goes on to illuminate the necessity of basic coffee when he explains about the origins of roasting and how even today it can still be this easy.
Roasting “can be as simple as putting coffee beans on a shovelhead and shaking them over a fire.”
This is obviously a man who knows his product and knows how he likes it. But don’t let all the “simple” talk fool you. Yes, he values the process and the end product, but his want to create a sense of community and a place to open up the world of coffee to everyone is an obvious side effect of his coffee passion. To him it seems that opening up an environment where you can talk about coffee is nearly as important as the product itself. Wise Owl meets the demands of all coffee drinkers, even the less-than-purists.
Too many times to count, he says, customers have recommended they put in a drivethrough window and he knows their business would probably increase, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about the rapport in addition to the coffee. He believes that with the growth of the coffee culture, specialty coffees are coming back to small communities and with them the centuries-old tradition of coffee houses. It is about “slowing down a little bit and appreciating what we do and just enjoying coffee more,” said Hathcoat. To him a drivethrough window would completely defeat that purpose.
Wise Owl even takes the coffee and customer relationship one step further by maintaining note cards for their regulars. With so many beans going in and out of Hathcoat’s roaster it would be easy for a customer to lose track of which varieties they liked and these cards are used to keep track of what kinds of coffee the customer has previously purchased. The customers’ card also allows them to try different beans and experiment with their palate. If a requested coffee is not on hand, Hathcoat and his fellow employees will even work with customers to bring their favorite bean back. Right now they even keep two particular beans in stock exclusively for two customers because, to him, focusing on particular palates is equally important.
“Whenever our customers find us they are really loyal to our coffees because they know they have a good product,” and any observer can see that Hathcoat does not take that for granted.
One such customer happened to walk in during our interview and he was even one of the first customers with whom Hathcoat shared his original garage-roasted beans. He piped in to say that he moved all the way back from Albuquerque to get Hathcoat’s coffee. While his facetiousness was obvious, his loyalty to this coffee was just as apparent.
When I asked Hathcoat what he sees as the end goal for his coffee and Wise Owl Coffee Company his answer was simple: He wants to be a bigger part of the life cycle of coffee by becoming a larger part of the buying process. In the next 18 months he hopes to go visit a farm and see the process up close. This would give him the opportunity to procure even more coffees and additionally give more money to the farmer.
As for being forced to drink bad coffee while working on the train? Hathcoat has that taken care of, and not with some premade coffee in a Thermos.
“That is what I take to make coffee on the train,” he said as he opened up a bag and began pulling out supplies that showed obvious signs of use.
His “railroad kit” includes a slim coffee grinder that looks similar to a pepper mill, an Aero Press with a stainless steel filter, his own roasted coffee beans and, finally, a jet boil with a custom-made stove pot riser. From the grey tape holding parts of it together to the custom-made riser that looks similar to an old tin can, you can tell that this is what he loves. Making a cup of coffee from whole beans takes patience, especially on the move, but after all, that necessity is the reason this whole thing started.
For more information about Hathcoat’s coffee visit Wise Owl Coffee Company in Ft. Gibson or check them out on Facebook. You can also reach them at 918.984.5282 or visit them on the web at WiseOwlCoffee.com.