AUBURN — Tulio DeAlmeida sold his car for the capital to help cinch the franchise agreement for Aroma Joe’s on Center Street, opening the new coffeehouse two years ago, eventually leaving his job at Texas Instruments to dive full time into lattes and FROJOEs.

He has 12 mostly part-time employees and joins in the morning rush, taking orders from one window, handing coffees out another. Operating without intercoms or headsets is one of the chain’s core philosophies.

“It’s rewarding, for sure,” DeAlmeida, 35, said. “You get to know the customer on a personal level.”

Almost on cue, he looked outside.

“That’s Julia.”

They smiled, waved.

Three weeks ago, he and baristas there served 512 free cups of coffee in a chain-wide Free Coffee Day celebration.

He may soon celebrate a second location, across the river in Lewiston.

Brand-wide, #AromaJoesCertified announced the chain becoming one of the few quick-serve coffee spots to move to 100 percent certified sustainably grown coffee beans for all but one specialty drink.

Aroma Joe CEO Loren Goodridge believes it is the largest Maine-headquartered chain, based on the number of locations, and he says it’s in growth mode.

There are 63 locations in six states. Goodridge is shooting for 100 by the end of 2020.

Last fall, the company moved coffee bean roasting for all 63 locations from Massachusetts to a partnering facility in Topsham with plenty of room to expand and one worker who spends all day sniffing and sipping a cup from each small-roasted batch for quality control.

With continued growth forecast for the U.S. coffee market, “we think there’s room for a coffee company – we’ve proven that – that can compete with Dunkin’ and Starbucks,” Goodridge said. “Our long-term goal is 500 locations in 10 years from now.”

‘DOING BUSINESS THE RIGHT WAY’

Aroma Joe’s was founded in 2000 by four cousins who grew up in Berwick. All four are on the board of directors with Goodridge and still active in the company, Marty McKenna overseeing purchasing, Tim McKenna overseeing research and development, Brian Sillon as chief marketing officer and Mike Sillon as chief financial officer.

There are 17 employees, including the founders, at its Portland headquarters.

The Free Coffee Day last month was a first: They gave away 22,000 cups chain-wide.

The switch to Rainforest Alliance Certified beans took about a year. The certification means annual checks that beans are being grown in an environmentally sustainable way and that workers are treated well.

“Part of the (company’s) mission is being involved in the community, and not just our local community, but the world community and being good stewards,” Goodridge said.

“We can see these large families that are being supported by Aroma Joe’s, and we do pay 20 to 25 percent more for our beans because of that, because they’re paid a fair wage, they’re paid a fair price for their beans, so it does cost more, but I think it’s part of doing business the right way.”

The only beans that may or may not be certified, according to R&D Manager Sara Coffill, are beans for its “Travel the World” series, highlighting a different coffee from a farm somewhere in the world every quarter. Currently, it’s Brazil; next quarter, Rwanda. Twenty-five cents from every cup of those coffees goes to a charity in that country.

The hand-picked beans arrive green in 130- to 150-pound burlap bags at Benbows Coffee Roaster in Topsham, Aroma Joe’s new roasting partner, which Coffill described in a tour as the oldest roasting company in Maine. The factory is set up with a solar wall that helps heat it in the winter and solar panels on the roof.

Bags are opened and pulled up into one of three roaster stations. Some beans are blended then roasted, others roasted then blended, depending upon the temperatures they need to hit, Coffill said.

“If you were to stand here for 20 minutes, you’ll see that start to change color,” she said, from green to sand to a rich brown.

From there, it’s a quick cool-down and off to packaging.

One worker who is a certified Q Grader – like a sommelier for wine – takes a few beans from every roasted batch.

“And she’ll go through the sensory characteristics for that coffee, every batch,” Coffill said.

GROWING ON DEMAND

Roughly 30,000 pounds of roasted beans roll out the door each month to distribution centers that service the locations.

Aroma Joe’s operates on a franchise model. Goodridge owns six, with business partners, and the four original founders have 20 among them.

“I have a soft spot in my heart for (franchisee DeAlmeida),” Goodridge said. “He had a pretty nice car that he had paid for – he sold it and bought a clunker so that he could do his Aroma Joe’s franchise.”

That confirmed to Goodridge that DeAlmeida was serious, Goodridge said.

DeAlmeida said there was an Aroma Joe’s within walking distance of his job at Texas Instruments in South Portland. He’d been wanting to own his own business and went to a franchising seminar to learn more.

He lives in Lewiston and liked the Auburn location for its high traffic count. Only 20 of the 63 locations are coffeehouses, like DeAlmeida’s, with places to sit – other locations hearken more to the original drive-through huts concept.

The interior is bright and spacious with dozens of bottles of flavorings ready to go and neat, sleek rows of machines. A 24-ounce cup of coffee costs $2.75. A spokeswoman described prices as largely between Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks.

“I think the fun part of it is all the baristas that work here, they’re very high-energy and very happy and willing to help. It makes the job enjoyable,” DeAlmeida said. “We’re still on the growing side. We’re not super busy like the competitors, but we believe that what we do here, we’re not just serving coffee, we’re giving them a good start of the day.”

“This, to me, is my future,” he added.

Enough customers have asked about a Lewiston location that he’s talking to the city and hopes to have news in the next few months.

He appreciates the switch to sustainable beans and said the free joe last month brought in new faces.

“Out there today, you don’t really know where your coffee’s coming from,” said DeAlmeida. “Even though before, the coffee was still phenomenal. On top of that, (the sustainable certification is) an extra that makes us even more excited.”

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