Taylor Lane Organic Coffee returning to its Sonoma County roots under new CEO

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Taylor Maid Farms was founded 26 years ago in west Sonoma County with a simple plan to be a pioneer in sustainable agriculture, just as the specialty coffee boom took off.

The company, however, in recent years took a different direction by opening coffee cafes inside Whole Foods stores, adding food and other drinks and changing its name to Taylor Lane Organic Coffee. The moves were an attempt to keep up in a competitive retail coffee market, which nationally is now estimated to generate $48 billion a year.

Food industry veteran Ted Robb, who acquired a stake in the company in 2016 from founders Chris and Terry Martin, led that ambitious undertaking.

But last November Robb was forced out and the two local cafes at Whole Foods stores were closed over the summer. New CEO Joanie Benedetti Claussen has embarked on a restructuring to get back to basics, meaning focusing Taylor Lane on its wholesaling to grocers and food-service businesses.

The coffee maker intends to leverage a well-regarded reputation for roasting coffee beans, as well as being respected in the food business for its safety and quality-management systems, she said.

“My goal is to bring us back to our roots and what we do well,” said Claussen, 39, who is part of the Benedetti family that founded the Clover Sonoma dairy products firm for which she was marketing director for 10 years.

Taylor Lane also will benefit from the experience of co-partner Mike Mountanos. The Mountanos family has been in the coffee and tea business locally for more than 100 years and their company has a large Petaluma coffee bean processing operation.

“I think it’s in the right hands,” said Mark Inman, who co-founded Taylor Lane and now works at Olan Specialty Coffee in Healdsburg. “Mountanos family has one of the strongest wholesale grocery operations out there. … With Taylor Lane they could easily be a national brand.”

Claussen’s back-to- basics approach since taking the helm in January differs sharply from the direction Robb had been leading the company.

He was full of ideas, such as a proposed move to SOMO Village in Rohnert Park for more space for education and training of its baristas and wholesale clients, adding soft-serve ice cream and drinks that have an infusion of CBD, a cannabis compound used to treat pain.

Taylor Lane made a splash opening cafes in the Coddingtown Mall in Santa Rosa and in San Francisco’s Mid-Market district, home to many tech workers. Those were in addition to its Sebastopol and Petaluma stand-alone coffee shops. Robb had connections with the national grocery chain because his father, Walter, was a former co-CEO of Whole Foods.

In an interview, Robb said that “it’s a lot harder to do a retail business” and that the wholesale side could be more profitable. “You are almost running two different businesses under one roof.”

Rob Daly, the former CEO of Taylor Lane who left in November 2017, said what he called that “small box within a big box” is difficult and takes a different strategy, such as having employees walk the grocery store aisles with coffee samples or having promotional products available in the stores.

“They didn’t know how to do that,” said Daly, who also had worked at Starbucks. Inman said although Robb certainly had big ideas and grand plans for Taylor Lane, he didn’t know enough about the retail coffee business to successfully execute them.

Robb acknowledged there was a lot of culture change during his tenure at Taylor Lane that was “a shock to the system.” Taylor Lane had been positioning itself to be a national player in the organic coffee market.

That brought personnel changes. Daly left and said in an interview “it was not my choice.” Robb had brought in Darleen Scherer, co-founder of Gorilla Coffee of Brooklyn and credited for leading New York’s third-wave coffee movement of artisanal drinks.

“You can make the case there was a lot of change at once,” Robb said. “You could also make the case you could position the company for future growth. … There were things that needed to happen.”

Scherer only lasted five months at Taylor Lane. before she moved over to another Robb business, New Barn Organics, a Sonoma firm that produces almond milk.

Robb said he left last November in a split with Mountanos and another Taylor Lane investor, Michael Woods, president of Baywood Capital Corp., a San Francisco real estate investment firm.

“Generally, we agreed not to go forward as partners,” Robb said.

In the aftermath, Claussen stepped in as CEO at the beginning of this year. Robb had brought her on the board of directors for the company in May 2018. “I think she’s a wonderful pillar in the community,” Robb said.

Part of her restructuring has meant job cuts. On July 1, Taylor Lane closed both Whole Foods locations, resulting in the loss of 12 jobs, according to a state filing. The company now has about 30 employees.

“You can’t rest on your laurels,” Claussen said, noting outreach in the regional food-service market will be a priority. “You have to be relevant and competitive.”

That’s critical because while Taylor Lane is recalibrating again, its Petaluma-based rival, Acre Coffee, has continued growing by opening in Sebastopol, its sixth new location in 2019, with a food menu to go with its specialty coffee. In fact, Steve DeCosse, owner of Acre Coffee, will open Acre Pizza in The Barlow in Sebastopol in the space that was formerly home to Village Bakery.

“What Acre is doing is nothing short of remarkable,” Inman said. Even Robb agreed, saying “Acre is one example of doing a good job with food.”

Meanwhile, Claussen has a few other things in mind for Taylor Lane. Eventually, she’d like to open another coffee shop in Sonoma County and allow employees to purchase equity in the company.

For now, though, the company’s top priority is community outreach to better connect the brand with its customers, which will include having a Taylor Lane presence at more local events and likely roasting a special coffee selection to benefit a charitable organizations.

“My grandfather would always say to me take care of your community and they will take care of you,” Claussen said, referring to Gene Benedetti, who founded Clover Sonoma, formerly Clover Stornetta Farms.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com.

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