From Kitchen Cook to Coffee King - The Story of Big Shoulders Coffee

By Tim Coonan, Founder of Big Shoulders Coffee

When I meet customers for the first time, one of the questions I get asked the most is “Why did I start Big Shoulders Coffee?”.  People who know me well know that I hate talking about myself.  They also know that I am insatiably curious and appreciate that quality in others.  So for all of the curious in the world, here is the story of how Big Shoulders Coffee came to be.

As I had mentioned, I am a very curious person by nature and had the good fortune to grow up in an environment that was a playground for the naturally curious.  Our family farm in rural Indiana allowed me to learn and explore to my heart’s content.   It was as romantic and pastoral as a Christopher Marlowe’s shepherds.  As young as 5 years old I can remember wandering down our long dirt road or into the woods without constraint.  The world was my teacher and I couldn’t get enough.  In the evenings I continued my journey as I poured over stacks of National Geographic magazines in my grandparents’ basement and dreamed of the adventures I would have when I was older.  Exploration is as much of the senses as it is the mind and I was fortunate to grow up in a real farm-to-table environment.  My love of flavors and cooking were encouraged from meals around the family table and PBS chefs like Julia Child and Graham Kerr.  These early childhood memories became the foundation for a journey that would take me across the ocean and back again.

My first real venture far from home was shortly after I finished high school.  Unlike my friends who had gone off to college I wasn’t sure about what I wanted to “be”.  But I did know that there was this whole world out there… and I knew I needed to see it all.  So, with $400 in my pocket and a bicycle, I headed for the West Coast ready to embrace all that life and the world had to offer.  My year-long bike ride took me to some amazing places.  I camped in people’s backyards, worked odd jobs and met the most interesting and generous people along the way.  I peddled all the way out to the West Coast and then all the back again.  After a year my ride ended at the doors of White River Coffee Company in Indianapolis, IN, a local cafe that would soon become my home.  It was here that I first learned to appreciate coffee.  How it is grown.  The proper way to roast it.  The intoxicating aroma and taste of a perfectly brewed cup.  All of this and more was taught to me by Steven Quigley (just Quigley to friends) owner of White River Coffee and my mentor.  

It was Quigley who encouraged me to pursue a culinary career.  With his support I left Indiana and went to Europe to work in the kitchens of restaurants from Paris to Rome.  The busy and sometimes frantic, pace of the kitchen taught me to be disciplined and organized.  Long hours taught me the real meaning of a hard day’s work.  After 10 years abroad I came back to the U.S. and finished my culinary education in the classroom.  After graduating I worked in New York’s Rainbow Room for several years until my Midwest roots called me to Chicago.  In Chicago I worked my way up the culinary ladder to the coveted position of Chef De Cuisine at Spiaggia on Michigan Avenue.  It was here that I met my wife and partner, Patricia.  Knowing that the life of a chef is not conducive to the life of a spouse and father, I left the kitchens of the city for a teaching role at a local culinary school.  Through all of this, my love for coffee continued to grow until I found myself roasting coffee in my garage.  At first, it was for my own enjoyment.  Then it expanded into gifts for family and friends and then… well then it just kept growing… my block… my neighborhood… my city… until it became the Big Shoulders Coffee of today.  

Each one of us has a path to follow in life.  Mine took me from a farm in Indiana across the US, over the ocean and back to the Midwest.  Each stop along the way helped me become the person and master roaster I am today.  Big Shoulders Coffee was born from a desire to learn.  It was fed steadily on love of people, food and culture.  My hope is that it will become part of the journey for many.

Come join us at this year’s CoffeeCon on October 7th and 8th. We’ll have exciting announcements and opportunities for those that visit our booth!