When Candy Schibli started her coffee business, she wanted to avoid all distractions. She bought a one-kilogram roaster from a company in Minneapolis and set it up in her great-grandmother’s house. The land in Virginia’s Isle of Wight County, in the southeastern corner of the state, had been in her family for more than 100 years. She started taking roasting classes in 2016, and on the morning of each session, she woke up before dawn to catch a ferry across the James River to the Academy of Coffee Excellence in Williamsburg. Then she would ferry back home into the woods in the pitch dark. In the rural silence, she learned to listen for the first crack of the beans, an exothermic reaction that reminded her of Rice Krispies. Roasting coffee was full of little discoveries.
“I think for some folks they’ve either been roasting or in the coffee industry for a while, at the producer level or as a barista or somewhere in between. I didn’t have any of that,” says Schibli, a former engineer who worked in international development. “I really went in without any expectations.”
Today, roughly four years after beginning her coffee education, Schibli owns a company named Southeastern Roastery that operates out of a space in Baltimore’s Locust Point neighborhood. She has been running a cafe, a roasting lab, and a retail operation for whole beans and teas there since May, and she has plans to roll out a subscription service that will deliver coffee across Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. She also uses her space to promote other female entrepreneurs.
“I try to work with women throughout the value chain in coffee,” Schibli says. Southeastern Roastery purchases beans from local importers and works with farmers and producers who offer programs that support women. The company partners with mostly female producers, ranging from bakers who make snacks for her cafe to a fashion designer who repurposes burlap sacks that hold bulk coffee beans to make unisex handbags.
Washingtonians can find Schibli’s beans at retailers like Songbyrd, Calabash, Shopkeepers, and Room 11. Schibli just partnered with Richmond’s Hardywood Park Craft Brewery on a newly released stout made with her Tanzanian-Ethiopian blend, as part of the Black is Beautiful beer initiative, which raises funds for local foundations that support social justice initiatives.
Reggie Elliott, the coffee director at Foreign National restaurant group in the District, says that Schibli’s accomplishments are “extremely impressive,” especially considering the winding road she took to roasting. Elliott stocks Southeastern beans at Shopkeepers off H Street NE, and he plans to add the brand to the cafe program at Maketto.
“Roasting is a very hard industry to break into,” Elliott says. “You have to buy large amounts of coffee and then store it, make sure the material doesn’t go old, make sure the people that you’re buying it from get a fair price. There’s a lot that goes into it, and a lot of companies have teams to do that — or at least one or two people. She’s just doing it by herself. It’s kind of amazing.”
Elliott also says Schibli’s work ethic, background, and “amazing attitude” make him want to support her company.
“She’s always happy, she’s always laughing,” he says. “You don’t see a lot of Black women in roasting that are out there. It’s a pretty small club, especially when you’re in D.C. She’s pretty much it. That’s another reason I’m very happy to put her stuff out there and give her a good word and do what I can to get her coffee into people’s cups. She’s earned it. She’s worked twice as hard as everyone else.”
Although Schibli says she didn’t know much about coffee when she decided to pursue roasting professionally, she knew she’d rather be tinkering with a roaster than sitting behind a desk. Schibli worked as an engineer for companies like Honeywell, and then in sustainable development at the World Resources Institute, before she decided to become an entrepreneur. She was drawn to coffee because it has a universal appeal, with people all over the world enjoying the same morning ritual.
“I wanted to get into something that enhances the pleasure of life,” she says, describing coffee as “a basic need we all share regardless of race, class, or income.” She liked the idea of working with communities from different countries to process an international product. “I wanted to do something that was global,” she says.
Her education, her professional background, and her family’s history of farming all tie into her new roasting business, where she controls rates of heat flow, air flow, and drum speed, the rate at which the heated container rotates inside the roaster. Schibli holds an undergraduate degree in engineering and a master’s in international affairs with a focus in sustainable development from American University and Costa Rica’s University of Peace. (Recently, she lent her expertise in an American Chemical Society/PBS video on the science of coffee roasting.)
D.C. is a big part of Schibli’s journey with Southeastern Roastery. Within a week of finishing her studies at the Academy of Coffee Excellence, she landed her first account, roasting coffee for a whiskey and coffee pop-up called Duality on U Street NW. With more accounts, she soon moved her roasting operation into Adams Morgans’s Songbyrd Music House before branching out on her own. Schibli also landed a fellowship at Halcyon, a Georgetown incubator that connects early-stage social entrepreneurs with mentorship, leadership coaching, and more support.
“The community offers a safe haven, and space both physically and socially/emotionally to talk to other people who have either been through the process of entrepreneurship and the hurdles that go along with that on every level,” she says.
Schibli opened her Baltimore facility in May with a new-to-her, vintage 12-kilo roaster, abandoning cafe seating during the pandemic to focus on takeout coffee and bites to-go like vegan cinnamon sugar donuts from Little Fig Bake Shop or manoushe from Z&Z. While her website displays a logo letting customers know Southeastern Roastery is a minority and women business enterprise, she says her identity isn’t on her mind when she’s pondering how to extract flavors out of coffee beans.
“I focus on making good coffee first and foremost,” she says. “That I can do it representing Black and brown women is a plus, but I’m not responsible [for] this aspect of myself. So, I focus first on being my best of myself… or at least making the effort to.”
Black Fridays in Locust Point, when Schibli encourages customers to leave milk and sugar out of their coffee, have taken on another meaning in the past few months, when police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have sparked protests across the country. On Fridays, Schibli donates sales of black coffees to Baltimore and Beyond, which describes itself as a mindfulness community that supports people of color and activists.
“It really works locally with folks Black and brown in the Baltimore community specifically on what I call mental health, but it’s mindfulness and social welfare, which I think is needed,” Schibli says. “Spaces for healing and talking, and just coming together and being human, especially in stressful times.”
This approach also applies to how Schibli would like customers to enjoy her coffee. Removing sugar is a “health-conscious” decision, she says, but it also allows the drinker to appreciate the inherent qualities of the bean while trying to identify all the different flavors they’re sensing.
“The goal is to really bring out the natural characteristic of the beans,” she says. ”To get the customers to slow down and recognize the different characteristics of the coffee as well. To understand where they’re tasting the coffees on their tongue, the different aspects of our sensory systems that we might otherwise ignore.”