Dispatch 30: Flat Track Coffee
Coffee & Brakes
Interview and Photos by JEFFREY ROEDEL
A welder and bike renegade gets handed $10,000 cash in a bar. What does he do?
For Texas native Sterling Roberts, this was the big bang for the business side of his dream he’d been brewing for a while as a way to build community in the Austin area with his buddy Matt Bolick. The result is Flat Track Coffee, coffee shop and cycling depot that feels like some cozy, lean your head back and daydream version of Robert’s garage. His blend is some Gautemalan, Ethiopian, and South and Central American, and all two-wheel fury, bold and bright and if you’re not careful, it could blow your hair back like a swift ride on the blacktop.
Wonder South caught up with Roberts after our visit to his shop saddled just south and east of downtown Austin.
Hey Sterling, how exactly did Flat Track begin, and where did this idea of a bike-centric coffee shop come from?
Well the business was established in June of 2012 by Matt Bolick and I. Matt and I have known each other since we were teenagers in the Fort Worth. Matt had just left Frank, a coffee program setup by Tyler Wells—Handsome, Blacktop, Nice Coffee—and I was building smokers for Franklin BBQ and doing other metal fabrication projects—mostly furniture and exterior design. From day one we set out to make the vibe about not only coffee but our lifestyle as well.
"What are you to do when you have no money? Do it anyway."
When trying to come up with a name we wanted one that was genuine and unchanged, an authentic feel for us that encompassed us, and Flat Track was it. It's dirty, dangerous, and there’s no money in it, so it hasn't been corrupted, and it hasn't changed much if at all since it started. We had almost no money to start this business but were dead-set on starting it anyways! This is mistake number one for many. I sold what little I had—a couple motorcycles and my 10k mountain bike that I only got 2k for—and well, we still needed money so what do two 20-year-old broke BMX kids do? We reached out to some friends and ended up meeting a friend of a friend at a bar, and after a couple hours pitching him on the next big thing in coffee he opens his satchel up and throws a manilla envelope at us with $10,000 in $20 dollar bills.
First off—What the fuck. We had never seen anything close to that amount of money at once, and second who gives ten thousand cash to a total stranger?
Needless to say we didn’t ask too many questions. The next day we reached out to Tyler Wells and bought a matte black La Marzocco GB5 (espresso machine) and Mazzer Robur E espresso grinder that was used one time for TED talks. We had no location, so we decided to start by doing coffee pop-ups. We built a mobile coffee cart and pretty much the next day (the stain was still a little wet—ha ha—we started doing pop-ups.
It really took off and helped us build a great customer base before we even opened a shop. About 7 months later we stumbled across a room—200 square feet—in the back of a book shop for $400 a month, crazy thinking about that now, and we opened our first shop which was pretty much an illegal coffee speakeasy...
...What are you to do when you have no money? Do it anyway. And this was pretty much an ongoing theme for the first couple years. Things are a lot different now, even though it still feels like we are flying by the seat of our pants at times. We moved shops about two years ago now, which we built out while we were serving coffee. It was really cool having our customers see the whole process over almost a year it took us to build it out. I think that kinda stuff goes a long way. People feel much more invested when they get to see the inner workings of a small business. Now we are almost grown up and looking to expand...
....The bike shop is a separate business, but we wouldn't be where we are without them being so gracious to provide us the spot. Russel and the boys!
That’s amazing, and to see y’all stick to your guns and press on. So cool. So how did you go about researching coffee and the actual process?
Same as every other small roaster, really. Lots of samples and cupping involved.
I imagine Flat Track is a place that has a lot of Austin "regulars" but also it must attract people from all over who are passing through ATX. How important is the community aspect of Flat Track to you?
It’s really important. We couldn't have done any of this without the support of our community. We surprisingly get a lot of out-of-towers which still blows my mind. Big thanks to LAND and our boy John Prolly. They are a big reason for that.
Let's talk about the design of not only the store, but your logo and branding and gear. It's a great vibe I think that speaks to not only adventure but hard work, like your shop rags for instance. I think things are more beautiful if we can see the work that goes into them, and your branding recalls all of that.
We definitely owe all the branding to the Land Boys. Everything they do is gold but branding is a funny thing. I feel that in general branding is becoming harder and harder to set yourself apart from the rest of the pack as time goes on. It seems like we all are wearing the same suit at this point so what do you do? Well you just have wear it better. We have always struggled and worked way too hard. So our suit may be a little tattered, smell of metal shavings and saw dust, and we may have grease under our finger nails but it is genuine a,nd I think that really has been what has helped us stand out. Oh, and putting a curse word at the bottom of a coffee mug. We are just a bunch of poor dirty Texas boys, so why try and fight it.
"We are just a bunch of poor dirty Texas boys, so why try and fight it."
Where are you from originally and what other businesses or work have you done in your career?
I am from Grandview, Texas, which is south of Fort Worth by about an hour. I worked in bike shops earlier in life and did construction and welding up until starting Flat Track.
What else do you do in your spare time?
After doing this for 6 years, overworked and underfunded, that word seems to have taken a back seat. I’m just starting to get used to “spare time” again, but in a perfect scenario, I would be riding motorcycles, skateboarding, building anything and everything, camping, and laying under starry skies.
What is one thing a lot of people get wrong about coffee?
Approachability. You should always serve great coffee but the most important thing is the customer service. I want everyone to feel at home here at Flat Track. To put it simply: Don’t be an asshole, you’re serving a beverage—ha!
Anything exciting coming up for Flat Track, new developments that you'd like to mention?
Yeah we are currently working on a new shop in Los Angeles. Hoping to be open by Fall 2018.
Find Flat Track Coffee's brick-and-mortar at 1619 E Cesar Chavez St. in Austin, and their killer coffee van all over at some of the best events and pop-ups in the city. follow Flat Track on Instagram @flattrackcoffee.