Always on the search for the perfect cup of coffee, writer Alex Sanidad was excited to hear about Red Hot Roasters, a small-batch, drive-thru coffee shop in Louisville, Kentucky. Alex recently caught up with owner Sondra Powell to learn more about her retro roasting business…
How did Red Hot Roasters come to be?
I spent a lot of time in coffee shops when I moved to Louisville. I love that coffee isn’t just for waking up—it’s full of so many different flavors and nuances that can be enjoyed anytime of day. There was a need for drive-thru coffee in Louisville, and it was clear early on that we wanted to roast our own. We started with a wholesale operation in 2006, then opened the window up for business in 2007. In 2009, my original partner left the business and my brother stepped in.
What’s the story behind the name?
I definitely wanted a retro feel to my business and its name. I’ve been wearing and collecting vintage for more than 20 years.
What’s it like to work with your brother?
Jason Powell is my little brother. He is my partner. Sometimes people ask what it’s like to work with family, and for me it’s great. No one knows me better than my brother, he accepts my quirks and idiosyncrasies. I’m good at the things he’s not great at and vice versa, and together we make each other and the business better.
Have you owned another business before?
I did the things people do after college, trying to find themselves: I worked in the service industry as a bartender and server, was a substitute teacher, and managed a french antique shop. Almost every place I worked was a small business and I learned something from the people at every place I worked. Even though I had never owned my own business, my brother and I grew up in and around independent businesses—our father and both sets of grandfathers were business owners. This made working for ourselves a natural fit.
What makes your coffee stand out?
Because Red Hot Roasters is a small company, we are very involved with the making of each batch of our coffee. My brother and I carry the bags of coffee into the shop (each bag averages 60K!), hand-sort for defects, roast in small batches, then package and deliver it all ourselves to the grocery stores and restaurants that sell our product. We taste coffee out of each batch we roast. Also, because there are so many new different coffees each year, and the coffee crops can be different, my brother and I get to select the coffees we want to drink, and that we think our customers will love. We love a strong chocolate and caramel note to our coffee so we look to source coffee from the countries that have those flavor profiles.
Tell us about the drive-thru.
It’s neat to see a line of cars full of everything from a luxury cars, work vans to bicycles in the lines in the morning…I’ve seen everything from a gorgeous 57 Chevy to the big street cleaner truck at the window over the years.
Tell us about your menu.
Beyond our classic coffee, we have a special menu board full of fun drinks—greatest hits from the past few years that are always available. From a Peeptastic Mocha with white chocolate and toasted marshmallow topped with whipped cream Peep, Derby Mint Julep Mocha with bourbon whipped cream, or a Frozen Eskimocha. But we always offer a special seasonal special that’s not on the menu. This month’s specials are a Candy Cane White Mocha, Gingerbread Mocha or Egg Nog Latte.
Any plans to expand the business?
Louisville is constantly growing and we are growing with it. This year, we expanded with a bigger roaster that more than tripled our production capacity. We are looking to grow into more retail groceries and restaurants. One thing that is great about being small is we can jump on opportunities quickly if they seem like they fit.