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Wednesday, Dec 6, 2023

Liv, Love, Local: Iluminar Coffee Roasters

Liv, Love, Local is a column highlighting Vermont local businesses, especially cafés and restaurants in the Middlebury area. Through interviews with owners, I aim to highlight the specific successes and challenges that come with small business ownership in Vermont, the hard work owners and employees put into these businesses, and how these spots serve as places of community and connection building. 

From founding Iluminar Coffee Roasters in January 2020 as a Middlebury student to present day as a full-time entrepreneur managing roasting and distribution for two coffee brands, Daniel Gutierrez has learned and grown alongside his business.

Gutierrez and Grace Futral ’21.5 co-own Iluminar Coffee Roasters and Bud’s Beans, roasting out of 63 Maple Street in Middlebury’s historic Marbleworks District. The two acquired Bud’s Beans in January of 2022, when Iluminar was half the size of Bud’s Beans.

While Iluminar and Bud’s Beans occupy the same roasting space, Futral and Gutierrez work hard to maintain the brands’ separate focuses. Iluminar uses sustainably sourced coffee roasted in a way that highlights the coffee bean, while Bud’s Beans uses organic beans roasted in a more traditional way. 

Futral did a complete graphic design overhaul for the branding and packaging of both brands’ labels.

“The whole thing was pretty intense,” Gutierrez said. “It was a lot of learning on the fly.” 

Futral and Gutierrez kept the Bud’s Beans roasting schedule to maintain consistency for both brands as they adapted to a substantially higher volume of roasting. Managing new inventory and accurately predicting coffee sales was a learning curve for Gutierrez. For approximately six months, it was difficult to maintain sufficient inventory to fulfill existing wholesale accounts such as the cafés and other businesses that buy a consistent supply of Iluminar beans throughout the year to serve to their customers or sell on their shelves.

“It’s a scary place to be,” Gutierrez said. “You can’t really grow if you can only cover your wholesale accounts.”

After scaling up their inventory in 2022, Iluminar and Bud’s Beans now have the capacity to meet new demand. While around 60% of the two brand’s coffee beans stay in Vermont, Iluminar ships beans to cafés across the country.

In addition to their presence in Vermont, coffee shops in New Hampshire, New Jersey, Georgia, Arizona and soon Massachusetts stock Iluminar beans. Iluminar’s increased reach across the country during its wholesale growth has been entirely organic, according to Gutierrez.

“It’s super fulfilling to know that people are thinking of us that are not even in Vermont, and they're like, ‘Wow, we're really excited about this Vermont roaster.’ That's pretty cool,” Gutierrez said. 

Iluminar and Bud’s Beans also have an online store to sell coffee to at-home drinkers across the country. 

But only discussing the numerical successes Iluminar and Bud’s Beans have achieved so far in 2023 eclipses the personal and entrepreneurial challenges of launching a business, especially from the time when Iluminar began its first scale-up.

“It took quite a toll on me and my mental health,” Gutierrez said, referring to the acquisition of Bud’s Beans. As he managed the changes in daily roasting operations, he also embarked on the process of drafting proposals for a potential café. Last fall and winter, Gutierrez entered negotiations three separate times, all of which required detailed business plans specifically tailored to the unique space. All of the negotiations ultimately fell through. 

“It was super defeating. A lot was invested in terms of my energy and time and passion,” Gutierrez said.

Ultimately, Gutierrez ultimately decided to pivot from attempting to open a café to exploring other avenues, delving into the world of wine. In the time he does not spend working on Iluminar and Bud’s Beans, Gutierrez now runs weekly wine tastings for Dedalus Wine Shop in the Stone Mill Public Market.

“Part of the reason why I jumped into wine was I feel like there's always comparisons made with specialty coffee and wine… I want to know where wine is, what those markets look like,” Gutierrez said.

Futral and Gutierrez each take on two roasting days per week, and have filled their remaining time with other pursuits. Futral does freelance graphic design work outside of her involvement with Iluminar. Gutierrez is currently serving as the interim General Manager of coffee and ice cream shop Scout, which has three locations in the Burlington area. 

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According to Gutierrez, Middlebury’s central location in Vermont has been helpful for the brand’s wholesale opportunities, as it enables sales outreach not only to Burlington and Stowe, but also south to Rutland and into New Hampshire. 

At the same time, however, the company’s profile and brand recognition are more limited by operating from a smaller community. “If we were based in a city like Burlington, we'd have a lot more public exposure,” Gutierrez said.

Being in Vermont has enabled Gutierrez to find helpful mentorship in the specialty coffee scene. Maya Crowley of Uncommon Coffee, originally located in Burlington and now in Essex Junction, and Jason Gonzalez of Burlington-based Onyx Tonics have both been crucial mentors. 

“He is like my coffee coach,” he said of Gonzalez, who has decades of experience in the industry and has provided essential support to Gutierrez. “If it wasn't for him and the support he's given, we wouldn't be here, especially during those really tough times.”

Crowley too has been a friend and mentor to Gutierrez since before he began Iluminar. “She's always been an amazing listening ear. There's very few people that you can talk to about your issues and they understand it without explanation,” Gutierrez said. “We wouldn't be here without her.”

Looking ahead to next year, Gutierrez is aiming for consistency and continued growth in his businesses. “My goal was really trying to run a tighter ship and focus on streamlining systems and making our business profitable,” Gutierrez said. 

While maintaining previously established relationships with single-producer lots — where beans are grown in one single place — Iluminar and Bud’s Beans have shifted their coffee bean sourcing to co-operative lots for their house blends in order to preserve already narrow profit margins. This upcoming year, Gutierrez will strive to maintain a business-focused mentality while also organizing projects with other brands and roasters where the work can be shared between collaborators, Gutierrez and Futral.

Outside of concrete plans, Gutierrez hopes to continue adapting and learning from whatever this next year brings. “You'll never know when good opportunities come about,” he said. “Whether that's a massive wholesale account, or whether that's hospitality, like a café concept, just being prepared for any good opportunity.”

Olivia Mueller

Olivia Mueller '24 (she/her) is a News Editor.

Previously an Arts and Culture editor, Olivia is an International Politics and Economics major with a Spanish minor. Outside of the Campus, she is a spin instructor for YouPower, an avid runner and hiker, and a member of the Middlebury Mischords a cappella group.