Ask any firefighter what two things make their shifts lighter and they will invariably reply, “coffee and camaraderie.” At least, that’s what Luke Schneider lists as his top two necessities in a balanced workplace. At first, he wasn’t very particular about what kind of coffee hit his mug; If it was hot and black it worked. Fortunately, he met and married a woman who elevated his experience in coffee as well as in life, and things took off from there.
Luke is the founder of Fire Dept Coffee, brewed by firefighters, for firefighters. It is the company that takes pride not only in its products but in its mission to support firefighters who are sick or injured.
The quirky company started in a small space, with their small staff working 24 hours a day- literally sleeping on the floor when the opportunity for rest presented itself- to keep the roasting process going. Today the company is in larger quarters. Its staff has expanded and its products have too. You can get everything from rich bold coffee to tequila or bourbon-infused roasts. You can also get yourself a mug or t-shirt designed by the company. Want to be more than a drive-by consumer? There’s a club for that. Go ahead and join the Coffee of the Month club, and never run out.
Starting a business is a daunting process. Growing that business is even more challenging, and doing both while working a full-time job and starting a family presents even more challenges. Branching that company out to launch a charitable foundation would seem like sheer insanity to some people. But to someone as passionate and committed as Luke, with a fully supportive spouse and a strong team around him, it makes perfect sense.
It began with Luke and his wife roasting their own coffee at home. That coffee became a hit with family and friends, and Luke had an idea that has since turned into a company that not only produces banging coffee but fills a void in support for the firefighting community.
“What’s this?” his wife would ask Luke when he brought home subpar coffee. “Take it back,” she’d say. His wife, a barista when they met, knows her way around coffee. More than a casual coffee drinker, she is passionate about it, and that passion flowed into Luke as well.
Luke’s years in the Navy got him hooked on the hot black nectar of the sleep-deprived and over-stimulated consumer. Any coffee was fine with him. When he transitioned out of the military and into the life of a paramedic firefighter he found the same reliance on coffee in his new community too.
“We drink a lot of coffee at the fire station,” he says. Coffee is a necessity in every fire department. Long nights with little to no sleep demand caffeine and camaraderie and coffee delivers both.
Luke and his partner Jason Patton both agree that there are pressures in the life they’ve chosen. From the long nights to the immersion in trauma, to the uncertainty of wondering if this scene they enter will be the one they do not emerge from, they’ve felt it all. They have rescued infants from fully engulfed buildings, treated patients who overdosed on heroin, watched people die and seen others miraculously survive. It is an intense life with no room for error, no matter how tired or stressed they may be. Fortunately, there are also lighter moments to disrupt the stress.
Luke smiles at a memory before he even begins talking about some of the more comical calls he’s been on, like the man who called 911 after a mouse bit him, and Jason cannot contain his grin or laughter as he talks about the humor and camaraderie between them.
“Coffee is what brings people together,” says Jason. Well, coffee, humor, and the internet, in this case.
Luke stumbled across Jason in a video Jason posted. Jason and his fellow firefighters were hunkered down in their station for a hurricane. Dozens of first responders crammed into a relatively small station for an extended period of time could go terribly awry. These are men and women who left their own families to face a potentially dangerous storm on their own, so they may be available to help others. Tension could be high. Stress could either ignite short tempers or they could have some laughs and make it tolerable, if not exactly fun.
Jason made a video from the station, talking about the saving graces of coffee in a situation like that. Luke saw the video and felt like there was potentially a good fit for Jason in his company.
Jason was not instantly convinced, however. “Send me some coffee and then we’ll talk,” he replied.
One sip and Jason was in. He and Luke have since not only built Fire Dept Coffee into a fast-growing success story, they’ve forged a friendship that’s- well- cute. (Sorry Dudes, but that’s the word that pops into mind.)
Finding the right people and investing in those people is key to expansion, says Jason. He and Luke found the right partner in each other, and they continue to build a team that perfectly compliments their company.
Luke and Jason are role models not only for their service but for anyone who has a passion they’d like to turn into a reality. Starting a side-hustle is one of the most common methods used by top entrepreneurs. Having a steady income is a saving grace for that time period it takes to launch a business and realize a profit from it. Luke and Jason have been able to grow the company smartly in part because they have not been operating under the stress of relying on that profit to support themselves.
It is not a path for the impatient person to traverse. Entrepreneurship on this scale requires time and unwavering commitment. Tough times matter less because they believe in what they are doing.
It’s about more than coffee, they say. The often unseen reality in the lives of first responders is that many of them face hardship there is little outside support in overcoming. While outside support for the veteran and law enforcement communities is on the rise, little to nothing is done to help first responders. Fire Dept Coffee is doing its part to fill that void.
With a predominantly volunteer composition, most firefighters work full-time jobs and then show up at the fire station in off-hours. The minority that are salaried are not exactly in the top tax bracket. The combined intensity of the job and everyday responsibilities outside of the job can wreak havoc on health and marriages. Illness and injuries can cripple families. Marriages can crash under the weight of PTS and other struggles.
Fire Dept Coffee is proud to come through for its community in times of need. The foundation it started now appears in tough times to lend a hand- It’s great, says Luke, to say “Hey, we got your mortgage this month,” to a firefighter who falls on hard times.
It is more than a job. It is a community, and serving the public is not enough. They also serve each other.
Luke Schneider is aware that there is more of a need than he and his company can fill. But that does not stop him from doing his part.