U.S. Navy veteran Luke Schneider dreamt of building a purpose-driven business that could give back to the communities he loves most: the residents of Rockford, Ill., and firefighters both at home and across the U.S.
Throughout his career in the Navy—and more recently as a firefighter and paramedic —Schneider was inspired by the role coffee plays in keeping frontline workers energized through long shifts. “Coffee is a constant comfort in our line of work,” Schneider said. “It provides the caffeine we need to stay alert, and it also brings teams together and boosts morale. We share a lot of stories, laughter, and tears during our coffee breaks.”
Schneider started roasting coffee as a pastime with his wife Kate and set out to develop an original blend just for fun. That blend was a huge hit with family and friends, and that’s when Schneider knew he was onto something special, something much bigger than just a hobby. Schneider founded Fire Dept. Coffee in 2016 and—during his brief entrepreneurial career—is on track to bring in $10 million in sales in 2021.
While the business is growing quickly, Schneider plans to keep core values front and center. He never forgets where and why he started, an approach that has continually powered the company.
“We bring the values we learned from fire service with us to work every day: integrity, teamwork, and fun,” Schneider said. “Good values and good business are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the opposite is true. Having a solid purpose and good values actually helps drive growth.”
Bringing firefighting values to coffee roasting
From sourcing supply chain partners to hiring practices and charitable work, integrity, transparency, and trust are the top priorities for Fire Dept. Coffee. “If you can't trust the person that you're going into a fire with, that's a scary thing,” Schneider said. “The same is true in business—when times get tough, you want to know that your people are going to do the right thing by you.”
For Schneider, teamwork is a critical component of a good business. This thought ties back to his fire service work. When fighting a fire, it’s crucial that everyone knows the role they’re playing—life literally depends on it. “When we’re out there, we have the best chance of a good outcome when the engine team, the ladder team, et cetera, are in place, playing their role and working together to support one another,” he said. “We take the same approach at Fire Dept. Coffee. We are only as strong as our team.”
Schneider is a people-first entrepreneur. He cares about his team and it’s evident in the way he speaks about them. “If your team shares your vision, everyone can move toward it together,” he said. “And if you’re sharing your vision, I believe you should also share the rewards. If that means cutting profits to hire new team members or give raises to those who’ve earned it, so be it.”
The brand provides its growing team of over 35 with livable salaries and leadership opportunities. “If you take care of your team and your community, they will take care of you. That’s a fact,” Schneider said. And he’s right: Purpose-driven companies report 30 percent higher levels of innovation and 40 percent higher levels of employee retention than their competitors. It’s not only compassion, it's good business.
Schneider keeps an eye on hiring and promoting leaders who easily fit within the brand’s culture. “We are a growing company and we ensure that integrity comes from the top down,” he said. “I always hire based on integrity and values—you can always teach people skills and build on their experience but they need to have integrity from the outset.”
Giving back through the Fire Dept. Coffee Foundation
From its very beginnings, Fire Dept. Coffee has supported service heroes in need through the Fire Dept. Coffee Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.
Ten percent of net proceeds and other charitable gifts are donated via the foundation to provide essential resources and assistance to first responders who have been injured on the job, mentally or physically, or who face other serious health challenges. And the company has no plans of slowing down or putting a cap on its biggest give-back initiative: the more money they make, the more they'll donate.
This has been a valuable way for Schneider and Fire Dept. Coffee to stay connected to its firefighting community beyond Rockford. For example, in 2015, a Los Angeles County firefighter was paralyzed when a tree fell on him while he was battling a wildfire. In addition to the mental and physical aftermath of the trauma, this firefighter missed being part of his work community. It was around 2018 when this man reached out to the Fire Dept. Coffee via Facebook, sharing a video of himself taking some steps as part of his recovery as a way to establish some sense of connection, even with strangers online. While he was simply sharing his good news, the Fire Dept. Coffee Foundation, dedicated to encouraging and supporting other fire service works, reached out to his department to arrange financial support for the rest of his recovery.
“The last thing we want for someone in that situation is to worry about how they're going to pay their bills or get to their doctor's appointment,” Schneider said.
Staying grounded in the community that made you
In its first month, Fire Dept. Coffee sold thousands of dollars of coffee online. Interest in the brand didn’t stop and sales have since more than doubled year over year. While the focus on growing and scaling this successful business is crucial, Schneider and his team remained committed to the company’s original purpose: to give back to the local and national firefighting community and the people who made Fire Dept. Coffee the breakout star that it is.
Today, even as it continues to experience explosive growth, Fire Dept. Coffee supports its local community in Rockford through community regeneration and providing solid career opportunities with competitive salaries to the local firefighters, first responders, and coffee connoisseurs employed.
The company revitalized two abandoned buildings in its home city, which became Fire Dept. Coffee’s roasting facility and its fulfillment center. Workers collect litter and take care of the weeds in the areas around its facilities. Fire Dept. Coffee’s efforts have fostered a renewed feeling of community pride with other businesses in the area following suit. It’s a true testament to what investment in communities that come together and work toward a collective good can do, and what ripple effects that may have in our world.
“We're really invested in where we're from,” Schneider emphasized. “I've been a firefighter and paramedic in the city of Rockford for 12 years. Working with people from all walks of life has created a deep emotional connection between myself, my team, and those we caffeinate and serve.”
Maintaining purpose during high growth
Fire Dept. Coffee intends to continue building its ecommerce business and give back to Rockford and firefighters across the U.S., no matter the depth and size of their revenue and growth. The brand is projected to double its revenue again next year and is confident it will scale to a $200 million business.
Today, purpose and meaning define businesses more than ever before. A recent global study by the Zeno Group found that consumers were four times more likely to purchase from a purpose-driven brand. This is good news for Fire Dept. Coffee and brands like it—those who authentically lean into a value system defined by helping others and providing opportunities within their community, and certainly outside of it. Buyers want to support a cause that reflects their own experiences and principles. Fire Dept. Coffee believes that can begin with a cup of coffee.