Fire Dept Coffee founder and CEO Luke Schneider can claim many titles. A US Navy veteran. A proud Rockford, Illinois firefighter and paramedic. But the one thing he doesn’t consider himself is a coffee snob.
“Ok, maybe just a little bit,” he admits. “I know my wife thinks I’m a snob.”
It makes sense. After all, if you had spent years crafting the perfect coffee, fine-tuning it to your personal taste-buds by coaxing the flavor out of every bean and uncovering the complexities through careful heat transfers … it would be all you’d drink too.
Luke recalls the process of discovering that original blend. It needed to be strong. It needed to be smooth. It needed the right amount of caffeine. “So much went into getting that coffee right,” he remembers.
He wanted to make his debut coffee taste great no matter how it was brewed. And it was a standard he applied to every roast to join the Fire Dept Coffee inventory from then on. It doesn’t matter if you use a French press, an espresso machine, or that drip maker that’s been in your family for decades, this coffee tastes delicious, perks you up, and warms even the coldest hearts.
A caffeinated culture.
Luke and his wife started roasting coffee out of a small, rented space with just a 5-kilo roaster. The effort was born from a love of coffee and the men and women who rely on it to stay alert and focused on the job. Emergencies don’t follow a 9 to 5 schedule, and as a result, neither do the professionals who respond to them. Every respectable fire house across the nation is filled with coffee, and most firefighters are too.
When you’re running back-to-back calls on a regular basis, coffee becomes your whole world. And not just to keep you caffeinated—it becomes a part of your culture. Luke remembers returning to the fire house from those early morning calls—the sun isn’t out yet, but everyone is wide awake, fueled by the adrenaline of everything that just went down. The crew is talking about what happened, and everyone knows going back to sleep isn’t in the cards.
So, what else is there to do? Brew a pot of coffee and spend time together until the sun comes up. “Through the good and the bad and everything in between, we can have nothing in common except that we were in it together,” Luke says. “And as we drink our coffee, even if we don’t say a word, we enjoy it together. It gives us the energy we need to get ready for the next call.”
In that sense, coffee makes a fire crew a family as much as the job itself does.
Firefighters know a thing or two about roasting things.
A working knowledge of fire dynamics gives a firefighter a natural edge when it comes to brewing coffee. Without getting too deep into the science, a coffee bean at the start of the roasting process is endothermic, absorbing heat until the drying phase. Then, the reaction becomes exothermic and the bean releases the stored heat, developing the flavor profile along the way.
And all this is affected by the bean’s native altitude and environment—two variables any firefighter considers when battling a blaze. What’s the elevation like? How will the humidity affect it? What action must I take to make the heat do what I want? Whether it’s attacking a structure fire or coaxing the flavors out of a Nicaraguan bean, these firefighters are masters of their craft.
All this is done by a dedicated team, many of whom tackle the responsibility of being full-time firefighters and paramedics when they’re not roasting and selling coffee. “In the early days, we roasted nonstop. We were working in shifts, getting shut-eye in sleeping bags and waking the next guy up when it was his turn to roast,” Luke remembers. “All this on top of the regular calls we’re going on every day.”
FDC now operates out of a 4,000-square-foot roasting facility, and a 36,000-square-foot fulfillment center. The business has grown, but the operation is still crewed by men and women who actively respond to calls, balancing the art of slinging bean juice with the rigors of responding to emergencies.
Black humor. Black coffee.
Luke eventually joined forces with Florida firefighter/paramedic Jason Patton, known for his hilarious videos that capture that unique brand of first responder humor. Satirical, manic, and darkened with the perfect amount of black comedy, Fire Department Chronicles has garnered hundreds of millions of views on YouTube.
For Jason, joining the Fire Dept Coffee team made all the sense in the world. If only so he could provide the best damn instructional video ever filmed:
Luke and Jason worked hard to infuse Fire Dept Coffee with that infectious combination of viral humor and confident brand identity. “This is who we are. We take our coffee seriously,” Luke says. “But that doesn’t mean we take ourselves seriously.”
“Nobody—I mean nobody—wants a thin cup of coffee. The fact is: If you can see through it, that’s called tea.”– Jason Patton
The results are paying off for both the brand’s notoriety and the diversity of their catalog. The numbers of customers interested in premium coffee that supports first responders grows every year, propelled by FDC’s social media footprint. And the brand’s catalog has expanded to include spirit-infused coffee like the popular bourbon roast.
Every single cup gives back.
On top of fueling up hardworking firefighters with the caffeine they need to respond to calls and save lives, Luke wanted to make sure his coffee gave back to the firefighting community.
Firefighters suffer from higher rates of cancer than the general US population. Encounters with asbestos and other toxins put them at greater risk. They frequently suffer smoke inhalation and exposure to high levels of carbon monoxide. And then there’s the mental toll the job takes. The one-two punch of sleep deprivation and witnessing trauma on a regular basis means firefighter/paramedics suffer increased rates of PTSD.
Fire Dept Coffee’s mission from the start was to acknowledge these hardships and give back to the community that endures them. Each month, FDC directs 10% of net proceeds to worthy organizations or individual firefighters in need.
Luke learned the importance of giving back to the community from a firefighter he met who was paralyzed from a traumatic injury on the job. “Getting to know him made me realize how little support was out there for the sick and injured,” Luke said. “While he was waiting on workers’ comp, we were able to pay his bills and rent while he was out of work.”
When firefighters become injured, many fall out of the community. Some choose to compartmentalize their feelings and avoid talking about it, out of fear that such a conversation would be perceived as weakness. Others turn to alcohol and drugs to cope. The goal of the Fire Dept Coffee Foundation is to remind firefighters nationwide of an entire community of support at their disposal, and that there’s no shame in asking for help. “They are not forgotten,” Luke says. “And they never will be.”
Fueling up for the future.
Fire Dept Coffee was born from both a hobby and a compassion for the first responder community. From those early days pioneering the perfect brew to today, when the brand ships over 6 million pounds of coffee every year, Luke has a confident outlook for the future of Fire Dept Coffee, starting with the team themselves. “We provide good salaries, good benefits, we make great coffee, and we donate to support our fellow firefighters.”
“If that means we don’t make Starbucks-level money, then so be it,” Luke says. “That’s ok with us.”