Judy Rogers, 2022 Outstanding Women in Business recipient

Judy is the Owner of Prime Roast Coffee Co.
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Photo by John W. Hession

Rogers’ roots run deep in Keene, where she worked as a teenager at Imports Plus, a specialty food and cooking supply store, which she purchased at age 23. In the early 1990s, Rogers made a bold decision to roast her own coffee. She purchased her first roaster when there were fewer than a dozen small batch roasters in the Northeast, and taught herself how to maintain the machine.

Today, she owns and runs Prime Roast Coffee on Keene’s Main Street and a separate roastery on Route 101. During the four months of the pandemic lockdown and the subsequent months, maintaining a sense of community became one of Rogers’ most significant challenges to date. Prime Roast beefed up its online presence, offered curbside service and added delivery by bicycle.

Rogers’ community involvement includes service on the boards of directors for Monadnock Family Services, Center Stage Keene and the Granite State Monarchs, and service on committees for organizations such as Cities for Climate Protection city of Keene; Phoenix House; Monadnock United Way; and several others. She was also community coordinator for The Magical History Tour mural festival, a deeply personal project that transformed the face of Keene.

What inspired you to start roasting your own coffee?

The store I managed right out of college sold Green Mountain Coffee as well as other products. And when I became the owner in 1988, I took over that product line and expanded it. Our business was one of their largest, at the time, wholesale customers in the New England area. It was 1991-92, Green Mountain went public; they changed their whole business model. They wanted to become as big as they are now — they set their sights really high. When I used to buy from them, they would roast to order and send it to me right out of the roaster, which is what we do now (at Prime Roast). When they went public, their whole model changed and their coffee freshness took a hit, so I decided, why can’t I do it myself? I took a course in New York City with the manufacturer of the roaster just to learn how the machine worked.

The quality of the product and the quality of the experience are important. People have asked me for years why we haven’t expanded. (Prime Roast) seemed ripe for a second, third, fourth location. And for me, I couldn’t recreate the experience that we give with this one. I don’t need to get bigger just to get bigger. I really like being the little guy. I like knowing all my customers.

What challenges did you encounter along the way?

I’ve been through two recessions. The mid 90s were really hard — most of downtown Keene was shuttered. We lost big department stores.

At the time, I ran three specialty kitchen stores in town. What I had to push through was near-bankruptcy and trying to decide, do we keep going? Around that time, specialty retailers were starting to see a lot of competition from department stores which we had never had before. We would take all the risks on new products, and once we found something that really was a winner, places similar to Target would swoop in and sell it for less than you can.

I was almost out of business in the mid-90s and that’s when I changed the business to specialty coffee. I moved into a smaller space and started doing the coffee shop and roasting.

Do you have any mentors or mentees?

Right now, I’m mentoring a woman who has been with me for over 13 years, and we have a relationship where I want her to know everything that I know, so that she can become me when it’s time for me to retire. Over the years, my coffee family still keeps in touch. What’s nice about having 30 years of experience under your belt is that business is much easier to manage when you have a right-hand support system that can do almost everything that I do.

Other businesses will ask me questions, but (starting a business) is an individual experience. You take your personality and you make it into your brand. Hopefully, it’s a concept that people like and want to be a part of. That’s success right there. Do what you’re passionate about.

What advice do you have for young women just starting their careers?

You have to make yourself stand out from the crowd — what is something you can give that somebody else can’t give?  I’ve had people come to me who wanted to franchise what I do, and I’d say, you don’t have the passion for the product or the experience. You just don’t cookie cutter that. To me, it’s never about the money. It’s nice when you can pay your bills, but do you enjoy getting up and going to work in the morning? I do. I think if you get too big to manage it, or to enjoy it, then what’s the point? I don’t see the point of more, more, more. I never have. I like going to work.

Categories: Outstanding Women in Business