Jeff Taylor

His past helped mould the way we think about retail specialty coffee.

Jeff Taylor has moved mountains in the coffee industry.

He’s the owner of Bird Rock Coffee and we have him to thank for helping pioneer the direct-trade principles so many companies use today. His story is about hard work and coincidence. Or is it about family? Maybe it’s about being open to critique. Or equal parts of all these things. Regardless, Jeff is one of the original specialty coffee entrepreneurs in the United States. Whether they know it or not, every specialty coffee business started in the last twenty years has benefited, in no small part, by the legacy of Jeff and his contributions to the culture of North American specialty coffee. He’ll be the first to tell you that he wasn’t the first, nor was he the only one, but his past has helped mould the way we think about retail specialty coffee. 

Jeff didn’t start out in the coffee business, but was familiar with hard work from a previous life. He was a photographer in the late 90s, when getting reliable work meant entering images into competitions, doing well and turning around and booking more gigs. The process of getting work was a constant cycle of success and failure and his work was directly affected by both. As he progressed creatively in his career, he understood that his work could parlay into something more or could completely fall flat. It was feast or famine. But he made it work, and for a time he was very successful. This background likely softened the soil for critique in his life, which would later pay dividends in his coffee career. 


Years of hustling in the photography business had been plenty stressful and it was time for a new adventure where the pendulum of success swung a little less dynamically.

Fast forward to 1993 when Jeff started a retail coffee business called PT’s with a friend, Fred Polzin, in Topeka, Kansas. This sent Jeff down a rabbit hole of discovery about coffee. He only became more passionate the more he learned about the field. Within just a couple of years they opened two retail shops––a rather quick turnaround for a brand new coffee business. In Jeff’s words they “had it all.” Beautiful spaces with great ambiance, a line out the door and a track record of success to prove it.

One day, an unsuspecting comment from a customer shifted Jeff’s perspective on his role in the coffee industry. “Yeah, your spaces are great, but your coffee is no good.” This changed everything. Jeff’s work ethic doesn’t take comfort in complacency. He uses criticism to fuel improvement in the next round of work. This bit of criticism launched Jeff’s career from a successful retail coffee shop owner to a trailblazer of what we know today as the “direct trade relationship.” 


Jeff started on a multi-year journey to improve operations in his cafes.

He reworked PT’s supply chain, opting to buy green coffee instead of pre-roasted, then sunk money into a new roaster and learned the ins and outs of roasting in the absence of the Internet as we know it. Starting from the ground up was an undertaking, but Jeff knew if the coffee ended up better, it would all be worth it. But after months of sinking countless hours into learning a new skill and investing a large sum into new equipment, the coffee wasn’t really any better.  

By 1999 Jeff thought his coffee was still average at best. The next logical step was that the quality issue may be further back in the supply chain. No matter how you roast coffee, if bad quality raw material goes in the roaster, bad quality comes out. If he wanted change, he knew he needed to do something different. Something uncomfortable and out of the box. He booked his first trip to Guatemala with the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and ended up on a trip with a group of people who we now know to be true bastions of quality sourcing and who helped lay the groundwork for modern coffee sourcing like George Howell, Tim Chapdelaine (formerly of Cafe Imports), Suzie Spindler (founder of Alliance for Coffee Excellence), and Trigve Klingenberg and Andreas Hertzberg (formerly of Solberg & Hansen). It was on this trip that Jeff noticed a key problem. At that time the market price for coffee was well under one dollar per pound of green coffee while the cost of producing it was well over one dollar. Producing just adequate enough coffee was losing money and any extra work put in by farmers on the quality side wasn’t paying any dividends. Why would producers be incentivized to put in extra work for high quality coffee when the very work of doing it was making them bankrupt? The system of buying market priced coffee was broken and it was now very apparent.   

While in Guatemala, Jeff met coffee producers who participated in the Cup of Excellence (COE) competition, which was originally designed to highlight the best coffees from each participating country each year and auction off the winning coffees to the highest bidder. In theory, it incentivizes producers to pull out all the stops when making quality control decisions while growing and processing their coffees. However, Jeff knew that a producer doesn’t showcase all of their harvest at the competition. It takes just a small fraction of a normal harvest to enter. A producer may have a huge amount of coffee that will be sold to exporters that never make the competition. Even the years they do enter their coffees in the Cup of Excellence competition, there’s no guarantee they’ll win.


This is where Jeff saw an opportunity to purchase high quality coffee off the auction from the very same producers who were putting in the effort to have higher quality lots.

It would be more expensive, of course, but high quality was what he wanted the status quo of his brand to be. The winning lot from Guatemala that year was purchased by Solberg & Hansen, one of the heavy hitters in European Specialty Coffee in Norway. But since the buyers had been on this trip with Jeff, they agreed to sell him one 69-kilogram bag to bring back to the United States. It was one of the first COE coffees in the United States and was the first big step to solving the ever-lingering quality problem he was having at his roasterie. 

In 2005 Jeff was a judge in Colombia’s Cup of Excellence competition, where he purchased a lot that took third place. After coming home he spent weeks trying to convince the exporter to let him come back, journey through the FARC-ridden countryside and meet the producer in person. Due to safety concerns it was a quick in-and-out trip but the beginnings of his new model to meet directly with producers of the highest quality coffee he could find and start a long-term relationship was started. Because of this work, one of the earliest iterations of direct-trade coffee was born.  

After a while, his recurring work in Colombia started gaining attention from a few Colombian coffee professionals, specifically a coffee-buyer named Martiza. She had been given an article about a gringo from the US who was shaking up the way people bought coffee in Colombia.. She didn’t think much of it and tossed the article on her desk. Years pass––in 2008, Jeff judged at a specialty coffee competition in Ecuador, where he met and mingled with fellow coffee professionals from around the globe, one of them being Martiza.  They quickly fell in love. Soon after, Maritza realized that the gringo in the article had been Jeff all along. 


Maritza and Jeff got married and continued their work as a team. Jeff sold some of his shares in PT’s and in 2017 he purchased Bird Rock Coffee in San Diego.

He and Maritza needed a new adventure and the retail presence of Bird Rock seemed promising, despite the challenges wholesale roasting businesses faced in the mid 2010s. Since they purchased Bird Rock and moved to the west coast, Jeff and Maritza have been working together tirelessly to grow the company. In five years they’ve opened nine stores and are currently working on the tenth. Martiza cups coffee from the production room every day for quality control. She focuses on sourcing coffees for Bird Rock’s production while also heavily influencing PT’s purchasing. You can even catch their young son around the roasterie soaking up coffee knowledge as the family works together. 

Jeff has helped the specialty coffee industry evolve and played a pivotal role in setting the standard for sourcing. Colombia has remained their strongest sourcing relationship over the years, but he and Maritza have invested a lot of time and energy into relationships with producers in El Salvador and Guatemala as well. They continue to focus on great tasting coffees and long term relationships with suppliers in coffee growing countries as they grow their business domestically. They work hard to provide continuing education for their employees and create career opportunities for people as Bird Rock expands. Jeff may have helped spark the energy in the US behind transparent coffee sourcing more than twenty years ago, but complacency isn’t on the menu. He’s still happily hard at work keeping the coffee flowing. 

Story and photography by Adam Shaw of Civilian Visual Media (CVM).


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