Joe On The Job Guest Column – Howard Fischer, U.S. Roasterie, Des Moines, Iowa

Over 30 years, this visionary entrepreneur has launched two successful businesses, served on the NAMA board and shared his knowledge with others, all in the name of advancing the coffee industry.

A Chicago, Ill., native, Fischer got his professional start at Continental Coffee in Chicago, Ill. He was transferred to Des Moines, Iowa, in 1978. And then three years later, the company approached him about another transfer. With a young family, Fischer didn’t want to leave Des Moines. “We liked the pace of life here,” he said. “Everyone was so kind and welcoming, and we thought it would be a great place to raise of our daughters.”

So Fischer took the leap and started his own office coffee service, U.S. Coffee. He has fond memories of his venture’s early days, challenging as they were. “I left early in the morning and knocked on as many doors as possible and returned late in the afternoon,” he said. One of Fischer’s biggest surprises was how many companies didn’t want to work with him simply because his business was new.

Being an entrepreneur 

Entrepreneurship is not for everyone, Fischer says. “When you start a business from scratch, you literally have zero clients,” he explained. “Your entire income is based on commissions. If that motivates you, you will do well. If it doesn’t, you’re going to be in trouble.”

Still, Fischer would never say that he did it singlehandedly. U.S. Coffee started in his basement and, with the help of his dedicated wife, Debbie, grew to a business that employed fifteen people and had close to 80 percent market share.

With one thriving business under his belt, Fischer saw the opportunity for another. In 1995, he founded U.S. Roasterie. “After over 20 years in office coffee service, I enjoyed the challenge and excitement of starting a coffee roasting company,” he said. “It was interesting to see the industry from another angle.”

Like U.S. Coffee, U.S. Roasterie has grown significantly. The company sells nationally and virtually 100 percent of its business is private label. The company doesn't compete with its customers and its employee roster tops 60.

You can hear the pride in Fischer’s voice when he talks about how many hard-working people his businesses employ in his adopted hometown of Des Moines. When it comes to hiring, he says the main lesson he’s learned is to employ people with different strengths than his own.

Supporting the industry

Even with two flourishing businesses, Fischer always found time to support the industry as a whole. Now a board member at NAMA, he chairs the Coffee Service Committee and is a co-chair of this year’s Coffee, Tea and Water show.

NAMA members admire Fischer’s business acumen and ability to think outside the box. More than anything, they appreciate his generosity. He is always willing to lend an ear and share advice. “I’ve never met more nice people than I have working in his industry,” he said.

Fischer is impressed with NAMA’s forward-looking vision. “If we as an industry don’t embrace change, we fail,” he said. “Fortunately, NAMA has been able to help members like me navigate shifts in the industry.”

Vision has clearly been integral to Fischer’s professional success. While opening any business involves risk, Fischer had the foresight to see that an office coffee service and later a coffee roaster could both do well in his community.

The other key to his success?  Humility. He says he never pretended to have all the answers. “When I don’t know something, I find out where to look,” Fischer said. That’s the advice he gives young people entering the industry. He also stresses the importance of lifelong learning and says NAMA is the place to learn and be challenged.

Fischer notes that office coffee has come a long way since he started US Coffee three decades ago. “The variety and professionalism of the offerings has improved greatly,” he said. “The future for both coffee and NAMA is bright. I’m proud to work in this industry.”