interviewsVeterans and Startups

Veterans and Startups: Heartbreak Coffee Interview

by Grace Bonney

Over the holiday break I really let my mind wander a bit and think about the things that inspire me right now. Aside from visual inspiration on Instagram, one of the things I’m most intrigued and inspired by is a new business. Whether it’s someone leaving a job in finance to start a bakery or a graphic designer going out on their own, I love the excitement and passion that come from a brand new business. So I decided to expand on our business and interview content by creating a new series that interviews two great businesses in the same nice, one that’s just starting out and one that’s been around for a while and knows the ropes. I think there’s so much to learn from both new and more veteran businesses, so I’m really excited to see how these interview pairings go and what they may inspire in others. To start, I thought about my favorite thing about mornings: coffee.

I’ve been following Heartbreak Coffee, a new coffee company that launched in Long Beach, California last year. Their branding was so spot on that I took notice on Instagram and immediately began following them. From there, I was blown away by their passion, determination and the way they were taking a grass roots approach to growing their brand and getting the word out about their coffee and what made it special. Owner Gretchen Williams worked as a barista for years and was inspired by the relationships she saw her community building around coffee (“It’s like tuning in to listen to the hum of an entire community”). Those connections inspired her to start testing her own roasting techniques (not all of which worked out) and from “many heartbreaks” came inspiration- and a new company. We got the chance to drink Gretchen’s coffee this week and aside from being delicious (and tasty for dessert recipes), I think her passion for her business will help her go far. I hope you’ll enjoy her interview and thoughts on starting a new business as much as I did. Stay tuned this afternoon for the companion interview with Doug Zell, founder of Intelligentsia Coffee. xo, grace

Photographs by Michelle Bandach

Click through for the full interview and photos of the team and space behind Heartbreak Coffee…

Basic Info:

Your name: Gretchen Williams
Your role at Heartbreak: Owner/Proprietor
Your location: Long Beach, CA
How long have you been at Heartbreak?: 3 months
Where can people find your business online: Instagram, Facebook, our website and our online shop.

Design*Sponge: What was the inspiration/reason for starting Heartbreak?

Gretchen Williams: The relationship that a community shares with local coffee.
Working as a barista in a small coffee shop for several years, I’ve seen teenagers go out on their first dates, seen old friends reunite after years on end, seen relationships grow, seen some dissolve, seen marriages and families grow and even seen some divorce… And I’ve seen heartbreak… so many times. I think people find a sense of comfort in coffee shops, whether it be for seeking connections or seeking peace. And I think that these personal connections which people share within coffee shops are just the most magical thing – it’s like tuning in to listen to the hum of an entire community. It’s surreal. It gives me goosebumps just talking about it.

The original reason why I ever even considered pursuing something within the coffee niche is because I fell in love (hard) with the idea of sharing that kind of space with my community. And with that, I’ve experienced my fair share of heartbreak trying to see this dream come to fruition. I’ve had so many opportunities present themselves to me, and then have had them unexpectedly fall-through for one reason or another. I didn’t even begin roasting my own beans until about a year ago when I felt like I hit rock-bottom with everything. I literally woke up one morning and started roasting. It just felt “right”. It was only at that point that I truly began to obsess over the beauty and pride in making a specialty cup of coffee. Since then I’ve been roasting always with an open mind, making connections with coffee nerds, bean importers, and local roasters. I am, and always will be, searching for ways to expand my coffee vocabulary, experience and knowledge.

D*S: What is a day in the life of your job at Heartbreak like? What takes up the majority of your work day?

Gretchen: Heartbreak Coffee is an in-home operation, which I run with my business partner and girlfriend, Michelle. It consumes my day from the moment I wake up, to the moment I go to sleep – but it never feels like a “job”. I check my emails first thing in the morning and write down my list of incoming orders. I make sure our dogs are all happy, healthy and fed, and then I begin my day. I make a list of supplies needed (i.e. more jars, more beans, paper/etc.) I start my roasts in the kitchen, while Michelle begins writing out the tags and cutting the labels (yes, every single tag and label is hand-cut and hand-written), we sanitize each jar, label everything, organize our orders, pack, ship, reply to emails and keep up on social media somewhere between all of that. I even make time to deliver my coffee locally on my 1971 Honda CT90 for my Long Beach customers. The two of us do everything – from every single aspect of marketing and maintenance to full-fledged production and networking.


D*S: What is the thing you’re proudest of that you (or the company as a whole) have done at Heartbreak so far?

Gretchen: This may sound cheesy, but I am proud literally each and every single time someone tries my coffee. I live for the “oohhhh” moment people get when they take their first sip. Being able to share my passion for fresh, artisanal coffee is a dream come true to me.

And to be entirely honest, considering that Heartbreak has only been around for about 3 months, this interview is really just the biggest, fattest cherry on top. You should have heard Michelle scream in excitement when she heard that Heartbreak was going to be on Design*Sponge.

D*S: We love your branding and the identity associated with Heartbreak (it’s fantastic)- how did it come about, how did you decide on the look and what role does that play in the brand and company as a whole?

Gretchen: Thanks so much! I have to owe all props and praises to my partner, Michelle Bandach, she’s a genius and extremely talented. We wouldn’t be getting nearly the amount attention we are if we didn’t have a great looking name, product and logo. Considering she is the brain behind the identity and design, I feel like I should let her answer this one:

I really wanted the name to symbolize everything Gretchen had experienced and was envisioning with her coffee. It finally came to me one day as I was asking her about her favorite moments as a barista. I really loved the idea of tapping into that community “hum” and being inspired by all bittersweet things in life. It’s a perfect play on the taste of coffee too. Visually, I wanted something something timeless, but still current. And personally, I like walking the line between masculine and feminine design – I feel like it embodies a balance between everything I look for in successful identity work. In hindsight, using the word “coffee” in such a bold and memorable way was probably the best design and business move I could have ever made!

And selling our coffee in mason jars is both aesthetic and functional. Roasted coffee has a life span of up to about 2 weeks – it reaches it height in flavor and body somewhere around 8-10 days. After that, the beans begin to oxidize and become stale. So selling our coffee in smaller, airtight, 6oz jars means that our customers can easily enjoy a truly fresh cup of coffee within 2 weeks time. It not only looks great, but also serves an important purpose.


D*S: What brands or businesses do you admire or want to emulate (in terms of values, etc.)?

Gretchen: It’s difficult picking a single brand. I think the thing that I admire the most in any business is seeing creative passion and a drive to share it with others. I have to say that I am inspired on a daily basis by small businesses (some of whom I’m lucky enough to consider my personal friends): they display the ultimate desire to become personally connected to their communities and always, always choose quality over quantity. I want to forever maintain that mentality within my business.

D*S: What has been the biggest challenge starting business so far, and what are you doing to solve it?

Gretchen: Sincerely, the biggest challenge thus far has been keeping up with demand. As a team, Michelle and I are INCREDIBLY lucky to have the right combination of creative/financing skills to have launched this business entirely without any outside help, but since it is only a two-person production being run out of our home, things can get a little overwhelming sometimes.

I am looking to launch a Kickstarter within the next 3 months to help fund expenses to open up a brick and mortar location for Heartbreak Coffee. This way, I will be able to increase production with a larger roaster in a larger space, and finally have the community coffee shop I have always dreamed of having.


D*S What was the best piece of business advice you were given when you started?

Gretchen: “Every roadblock is a blessing in disguise”. So true.

D*S: What advice do you have to new businesses in your field starting out or what are the top three things someone should consider before starting their own business?


1. If you love what you do, you will never see it as a just a “business” – because it is a part of who you are. So if you don’t love it, you probably shouldn’t pursue it.

2. Don’t sacrifice quality for quantity. Ever.

3. Never underestimate the power of social media.

4. And never underestimate the power of kindness.

Sorry that was four…

D*S: What are your goals going forward or next steps you’d like to take as a brand?

Gretchen: My main goal at this point now is to have A SHOP! Just one! It’s the entire reason why I fell in love with specialty coffee. I want a space where people can come in and experience that magic feel of a local coffee shop, and enjoy a carefully-crafted cup of coffee or espresso at the same time. I want to really try to be a place where people can learn about roasting, grinding, pouring, and tasting coffee in an artisanal way. There is a change happening in coffee culture right now – people are starting to pay more attention to their coffee, their beans and their local roasters… and I couldn’t imagine myself or Heartbreak existing in any moment other than in this very one, right now.


Suggested For You


  • I am in love with this whole interview. Great job Heartbreak! As a coffe enthusiast this whole vision resonates very deeply with me. I can’t wait to try some of this coffee!

  • Is there a list for the coffee products/tools in that picture?? I’m wondering specifically what kettle and grinder she uses.

  • This is great, I hope you get a storefront soon! Note to Gretchen: Your website blog link still has the introduction First Post “this is what you would write here” type of message. In case you wanted to clear that out.

  • I am a huge coffee lover and some might call me a coffee snob… I am always interested in trying something new. I need to get my hands on some Heartbreak! I am in Vancouver, BC, so I don’t know how that will occur at this point. Love the passion, the branding and from what you have described I am certain I would love your coffee.

  • Jenna – I use the “Hario V60 Buono Kettle”, as well as the “Hario Mini Mill Slim Coffee Grinder”. The investment is well worth it! If you had to choose any single thing off of that product image, I would definitely suggest purchasing the grinder. That is the #1 thing that can help differentiate a great cup of coffee vs a good cup of coffee!

  • Thanks for posting, It’s great to see their passion being channeled into their community. Thanks for posting and best of luck to Heartbreak Coffee!

  • I cannot love this column concept enough! Having left my corporate job to strike out on my own a little over a year ago, I know that it can sometimes feel like you’re floating out at sea all alone when you’re figuring out how to run your own company (no matter how well you’re doing it). I know that I find the stories and journeys of other people that are crazy enough to make the same leap endlessly inspiring and proof that it CAN be done and IS being done all over the place. Keep rocking, Heartbreak!

  • Yay Long Beach! We have a ton of amazing artisanal start-ups happening in this city. It’s a very exciting time to be here. Congrats to Heartbreak Coffee!

  • I am very proud of you Gretchen. Your coffee is delicious, your brand is remarkable, and your focus on Quality is awesome!!!

  • Yay Long Beach! So great to see new businesses that realize the importance of branding & design… although I’m sure having a designer for a GF helps :) Good luck to you!

  • I love this idea of the start-up/vets series. It’s almost like you can see a bit of where Intelligentsia started in the Heartbreak interview and a little of where Heartbreak could be in 15 years in the Intelligentsia interview. And I must say – I love the name Heartbreak Coffee and the strong, simple graphics. They’re very memorable.

    I’ve been reading D*S for a while now and keep coming back for the great little nuggets of wisdom and how-I-got-there-from-here moments to be found in the interviews. They are instructive and encouraging for someone who wants to start a business, but is looking for something unique and human over the cut and dry business model. Thanks to D*S, Intelligentsia and Heartbreak for sharing what you do with us.

  • This was so inspiring. It is sometimes frustrating to do baby steps when growing a business because you want it to just take off already. These four topics Gretchen mentioned really helped as I am still “waiting to be discovered”. :) I am so in love with interior design that I just can’t contain it or keep it to myself.

    Thank you,

    1. If you love what you do, you will never see it as a just a “business” – because it is a part of who you are. So if you don’t love it, you probably shouldn’t pursue it.

    2. Don’t sacrifice quality for quantity. Ever.

    3. Never underestimate the power of social media.

    4. And never underestimate the power of kindness.

  • I grew up in Long Beach – it’s a great community and I can’t wait for the “brick & mortar” version of Heartbreak Coffee – In the meantime I guess I need to get an order in – Congrats and keep up the good work (and thank you D*S for the Long Beach love!!)

  • Wow…. heartbreak coffee your spirit and vision is truly heartbreaking! Thank You, you have inspire me

  • Hi Gretchen, forgive my ignorance on the subject but where did you source the metal pour-over cup thingie in the last picture? Thx

  • I’m excited that more women are entering the roasting and production side of coffee!I’m a female coffee roaster based in Detroit and I’ve tried hard to shift the gender balance of our production crew. When my company hired me, there were actual scoffs, out loud, over whether a woman could perform the physical tasks of the job. Anyway, you rule and I love what you’re up to.

    Also, that Konga is soooo delicious. We’re using it in a few espresso’s right now and it’s insane. I think all of specialty coffee will be sad when this year’s crop is gone.

  • I can’t get enough of the Biz Ladies column and I’m going to gobble this new column up!
    And I agree with another commenter, “go Heartbreak!” I love the quality over quantity, the handwritten labels and the purposeful packaging. I wish I was in Cali so I could experience the coffee locally!

  • Thanks everyone so much for the love and support!!! We are so blown away by all of the amazing things everyone has been saying – we feel so blessed!

    Berangere – to answer your question – we have never been able to test out a Zassenhaus for ourselves, but we’ve only heard really great things about their products! And we love that use a french press! It’s so great to hear that you enjoy manual brewing :) Have you ever tried out a Chemex?? If you love your bodum french press, we definitely recommend looking at a Chemex as well! It’s currently our favorite way to make our daily cups of coffee.

    Donnarino – we love getting most of our brewing equipment online from http://prima-coffee.com/ – their prices are competitive and they sell only top-notch stuff. We recommend the “Kalita Wave”and “Bee House” coffee drippers for anyone interested in home brewing!

    LIZ – our hearts are exploding with you. We have discussed this exact statement so many times with one another… It’s definitely difficult being female within such a male-dominated industry. What is the name of your shop???? We want to be friends!!!!! And yes – that Konga is beyond exceptional. We are going to be so sad to see it go :(

  • So great to see great things happening in Long Beach, very inspiring and can’t wait to try Heartbreak!

  • I checked the Prima coffee link. Thank you for sharing that. Loads of info! Now I know what that 7th picture means! New toy!! :D Never heard of Aeropress before. Funny that you suggested the Chemex because I’ve been thinking about it a lot! Almost 10 yrs. That’s a long time don’t you think? In fact I was just talking to my husband about it before I read your reply. A sign? ;)