When you meet Sean Tobin, '16, the young, energetic owner of Vessel Coffee Roasters, in Spokane, your first thought may be that he needs to keep an eye on his intake of the tasty product he peddles. This enterprising Whitworth alum fell in love with his future business in high school. He's been on track to fulfill his dream of selling great coffee since his parents bought him a small roaster as a Christmas present.
At Whitworth, during his freshman year, Tobin and his then-business partner roasted coffee in the partner's garage. Business Management Lecturer David Sloan, '05, tested the brew and told his student, "You have to compete in the business plan competition," a regional event at which Whitworth's teams have been consistently successful. For weeks, Tobin and his partner worked day and night to get their presentation ready. They came in third. "I was destroyed," he says. "I kept asking myself, ‘Why?'"
His summer job at a marketing agency renewed his passion for the project. When he returned to Whitworth as a sophomore, the former Running Start student was determined to graduate in the spring and to keep working full time on the business. "It was the hardest year of my life," he says. "I don't even know how I'm still alive."
Tobin graduated in December, at age 19. He and his partner started their business small, "roasting coffee, picking up church accounts and accounts for little shops around town," worrying whether they were
going to be able to make it. They opened the gleaming, modern coffee-shop portion of their operation in June 2016 and had an outstanding first day, taking in $3,000. The next day they earned $300.
"It takes a long time to build a customer base," Tobin says, "and now we're doing fine. But that first month was super scary." Clinging to three words that have guided his life and work – vision, courage, determination – Tobin hasn't let anything, even the unexpected departure of his business partner, shake him. "It's taught me a ton," he says.
Vessel plans to add locations, expand its wholesale business, and explore international opportunities. The business also works with community members, hiring interns who learn the business from the ground up; participates in efforts to upgrade Spokane's North Monroe corridor; and is working with coffee growers in Central and South America to create a program that will combine fair-trade practices with increased quality and pricing for the growers.