The majority of all American adults drink coffee on a regular basis — more than 150 million people, according to studies. That creates an extraordinarily wide base of potential customers. It also creates a crowded marketplace.

How can a brand stand out in such a competitive category?

We’re caught up with Luke Schneider, Founder and President of Fire Dept. Coffee. He’s a Navy veteran and, in addition to his role with Fire Dept. Coffee, he’s also a full-time firefighter-paramedic in the city of Rockford, Ill. We asked him about his fast-growing business and what his team has done to build a strong, loyal customer base of coffee lovers and first responders.

ForceBrands: How did Fire Dept. Coffee get started?
Luke Schneider: Being a firefighter has always been my dream. I joined the Navy specifically because I knew it would give me the best training to be a firefighter.

Of course, military members and first responders both find themselves working long shifts. So I learned early on that coffee was my friend. In the Navy, we drank coffee by the gallon. It helped us stay alert and sharp so we could get the job done.

Later, when I transitioned out of the Navy and into the fire service, my wife and I began experimenting with roasting our own coffee. And the story and the company gradually grew from there.

FB: What does Fire Dept. Coffee offer?
LS: We sell a wide variety of coffee, so that every coffee drinker will find something that fits what they enjoy most. We’ve got medium roasts that include Original, Donut Shop, and Shellback Espresso, which is a tribute to Navy traditions. We’ve got our Light Roast and Dark Roast. We’ve got a darker Backdraft Espresso.

We also recently introduced our Stipe Miocic Extra Strength Coffee. That’s a collaboration with 6-time UFC champion Stipe Miocic, who is also a firefighter-paramedic. It’s got twice the caffeine, so it packs a punch.

And of course, we have Decaf for when you want the coffee but not the caffeine.

Everything we sell is made to order, roasted by hand, and shipped directly to our customers.

FB: You also sell a line of spirit-infused coffee. Can you tell us more about that?
LS: Several years ago, we created a signature process for infusing the flavors of our favorite spirits — bourbon, whiskey, tequila, rum, etc. — into our coffee. The alcohol is cooked away, but the distinct flavor notes remain.

We were the first to develop this type of infusion process. It’s been one of our best sellers and another way that we can stand out from other brands.

We have our traditional spirit-infused blends that are always available, and periodically we’ll have special limited roasts that incorporate different types of spirits. We enjoy doing it, and our customers love it.

FB: What is the Fire Department Coffee Foundation?
LS: Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of people who I don’t hesitate to describe as heroes. Military members and first responders sacrifice a lot in service of others. Sometimes, they end up being the ones in need of help.

From the beginning, we made it part of our mission to donate 10 percent of net proceeds to support wounded, ill, or injured first responders. That evolved into us creating the Fire Department Coffee Foundation as a vehicle for us to direct those funds and partner with organizations that are uniquely qualified to provide those resources and services.

So anytime someone orders anything from Fire Dept. Coffee, they know that a portion of that order is going to support a much greater cause.

FB: Speaking of your customers, how have you built that connection between your brand and the firefighting community.
LS: The firefighting community is really part of a much bigger family of first responders. You’ve got police and EMS and healthcare workers. The daily demands of all those jobs have a lot of things in common. And they have a lot in common with the military and plenty of other professions, too. Our goal has always been to roast great coffee for hardworking people, no matter what they do.

Of course, we have that direct connection with firefighters, and that’s our strongest base. We speak the same language. I think that’s why it resonates. They know that we are one of them, so as long as we’re giving them a product they love, they will want to support us.

FB: How has humor been an asset in building your brand?
LS: Your best friends are often the ones who make you laugh and who can brighten your day. It can be the same with your favorite brands. Early on, we were connected with Jason Patton, who is now our vice president. Jason is a firefighter who built an enormous following making hilarious videos for his own venture, Fire Department Chronicles. Just hilarious takes on everyday aspects of life as a firefighter. People love it.

We started collaborating, and he started incorporating our coffee into what he was doing. It just kept growing, and now he’s a fixture at Fire Dept. Coffee. And that fun, creative approach has just spread throughout the company. We’ve got a lot of really talented people on the team, and I think that shows when you get our emails or follow us on social media.

How do you keep Fire Department Coffee — as a brand and a business — from getting stale?
If we were roasting the same handful of coffees and nothing else, we’d get bored. And our customers would lose interest.

So we’re always trying new things to be exciting and innovative because we want to keep our team and our customers engaged. We have a Coffee of the Month Club, where we send subscribers a new coffee every month, along with a story about where the beans come from, how the coffee was roasted and what makes it special. And we have a variety of seasonal and special roasts that we’ll introduce periodically.

In 2021, we’re planning to introduce a line of ready-to-drink cans of coffee. So we try to stay connected to what’s happening in our industry because it changes so quickly and we want to stay on the leading edge.

Interested in learning more about the beverage industry? Explore our BevForce division.