By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Mar 02, 2013 at 5:24 AM

Robb Kashevarof is the founder of Valentine Coffee, a burgeoning newcomer on the local coffee roasting scene located at 5918 W. Vliet St. We recently sat down with Kashevarof and business partners Joe Gilsdorf and Marshall Harting to hear about their unique journey and vision.

"In the beginning, there was coffee," says Kashevarof, starting his no-joke business story with a splash of humor.

The truth is, although Valentine Coffee officially started in 2009, Kashevarof and Gilsdorf have been talking about coffee and "all things sensory evaluative" including beer, wine, food and coffee for about 14 years.

Originally, the two were employed by the Milwaukee Ale House. Then they both worked in the wine industry and over the years continued to meet for lunch regularly.

"A lot of our conversations were built around tasting stuff and breaking stuff apart, sharing opinions. We really thought and talked about things on the next level – not one that everyone as a consumer thinks about," says Gilsdorf, who co-owned Nessun Dorma in Riverwest from 2002 to 2008 and then moved to Napa Valley, Calif., for three growing season before returning to Milwaukee to commit to Valentine.

The conversations happened over dinners, too. The two friends took turns cooking for each other and their significant others and would discuss and deconstruct whatever food and drink they were tasting.

"We were always trying to find that sweet balanced cup of coffee," says Kashevarof. "But it took 10 years for for us to finally say, 'are we going to roast our own coffee, or what?'"

Finally, Kashevarof started roasting 10-12 batches of coffee every day on a home coffee roaster with the intent of buying a larger one. He did this for about a year.

"I sensory evaluated every batch. I was figuring out what happened when I changed one thing, just one thing, and then I'd take notes and figure out how it all works," he says.

Kashevarof bought a larger roaster in 2009 from an Idaho-based company named Diedrich. He bought the roaster with a tax return and a credit card, and without a plan as to where he was going to put it.

"At the time I knew I was going to roast coffee, I just wanted a great cup of coffee," he says.

Kashevarof thought about many possibilities for where and how to roast and sell the coffee. He created a business plan which he shared with several friends, one of whom was restauranteur Joe Bartolotta, who thought it was a solid plan.

"He asked me where I planned to roast. I said I just needed four food-safe walls, I just wanted to mess around with this and he said I could lease some space from him to get started. And that's what I did," says Kashevarof.

Hence, the first Valentine Coffee roastery was three blocks away from the current space, where they moved in September 2012.

This spring, Valentine will open a tasting room in the currently empty space in front of the roastery. They describe it as a "walk-up Italian espresso bar meets winery tasting room."

"We are sidestepping words like 'cafe' and 'coffee shop,'" says Gilsdorf. "They conjure up a lot of images of couches and tofu scrambler and syrups and blenders and that's not what we're going to do. You don't go to the winery tasting room to have lunch. We're doing one cup at a time."

At this point, Valentine does not plan to open multiple cafes around town or even offer more than the one tasting room. But even though they have a different business vision than other local coffee roasters, is there still a strong sense of competition?

"You can't get around the fact we're competitors, but we're also all ambassadors for the coffee industry," says Kashevarof. "But we will not be opening cafes all over Milwaukee. We're not here to be the biggest – just the best."

Gilsdorf says the more people who are interested in quality coffee, the more they are going to be interested in other quality coffee experiences, too.

"If someone has a great cup of coffee at Anodyne or Alterra or Stone Creek, they're going to be interested in having a great cup of our coffee. As long as they're interested in great coffee, we're going to be fine. It's the only healthy way to look at it. There's enough business to go around," says Gilsdorf.

Currently, Kashevarof and Gilsdorf roast the coffee, 20 pounds at a time, about five or six days a week. (The roasting soundtracks of choice vary quite a bit, but often include '50s and '60s hard jazz, classical, NPR and the "Saturday Afternoon Boogie Bang.")

They often draw on their knowledge of and experience with wine when sourcing and roasting their coffee.

"Balance is what we shoot for. All the best wine makers will tell you: buy the best fruit and then get out of the way. Coffee and wine are so similar," says Kashevarof.

The company has a full time employee and a few part-time employees to help out. Harting, formerly the sales director for Rishi Tea, handles the wholesale efforts.

Valentine's key accounts include the Bartolotta restaurants, Sendik's, Grasch Foods, V. Richards, Beans and Barley, Groppi's Food Market, Metcalfe's Market, Rochambo, Hi-Fi Cafe, The National and City Market.

Valentine's most popular coffee is the Bering Sea Blend, a combination of East African, Indonesian and South American beans. They describe it with comparisons to wine.

"Like a Bordeaux blend from a winery, it might taste a little different from year to year, but it always has that profile, that 'stamp of the house style,'" says Gilsdorf. "To quote one of our importers: we taste a lot of crappy coffee so you don't have to."

Finding the very best beans is important, but adaptability and ability to move on and reinvent the "perfect" cup of coffee in new ways is equally if not more important.

"Sourcing is really important; it's huge. But then what you do as the artisan is really important, too. We bought all we could of this Ugandan (a coffee they are currently developing but is still unavailable) but when it's gone, it's gone. It will be really exciting for a period of time but we'll have to say goodbye to it and move on," says Gilsdorf.

"The beauty is you always know there's something great right behind it if you're willing to do the work to find it."

The Valentine owners are unable, at this point, to travel to coffee growing regions, but they regularly attend symposiums and conferences often and say they have a few importers they deeply trust who share their same vision.

"You can tell right away if you're dealing with a bunch of commodities traders staring at a screen or if they love coffee. Those who do have photos of farmers on the walls. They know the names of the farmers," says Kashevarof. "Those are the people we work with."

The three owners are all long-time Milwaukeeans. Harting was born and raised here. Gilsdorf is originally from Green Bay but lived in Milwaukee for most of his adult life and Kashevarof was born and spent his childhood in Seattle but moved to Wauwatosa in high school.

The company is named after Kashevarof's grandfather, Valentine, who was a Aleut Indian from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Kashevarof, his father and his nephew all share the middle name Valentine.

Coincidentally, long after the name was picked and the business was up and running, Gilsdorf learned his great grandfather's middle name was Valentine as well. He was unaware of this until his mother toured the roastery and mentioned it.

"He was a Fond du Lac area dairy farmer, not an Aleut Indian, so there's no relation or anything," jokes Gilsdorf.

According to the owners, Valentine's core value is to provide a balance in their coffee and to work synergistically with their customers.

"We just want to do a really good job and enjoy it while we're doing it," says Gilsdorf.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.