Lori McCombs was born and raised in Decatur. After her parents’ divorce when she was 7, she was raised by her mother, who taught her the value of hard work. “My mother was a waitress at the nicest restaurant in Decatur,” McCombs said. “She was probably the hardest-working person that I’ve ever met. She taught me most of what I know about work ethic and the importance of integrity.”
After her mother lost a short battle with lung cancer, McCombs was allowed to graduate high school early at 17. She paid her way through Millikin University on grants and scholarships and worked full-time managing an aerobics program at a workout facility near campus. She graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in computer information systems and moved to Chicago to work as a marketing representative for a couple of the major computer software and hardware companies.
She made a move to Peoria in 1989, which also marked the beginning of her technical support career at which she spent the next 14 years working as a computer and network technician, manager and, finally, as a technical business consultant. While she was pleased with her advancement in the technology field, McCombs was not excited about her job. “While I was fairly successful throughout my (technology) career, I always felt that I had chosen the wrong path for myself,” McCombs said. “Looking back of course, I’m very happy with where that path has taken me; however, I use myself as an example for the kids that work for me and are in a hurry to plan their career. I always tell them, ‘better to take the time now to choose rather than make the change 20 years later.’”
McCombs claims that the decision to make a career change came when she had her daughter Ella, who is now 4. “Children make you brave,” McCombs said. “While I was on maternity leave, it became very clear that I was not going to be able to look her in the eyes if I didn’t find another career that was more fulfilling for me.” Little did McCombs know she would find that career change right around the corner—literally. “I began looking into buying a business that would allow me to have some fun, but also some flexibility so that I could focus on Ella as well,” McCombs said. “I was a customer at Leaves-N-Beans because my office was located around the corner and I would frequent the café on my way to work. In my quest for a new career, I inquired about Leaves-N-Beans and as it turns out, the owners were looking to sell. It’s a long story, but I chalk it up to fate.”
McCombs claims that she didn’t choose coffee; coffee chose her. She had no experience in the coffee industry, except that she considered herself to be an expert on mocha lattes. Despite a lack of industry knowledge, she went with a gut feeling to buy the business and in June 2003, took ownership of Leaves-N-Beans, now officially called Leaves-N-Beans Roasting Co. When she purchased the business, McCombs thought she was getting into a slower-paced job than she had before, but the coffee industry was blowing up with challenges from the competition. Therefore, McCombs and her husband, Jeff, knew they needed to find a way to stand out. “We quickly found ourselves competing with one of the biggest names and companies in the world as well as thousands of other folks getting into the coffee industry,” McCombs said. “That’s how we decided to focus on roasting since that is our true niche and makes us unique to Peoria.” The two found that they were naturals at the roasting process. While Jeff is more into the actual process itself—spending hours at the roaster perfecting every flavor, roast and blend—Lori prefers to soak up as much information about the coffees as possible. “I absolutely love learning about the different coffees from different countries and have built a tremendous amount of knowledge, respect and love for coffee and the long and complicated process of getting beans from the other side of the world to our customers,” McCombs said. “We have taken our knowledge and our newfound love of coffee and turned it into more than 100 of the highest-quality and freshroasted coffees you’ll ever taste.”
Watching her husband master the intricate roasting process has been a fulfilling part of the business. In addition to her husband, Leaves-NBeans employs a second roastmaster and an apprentice roastmaster in training. “It’s one of those skills that you can master the basics,” McCombs said of roasting. “However, depending on the bean and the roast required, you never actually know all that there is to know. It’s been just amazing seeing how talented (Jeff) is though. It’s a skill base that not everyone can master, let alone as quickly and as expertly as he has in such a short period of time. I try to tell him often—since he doesn’t get to spend much time with customers—that people don’t just like our coffee, many times they state it’s the best coffee they’ve ever had.”
With increased competition from the café side of the business, the McCombs decided to turn most of their attention to the roasting and wholesale business. The business already had a 20-year reputation for great coffee, which made it easier to prove their promise of quality brews. In 2004, they started putting together the materials to support the new roasting side of the business and now have 30 accounts in Peoria, Champaign, Springfield, Rockford and Colorado. McCombs has many other plans for her business—such as expansion into different areas. The café hired a new pastry chef, Greg Utsinger, who has been concocting new dishes for the menu. With Utsinger, the café is planning on expanding its lunch menu and possibly adding a dinner menu. On the wholesale side, the business is looking to expand further outside the central Illinois area and into other markets. “Our expansion plans include expanding across the country to various other cafés and bakeries looking to do fantastic coffee,” McCombs said. “In addition, we have just added a distributor piece of our business in which we now stock and sell other supplies that cafés use such as syrups, sauces, drink mixes, equipment and just about any other item you can think of that you see in a café today.” Along with expanding their business, the McCombs are expanding coffee flavors with their new line of coffees called Storyteller’s Blends™. They developed three coffees for the 2006 holiday season, and have plans to introduce four to eight more this year. “Over the past year or so, I’ve been inspired by stories and questions that I’ve been asked. Some of them have stayed with me and so for fun, we’ve decided to package our coffee with these stories in hopes of inspiring others as well,” McCombs said. “We are also working with a marketing consultant who has worked with companies such as Gloria Jean’s to develop this line of coffees and grow it into a nationally recognizable product along with the rest of Leaves-N-Beans Roasting Co. coffees.”
Looking to help the local coffee industry thrive in an environment where larger corporations are some of the toughest competition, the entrepreneurs have started a local coffee alliance. “I thought it would be helpful to bring other café and coffee business owners together for support and to learn from each other as well as attract vendors to the area to speak to a group as opposed to just one of us,” McCombs said. “As our wholesale business began to grow and as Starbucks began their invasion into the backyards of already established cafés, it became apparent that we could use this group to counteract some of the impact.” But, McCombs wants everyone to know that the group isn’t against larger corporations. “We appreciate the level of awareness that a company like this can raise about the specialty coffee industry,” McCombs said. “However, we’d be naïve to think that we should just continue to operate as we have been without considering some options that may help us gain some efficiency or increase our business traffic. The biggest difference between us and them is that we are about community. We know our customers’ names, their kids, what they drink and we plan to continue to be a part of the community and give back to the community.” tpw