It Takes Teamwork: Brian and Miriam Protsman
images by matthew carvalho | story by michelle hopper
Industry veterans Brian and Miriam Protsman are the heart and soul behind SwitchBox Coffee Roasters, one of the most beloved specialty coffee roasters and shops in South Florida. Brian, a roaster with over 12 years of experience, and Miriam (who goes by Mimi with her friends and family), a barista and artist, make up a well equipped team as they run SwitchBox. Open for only a year, SwitchBox has quickly left it's mark on the Oakland Park neighborhood of Fort Lauderdale, welcoming guests from both near and far. Warm and friendly as they are knowledgeable, the pair sat with us between roasts and shared their story, what it was like to move back to Fort Lauderdale after living in Denver, and the teamwork it takes to run a business.
On how your coffee story began…
Brian: I think it began with us hanging out in coffee shops back in the '90s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We had some other friends that had cafes and we would sit there. I think that’s kinda when the whole espresso thing just started taking off, when Peet’s and Starbucks were popular and local roasters were just starting to pop up. But anyways, I think that’s what started our love for coffee; just hanging out in coffee shops. When we (Mimi and I) reunited, we always knew that we would open up our own shop. As time went on, I eventually got into the coffee industry and started roasting.
We had this love and passion for coffee and wanted to learn more, so I picked up a home roaster and started buying green beans online and teaching myself how to roast. After about 6 months or a year we thought we were ready to open up our own business, so we actually got incorporated 12 years ago. We were going to be Rise and Grind Coffee, and were ready to hit the streets and start selling our coffee, roasted in a home roaster. About a year later I ended up taking an apprenticeship with a local roastery. That turned into about 9 years of working for different roasters and brands. Finally we just decided - we’ve learned enough to take us to the next level - to open our own place.
Mimi: I was always into the design and how the shop would feel. I remember going to shops in Milwaukee; I would take my pen and pad and go into each coffee shop and ask myself, “What do I like about this place?" "What do I dislike about this place?” I’ve even found those little scribbles lately. The pad is so warped and smells a little bit musty, but it’s so cool to see where we’ve come from.
When we were living in Colorado we had a one group espresso machine in our basement; we kind of made our whole basement a coffee bar. So I was pulling shots, but I was like, “This isn’t going to get me…
Brian: cafe level."
Mimi: Yeah, cafe level. So I just knew that being in the Barista Guild (BGA) and having a certification would help take me there. So, I went to Topeca and did my Barista Level 1 certification. I learned even more from that - I learned a lot on so many different levels, not just how to pour drinks, but more about espresso, over extraction, under extraction, how to brew, brewing at home.
on working together to create switchbox coffee...
Brian: I think putting together a business plan, a name, and a concept was actually the fun part. We’d hang out, have some beers and work on names or concepts. Mimi was always working on the design or feel of the place and I was thinking of equipment and coffee. And then when we actually made the decisio: “Hey, we're going to go find a place and sign a lease.” It started getting nerve wracking, because now it was real. I had to give a 60 day notice at my job. I left a decent, salaried position at a roastery in a cool place in Denver that we liked. We moved the family back across the country. You build a place and you don’t know if it’s going to work; man, you just take a risk. It’s something that we knew we were super passionate about and we thought that if we had enough passion, drive, and ambition behind us that we could make it work, and I think so far, so good. There’s always things to learn along the way. There are some things that I would do differently now that we’re a year into it. It’s been a cool learning experience, a cool journey to do with my wife and kids.
Mimi: And I think that’s another thing, you just keep learning.
on the name switchbox...
Brian: It was fun trying to come up with a name and a concept that we could rally behind and be proud of. When SwitchBox rolled off the tongue that day, we were both like, “This is it, we are going to build a brand around this name." At the time we had no idea we were going to be across the street from a railroad and a switchbox, so it’s cool how it all worked out. Coming back to South Florida, we were scared and nervous doing it because it’s such a small coffee community down here. I don’t think we could be more happy with that decision. Being a part of the local community now, that is here, and meeting people and helping grow the community - we couldn’t ask for anything better, like no better scenario.
"Coming back to South Florida, we were scared and nervous doing it because it’s such a small coffee community down here. I don’t think we could be more happy with that decision. Being a part of the local community now, that is here, and meeting people and helping grow the community - I couldn’t ask for anything better, like no better scenario."
On Teamwork behind the bar...
Mimi: When you open a shop you have to know what you’re doing as far as brewing, roasting and all of that. For me, I always felt that Brian knew more than I did and can be more of a teacher. He’s a great teacher and leader. So I’ve always stood back and taken that second seat, so to speak, with regards to our partnership. For us having kids, it’s hard to be a mom and a shop owner; it hasn’t always been easy, but we’ve made it work.
Brian: I think we complement each other to a certain degree. We both have different views and opinions about the way things should or shouldn’t be done. We are respectful of each other to let each other grow in each other's areas.
So Mimi designed this place, she created the feel and the look, the aesthetics. I try to do my part, and when we’re working together it’s a give and take. We try to respect each other’s strengths. When it comes to art and design, the layout and the space, the feel of things, and the food, I usually take a backseat because she will know or have better ideas. When it comes to coffee or training, I’ll step forward. It’s a give and take, like any relationship or marriage. You have to be wise and humble enough to know your place, to step back when you need to step back and step up when you need to step up.
on your most memorable cup of coffee...
Mimi: The first time I had a natural processed Ethiopian coffee; I think that was my "Ah ha!" moment in specialty coffee. Where I was just like, “I don’t need cream or sugar.” I had always had my coffee with cream and sugar. From there, I started trying to taste coffees the way it should be tasted. That was at a coffee shop in Denver. A lot of people that come here ask us for a natural processed coffee because maybe this is where they had that same moment.
Brian: A memorable experience for me was when we met Alex, a barista at Four Barrel. We sat at their pour over bar with him and he walked us through the journey of this coffee as he was preparing a couple pour overs for us. It was a really cool experience - this was back in the day when pour overs were becoming more and more popular. We had a washed Guatemala and a natural Ethiopian. The coffee was amazing but I think it was the experience behind it. The barista, Alex, was super knowledgeable. We talked about everything, even to the farm level. We watched him brew the coffee then we sat down and drank some of the coffee and talked to him more. I think that’s the beauty of coffee, you can make really great coffee and wrap an experience around it that creates a more memorable moment.
Mimi: When you sit at a bar you’re more prone to talk to people and that’s what we wanted to create here (at Switchbox) with the Brew Bar. You have the opportunity to go on a journey as your coffee is being brewed.
on hobbies outside of coffee...
Mimi: We love the beach, but we do miss Colorado, the hiking and the mountains...
Mimi: Yeah, we’re outdoor people. We love to play in the mountains, and on the beach.
Brian: Now that we’re back in South Florida we’ll get back into the rhythm of things, like paddle boarding, scuba diving and stuff that we did before we left for Colorado.
Mimi: And now that we have the kiddos, we try to expose them to all sorts of things outdoors.
Brian: They’re little water rats. Get them in the water, you can forget it.
on your favorite place to eat/drink in south florida....