Walk around Joseph Penner’s living room and you can pick up clues hinting at the business he runs out of his 1940 home in West Salem’s Edgewater neighborhood.
A small votive candle rests in a mason jar full of coffee beans on the windowsill, and a map of Oregon with a long, winding path traced in blue marker hangs on the wall.
That’s before you get to the touring bike and professional coffee roaster sitting in the garage.
Penner, 30, owns and operates Steel Bridge Coffee, a business he created in 2011. He roasts coffee beans in his garage in the morning, packs them into mason jars and loads up his bike to drop them off across Salem — often heading over the Union Street Railroad Bridge that inspired his business’s name.
“That was the initial brainchild for the business — how can I make sure that people get fresh coffee?” Penner said. “If I’m going to deliver coffee, it’s going to be by bicycle.”
By combining two of his biggest passions, Penner was able to create a service that is unique in the Salem area.
“He’s a prime example of a new type of business in Salem,” said friend Ben Deumling, owner of Zena Forest Products. “Young, energetic folks with businesses that maybe don’t fit the traditional model.”
Growing Northwest Roots
A native of California, Penner came to Salem in 2005 after graduating from Bethel College in Kansas. Without a job lined up after school, he followed a friend to Oregon, “for lack of knowing anything better to do at the time.”
The move was designed to be temporary, but little by little he explored the Northwest and came to see Salem as his home.
Part of that investigation led him to coffee, a substance he’d actively avoided before moving to Oregon.
“I was always the guy who made fun of coffee drinkers,” Penner said. “There’s definitely that culture here that makes it kind of enticing, and especially that culture of good coffee. You’re not just drinking it because you need it and depend on it, but because it’s good.”
Penner’s progression was gradual, from buying whole beans to using a French press, until he eventually found himself at his stove, using a popcorn popper to roast a batch of coffee beans grown by an aunt in Hawaii.
His conversion to full Northwesterner also led him to explore the natural beauty around him and reevaluate his personal goals.
Penner holds a degree in global peace and justice studies. Before graduating, he saw himself traveling the world, working in international development.
Eventually he decided his real interest was in his own community, and what he could do locally to help people. One of the early manifestations of this idea was bike commuting, something he saw as a small step toward living more sustainably.
In 2008, he bought a new touring bike — a Surly Long Haul Trucker — and loaded up for a 10-day, 700-mile ride around Oregon. He traveled east to Prineville, up to the Columbia River Gorge and down the Willamette Valley — the trip now highlighted on the map in his living room.
“It was my personal adventure, something I had to do to prove to myself I could do it,” Penner said. “There was always that sense of fulfillment and accomplishment [at the end of each day]. You wake up in the morning and you have a simple objective and then you go out and do it. There’s something nice about that.”
Deumling said he’s been impressed by Penner’s commitment to his ideals, especially bike commuting.
“He really lives and breathes the ethics and lifestyle more than anyone I know. He puts it into real practice every day.”
“Motivation and Desperation”
As Penner’s passions and goals became clearer, he started thinking about how to connect them to his professional life.
In 2011, he was working part time with Salem Mennonite Church and Southeast Keizer Community Center, but didn’t feel the jobs were right for him long-term.
In August of that year, feeling he had enough savings to take a chance, Penner resigned his positions and started to work building his own opportunity.
“At a certain point in life, I started to respect people who were in business and thought, ‘This is an area [where] I can inject my own creativity and philosophy and potentially make an impact on the community,’” Penner said. “It sort of required the right combination of motivation and desperation.”
Combining his love of coffee with his commitment to biking was a natural place for Penner to start, and he soon landed on a plan that grew into Steel Bridge.
Part of the appeal of the business to Penner has been the relative simplicity. He already had his touring bike, and only needed to upgrade his roaster from a popcorn popper to something that could handle more volume.
He decided on a fluid bed air roaster, which uses convection, increasing the acidity of a coffee — also known as its “brightness.” It produces a different flavor than the more common drum bed roasters — such as the one seen at The Governor’s Cup — which use conduction to increase the drink’s weight and thickness, or its “body.”
Steel Bridge Coffee officially launched in November 2011. “I figured if it’s going to work, I needed to know if I could do it in winter,” Penner said.
He typically rides 15-20 miles a day, making about 40-50 deliveries a week. To simplify the schedule, Penner split up his route by the Salem-Keizer School District high school boundaries, riding to different sections each day. He also ships beans to customers outside the area.
Steel Bridge has grown slowly but steadily, with an early metric being how many customers didn’t know Penner personally.
“At first it was mostly selling to friends, and whenever he’d get an order from someone who wasn’t a friend, he’d tell me,” said Penner’s wife, Erin Boers. “Now it’s just, oh, he has a business and strangers order from him.”
Kristi Neznanski found out about Steel Bridge through Twitter before receiving a sample through her local CSA (community-supported agriculture).
“What Joseph offers is unique. … Plus, it’s just plain wicked to tell people your coffee gets delivered by bicycle the day it’s roasted.”
When Alley Tweedy moved to South Salem from Ohio a year ago, she immediately began searching Google for local coffee. She found Steel Bridge’s website and decided to give it a shot after watching Penner’s videos.
Since joining, she’s been impressed with Penner’s customer service and the thrill of coming out to find a new jar of coffee beans on her doorstep every Wednesday morning.
“I truly feel like the hand delivery is what sets him far above any other local coffee,” Tweedy said. “He bicycles all about Salem, which is just the coolest when I see him out and I’m like, ‘Hey, that’s my coffee fairy!’”
An Uphill Climb
So far Penner has made only two deliveries by car, and only because his bike chain broke while riding on River Road in Keizer (he now carries a chain tool to fix this problem).
“Erin had to come and pick me up, and I had two more stops to go,” Penner said. “I was not a happy dude.”
Earlier this month, Penner celebrated a milestone when he and the other woman in his life — he refers to his touring bike as “she” — broke 10,000 miles together. His wife made cinnamon rolls in the shape of the number 10,000 to celebrate.
While Penner’s been happy with the business, he’s also hoping to ramp up marketing efforts this summer.
“It is working, but it’s not thriving yet in the way I want it to,” he said.
Still, Penner has enjoyed the freedom of working on his own and doing something he loves.
“I’m excited to see where he goes with it,” Deumling said. “I don’t think the coffee roasting bike delivery is that last cool thing he does in Salem.”
Chris Hagan is a co-editor of Salem Is. He owns a French press and grinds his own beans, but doesn’t roast them himself. Yet.