Stepping Up the Granite examines the intersection of tourism, community development, and quality of life through interviews with New Hampshire people committed to championing the Granite State. Karen Bassett, organizer of the New England Coffee Festival in Laconia, joins us for the second installment of this series.
Born and raised in the famous coffee city of Seattle, WA, Karen Bassett moved to New Hampshire in 2008. She and her husband have since built a family of four restaurants in Laconia, including Wayfarer Coffee Roasters, Wayfarer Lakeport, Burrito Me, and Local Eatery. Karen has had a dream of hosting a coffee festival in the Lakes Region – a product of her business experience, background in education, passion for community development, and, of course, love of coffee. This spring, that dream will become a reality: Laconia, NH will host its first annual New England Coffee Festival from May 20-21, 2022. The festival will feature a combination of free, public events in the historic downtown (many of which will be family-friendly), plus ticketed events aimed at coffee industry professionals and others interested in coffee. The recently re-opened Colonial Theater will be the main hub for workshops and speaker panels, while the Belknap Mill will host a vendor expo, art walk, live music, and food trucks. The Outdoor Adventure Experience at Veterans Square will feature booths from NH businesses and organizations focused on outdoor recreation, with interactive offerings such as a mountain biking zone for kids. Local restaurant specials, a downtown Happy Hour, and a beer tent will offer more reasons for visitors and locals alike to explore and enjoy downtown Laconia.
UNH Extension is serving as a contributing organizer of the Outdoor Adventure Experience and will be facilitating a panel discussion on “Leveraging Coffee Shops as Community Gathering Spaces” on Saturday, May 21st at 10 am. UNH Extension’s Community and Economic Development Field Specialist Jada Lindblom sat down with Karen at Wayfarer Coffee in April to learn more about the upcoming festival.
Jada: When did you first think of the idea for the New England Coffee Festival, and how did this idea come about?
Karen: Wayfarer has always been here to bring coffee and community together – that's why we have a coffee shop in downtown Laconia. In 2019, we started planning the Coffee Festival to have an extension of our business out into the community. We really wanted to highlight what was already here in downtown Laconia and bring in people from all over New England. We started planning in 2019, and then 2020 hit and we had to put it on the back burner while we were in survival mode, like every other restaurant. The fall of last year was when we thought that 2022 might be the year. What's really neat is that since we first started planning it this town has drastically changed. The number of restaurants and stores and shops and the infrastructure that's here has grown so much that our town is in an even better position to be able to host a festival like this now, and it feels like a great time to highlight the growth of our city.
J: In your mind, what makes Laconia the right location for the event?
K: Well, I love Laconia and my family loves Laconia. We have put down pretty deep roots with our four restaurants here. Business seasonality can be really hard in some nearby towns, but Laconia has year-round residents plus the boost of tourism, so it really is year-round. Having the festival in a small, central town in New Hampshire makes it easy to access for all New England states, so we can draw from other coffee communities and other small towns. Since there are so many parts of Laconia, there's a lot to highlight and different areas for people stay. With the growth in the past couple of years, it feels like this is a spot that's primed for the festival. We already have Motorcycle Week and the Pumpkin Festival, so we know we can handle festivals. It's walkable and there's the bike path [WOW Trail] that connects different parts of town. We’re designing the festival so people can spread out, with activities going on throughout the day, and you can just walk from one to another.
J: This event has a unique concept because on one hand it will offer in-depth education and networking opportunities for those who work within the coffee industry, but it will also offer so much for locals and the general public to enjoy. Was this combination of audiences always how you envisioned the event, or how did you recognize that there might be an opportunity to have a broader reach?
K: The concept of having a festival for both industry professionals and consumers definitely fits into the overall vision of making specialty coffee accessible. A lot of people don't even know about the industry. Being able to educate people and make it be something where industry professionals can have a lot of takeaways and be inspired through workshops, listening to panels, and others’ experiences was really important to us, but we didn’t want to have it feel like you have to be “in the club.” We really wanted it to be something more like, “come learn about the coffee industry!” There's something for everyone. We wanted to bring to the coffee industry the question of “how does it actually impact your community?” So, that's kind of where the two audiences came together. And vendors seem to really dig that because they're not only trying to expand their wholesale market, but they're also trying to get people, broadly, to try their products.
J. It sounds like the Coffee Festival has been a very collaborative process so far. What steps did you take to get so many different organizations, businesses, and corporate sponsors to participate and lend their support? What factors do you think have been critical for generating this enthusiasm and buy-in?
K: Defining the goals for the festival was really important to us so that we could share the story of our vision. We wanted to make specialty coffee accessible to everyone, but we also wanted to highlight our region. We wanted it to be economically beneficial for local businesses. Since opening our restaurants, we’ve worked so hard to change the narrative to be not what's wrong with our region, but what’s going well. Being able to connect with organizations that are doing amazing things has been one of the biggest parts of planning the festival. Connecting with organizations like UNH Extension and businesses and outdoor companies that are already here is a way to highlight the region. Then Coffee is a way to bring people together. So, we'll bring the people here – it's not hard to convince people to come try lots of coffee! – but also encourage attendees to stay and while they're here, look at all those amazing things that our area has to offer. We want to give them a reason to come back another time, and give them a reason to try the restaurants that have just started popping up or that they maybe didn't realize were here. We want downtown businesses to spill out onto the streets and showcase what they do. At the time same time, we've looked for a variety of speakers and have people coming from all over New England. That was intentional, so that we can then reach their communities, too.
J: What are your hopes for the future of the New England Coffee Festival?
K: Year one is going to be the hardest, just trying to prove the concept and learn what it takes to put on an event at this scale. In future years, it’ll be about streamlining but also expanding. We've got so many ideas for what we could do. I definitely see more room for more workshops, more hands-on type of things spreading over different venues, more community-based things, and maybe closing down more streets to make it be a truly walkable festival. I think it would be awesome to connect the different “downtown” areas of Laconia [Laconia, Lakeport, Weirs Beach]. That could mean using the WOW Trail to get from one to the other. We want to showcase everything that’s already here.
J: The festival is a great opportunity to highlight the Colonial Theatre now that it's reopened and is such a beautiful space.
K: It’s amazing and they've been such a wonderful partner. Every venue that we have has been so accommodating, and the city has been so accommodating – they want things like this to come to Laconia. The most fun part is working with these other companies and organizations and letting them do what they do really well. Then we do what we do really well and everybody wins, right? The event will be way better because of everyone we're partnering with.
J: Is there anything else you'd like readers to know about the New England Coffee Festival?
K: It's going to be a great time! Also, a portion of ticket sales will go toward a nonprofit we’ve partnered with called The Water Project. They're based out of Concord and support water projects in Sub-Saharan Africa. What they're doing is amazing, so we're excited to partner with them.
J: So the event is really having both local and global reach…
K: Yeah, which is coffee! Coffee is absolutely about impacting your local community but also being a part of a global community, because that's where coffee comes from. Really, it's about people, relationships, and connections. And that's what this festival is all about!
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
To learn more about the New England Coffee Festival and purchase passes, visit www.newenglandcoffeefestival.com
One and two-day festival passes that include workshops, presentations, networking and tasting events are available for Friday, May 20th and Saturday, May 21st. Individuals and families may also visit Laconia and take part in the festival’s many free event offerings on Saturday.