Alumni of Distinction: Timothy Gravel ’90

by J. Besl  |   

2017 Alumni of Achievement Tim Gravel, CEO and owner of Kaladi Brothers Coffee. (Image courtesy of Kaladi Brothers Coffee)
2017 Alumni of Achievement Tim Gravel, CEO and owner of Kaladi Brothers Coffee. (Image courtesy of Kaladi Brothers Coffee)

Timothy Gravel, B.B.A. Accounting ’90, will receive the 2017 Alumni of Achievement award at the Homecoming Breakfast on Oct. 13.

Tim Gravel, owner and CEO of Kaladi Brothers Coffee, is committed to his company’s “Catalyst for Community” motto. Alaskans, he said, have supported him since he drove into town in his Volkswagen van as a teenager, looking to get a college degree.

Originally from Livermore, California, Tim came to Alaska in 6th grade with his dad, his grandpa, and a dog-eared Milepost to fish every creek they could find. Years later, memories of that trip spurred him to head North after high school, where he found the connections, the college and the kindness that set him on the path to today.

First Brew

While at UAA, Tim worked a side job waiting tables at Red Robin alongside Mark Overly, the friend who first connected him to Kaladi. At the time, the company was primarily a wholesale roaster (plus one espresso cart on 4th Avenue). It was a small operation, so when a big client like Alaska Commercial Company called in an order, Kaladi needed extra hands in the warehouse to meet demands.

“We just did it for fun. No one got paid,” Tim said. “We weren’t employees, we were friends.”

After graduation, Tim went the traditional route with his accounting degree and soon started at a local firm. Every morning, even in winters, he would dress in a suit and loafers and drive that freezing-cold Volkswagen bus downtown.

“I really thought I had to be an auditor, because I couldn’t see past that,” Tim said. That changed when he ran into Mark again—then a co-owner of Kaladi—at a Christmas party a few years after graduation. Mark asked if Tim would mind looking at their accounting books for the year. “I said sure… And then I never left,” Tim laughed. That was more than 20 years ago.

When Tim stepped in, Kaladi had expanded (slightly) to one café and six employees, all of whom were fun-loving 20-somethings with a gift-giving habit.

“It was kind of a culture shock to me,” he said. Tim would tell Mark to rein in all the donations, and Mark would always reassure him. “If you take care of the community, it’ll all work out,” Tim recalled. It’s a mantra he’s shared with Kaladi’s finance staff ever since.

That being said, Tim credits his degree for keeping the company grounded. “Accounting was critical,” he said. “I think it was a necessary piece for Kaladi to go forward.” When he started, the company was planning to open a café in New Sagaya, but tasked Tim with figuring out the financing. “It was all very new.”

Kaladi has since expanded its coffee kingdom, with more than 200 employees and 15 cafés (including one in Seattle), plus the Rustic Goat restaurant in Turnagain and Black Cup in Midtown. All told, Kaladi roasts 1.2 million pound of coffee each year.

Caffeinating a Community

Alaska and Kaladi are intertwined. Sure, winter darkness necessitates caffeine, but it also promotes community. People here have a willingness to help, Tim said.

And that, at its core, is the Kaladi ideal. Anyone who’s seen the Kaladi truck at a festival or 5K knows the value Kaladi places on community. It’s right there in the motto.

Tim remembers when the core Kaladi crew brainstormed the “Catalyst for Community” brand at a cabin one winter. The company was then growing 100 percent annually. “[We were] just constantly in this growth pattern, but it needed to be about something more,” Tim noted. “The culture just evolved [to] making it about a community and not just coffee.”

For an example, take New Year’s Day and the work of Dale Tran ’15. When Dale started as CFO, he, like Tim, was surprised by the company’s culture of giving. But then he took the reins and ran with it. In the past five years, Dale elevated the company’s New Year’s Day of Giving—wherein the company donates all Jan. 1 coffee sales to a locally based charity—and brought in corporate donors. Suddenly, Kaladi was donating $100,000 in a single day. (Dale passed away this year, but the tradition will live on. In recognition of his contributions, the company has renamed its largest impact event the Dale Tran New Year’s Day of Giving.)

Little Effort, Big Results

Though Tim was integral to Kaladi’s growth, he won’t take the credit. “It’s been a lot of people’s efforts to make this company what it is,” he noted. That includes several UAA grads, like Dale, COO Michele Parkhurst ’08, Wholesale Manager Dave Garcia ’99 and Julia Kelly ’16 in accounting and human resources.

“It’s definitely a UAA office, and it wasn’t planned that way,” Tim admitted. “Just a lot of good people come from UAA that have this community-minded attitude.”

For an example, he recalled a time when he fell asleep studying in the Spine over UAA Drive. A professor woke him up to check on him. “[She] kind of just touched base with me on a personal level and actually invited me to dinner that night,” he recalled.

“It wasn’t like I was a star student who was struggling. I was the mediocre student who could have been passed over super-simply. That little extra effort made a huge difference in my life.”

And, indirectly, it made a difference for the whole Anchorage community.

“I don’t think that instructor knows it … but they kept me here in Alaska,” Tim said. “I was really ready to go and I was talking to my parents about moving back home.

“Had that happened, I don’t know what Kaladi would be.”

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