Like so many of us one year ago, Leann VanDerHeyden was forced to reinvent her life when Covid-19 came around. She found herself laid off from her position as senior manager for marketing at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where she specialized in developing corporate partnerships. She and her significant other abandoned New York City for their second home in Gardiner, and then she had to come up with a plan for what to do next.
“When my job went away, I was devastated. I had nothing to do but be afraid,” VanDerHeyden recalls. Fortunately, she had both an enjoyable hobby and a social network grounded in the fiber arts. She spent much of her ample unaccustomed free time knitting, and soon became aware that many friends were finding solace and meaning during the pandemic by sending one another handmade gifts – what VanDerHeyden characterizes as “happy mail.” Knitters, she says, are a “loving, caring, welcoming community” as well as a “multi-billion-dollar industry.”
The electronic medium that primarily unites that community online is Instagram, where fiber artists regularly post photos of their work, completed or in progress, and check up on one another using such hashtags as #knittersofinstagram. And one detail that VanDerHeyden couldn’t help noticing that appeared frequently in those photos was a mug of coffee. It’s not 100 percent clear in her mind whether knitting makes you thirsty or caffeine makes you need to do something with your hands, but one truism soon became apparent: “If you knit, you drink coffee.”
That link became the spark for her latest business brainwave. In the marketing field, she says, “My strength was finding the relationships, the connections, the correlations between people and entities that on the outside don’t seem to go together.” Businesses that one wouldn’t normally associate with the arts became Lincoln Center sponsors and partners on her watch. So, confined to her country home by a rampaging virus, and wanting to indulge the entrepreneurial spirit that had driven her to set up a lemonade stand when she was a little girl, VanDerHeyden decided to target all those people who love both coffee and knitting. “There’s a lot of routine in both,” she observes. “It’s how we start our days.”
The result is her newly launched venture, the Knit. Coffee Company (that period after Knit is a deliberate graphic design choice, intended to make it sound like a directive that can’t be denied). So far, she’s only offering one line of coffee beans: an organic, kosher Italian roast that she calls Knitter’s Blend. “Most of the coffee I was drinking I was not liking. It was feeling so acidic in my mouth,” she relates. So, she set out to choose a blend that suited her taste and held up cup after cup. “I found a private roaster I work with locally. I didn’t want an over-roasted flavor.”
VanDerHeyden’s Hudson Valley-based supplier roasts beans to order, 500 pounds at a time, which she then packages in 12-ounce bags of her own design that sport an attractive photo of her own knitting. Shipping by mail only, and marketing via social media platforms including Facebook and Google Ads, she quickly found her people. “I knew who I wanted to drink my product,” she says. “The response has been great. Some days I get 25 or 30 orders. It’s an inexpensive gift.”
Applying her marketing skillset from her previous life, she’s now pursuing partners who will create product packages. “Every month I want to work with a potter and offer custom mugs,” she explains. One maker whose work she particularly admires, Stepanka Ceramics, specializes in vessels with typed messages pressed into the clay; VanDerHeyden plans to collaborate with her to sell mugs that simply say “Knit,” with a bag of Knitter’s Blend thrown in. “Getting free coffee has a high perceived value. It’s very popular in giveaways.”
She also sells raglan-sleeved cotton-blend tees in four color combinations, sporting the company logo and the slogan, “Brew 1. Knit 2.” Wearing one will be a way for caffeinated knitters to find each other once we can all hang out in public again, and VanDerHeyden plans to start setting up shop at local farmers’ markets this summer. “When the Sheep and Wool Festival comes back to Rhinebeck, I want to be a vendor,” she says.
More coffee lines may follow, possibly Colombian or French roast. But for now, the Knit. Coffee Company seems to have found its niche, and “connection, quality and comfort” are its bywords. “I wanted to come out of COVID better than I went into it,” Leann VanDerHeyden says. “The pandemic made room for us to dream a little.”