The business of Riverside Roastery & Espresso is analogous to the green coffee beans that are roasted to perfection on its stores' premises every day - ever-shifting, maturing and becoming more distinct.
The coffeehouse chain, which began on Main Street in Ellicott City eight years ago, has expanded and cut back several times as owner Michael Lentz learned the types of locations and the formats that would make his business a success.
Two months after opening his newest coffeehouse on Centre Park Drive in Columbia - the sixth in his experience - he is preparing to close the one in the Glenwood library in western Howard County in two days, winnowing his holdings to three shops - all in Howard.
Still, Lentz said, he thinks he has found an avenue for success in the county and has hopes that the three shops will gross $1 million in sales this year, despite the threat of a Starbucks opening down the street from his flagship store on Dobbin Road in Columbia.
"The Starbucks is going to be an interesting challenge, but I think ... it's going to boil down to the service," he said. "I know if all [my] stores are operating well, I can make a good living."
According to the National Coffee Association, the number of gourmet coffeehouses has skyrocketed in the past decade.
In 1991, the nation had about 450 gourmet coffeehouses - venues in which coffee was the main menu item - but the group estimated there were 8,500 nationwide by the end of last year, and the trend is expected to continue.
In the eight years that Lentz has been in business in Howard County, his shops have gone from being virtually the only coffeehouses in the county to yet another name in the ever-widening coffeehouse ring, into which even grocery stores have tossed their hats. On Main Street in historic Ellicott City, where Lentz and his wife, Jill, opened the first store, there are nearly a half-dozen coffee shops.
During the influx of coffeehouses, Lentz has struggled to strike a solid identity for Riverside Roastery in the look and the location of his shops. In that time, he has closed or sold two shops, and this week will sell the third to a Baltimore-based coffeehouse owner who wants to expand into Howard County.
The reasons for so much divesting have varied from unprofitable locations to a lack of time to properly manage the investments. But Lentz said he can distinguish Riverside from Starbucks and other competitors by roasting coffee beans daily in each store in front of the customers and by concentrating on his local roots.
That's why the Centre Park Drive store is advertising a food drive for the county food bank as aggressively as its flavor of the month. Five nonperishable food items will get the contributor a cup of brew for 25 cents. Lentz said he is planning a clothing drive.
"Our main goal was to be Howard County's community coffeehouse," Lentz said over the whir of the roaster at the new store.
"I want to start trying to utilize the space as a hub of where the activity of the community is going on," he said. "We're the local coffee shop, and I want to give back to the community."
The coffeehouses, which employ about 50 workers, roast beans in 6-foot roasters that fill the stores with a pungent aroma.
The roasters - at about $20,000 each - are more than a gimmick to draw customers. Lentz said they help provide quality control, another advantage he claims over the competition.
"It allows me to manage my coffee so I can deliver fresh coffee," he said. "Once it's roasted and you have the oils exposed to evaporation, it's going to lose freshness."
That's why in his 30-seat shops, burlap bags filled with green coffee beans are as much a part of the decor as the gleaming roasters. The newest store, decorated in the green and tan hues of coffee beans, includes plush, brown lounging chairs at the storefront - a new twist.
Customers said comfort like that will win loyalty.
Starbucks "is not tempting to me, not as comfortable," said Jeff Coleman of Columbia. "This is small enough that it still has the character of the owner."
Mike Staggers, another customer, agreed the atmosphere will keep him coming back.
"It says come on in, grab a book, read," said Staggers, who sat recently in one of the plush loungers reading his Bible.
"If there's a choice, I would say Riverside has better coffee than the stuff in other shops," he said. "I would still go to Starbucks for a change of pace, but I'll go to Riverside every chance I get."