Service that’s more than coffee
Business Showcase/Contrast Coffee looks to make a difference by bringing in great beans
IRON MOUNTAIN — Before owning a coffee shop, Adam Holroyd had a business providing internet access. Chris Cheney was an accountant. Gabe Whitmer worked as an account executive at AT&T.
The three long-time friends were successful in their professional lives but often spoke about doing more meaningful work.
Looking for inspiration, they reached out to Zach Moebius.
Moebius was a good friend and English teacher who founded the Anglican Relief and Development Agency Language Centre in Luang Prabang, north central Laos — one of the poorest countries in the world. And he had an idea.
At one time, the adjacent borders of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar — an area known as the Golden Triangle — supplied 70 percent of the world’s opium. The mountainous region’s fertile soil and cool climate well-suited the poppies used in its manufacture.
But in 2005, the Lao government outlawed the cultivation of the flowering plant in an effort to halt opium production, leaving many farmers without the means to earn income or barter for supplies.
Lacking an alternative cash crop, rural families turned to traditional slash-and-burn farming, a destructive form of subsistence agriculture yielding little surplus.
To keep desperate growers from turning back to the illicit poppy, the government and organizations such as the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime encouraged raising fruit, tea, rubber and coffee.
Historically, coffee has been one of Laos’ primary agricultural exports since the French introduced trees in the early 1900s. But in the remote northern provinces of the country, where poppies once were widely grown, it was anything but traditional.
Through Moebius, the three friends learned of Saffron Coffee, a profit-for-purpose business partnered with non-government organizations and charities trying to build upon the work done by Lao officials and UNODC. Saffron developed relationships with local villages in northern Laos and taught farmers to work the delicate arabica plant from seed to cup.
Holroyd, Cheney and Whitmer saw their chance to make a difference. If they bought beans from Saffron to roast, package and sell in the U.S., they could help Lao families grow a sustainable cash crop. The profits then would go to scholarships for the ARDA Language Centre in Luang Prabang.
Although none of them had any experience in coffee, the idea made sense, Holroyd said, noting “coffee is that drink that everybody has at the center of the table.”
In 2014, the friends started Mission Arabica, buying a pallet of beans — a shipment weighing 700 pounds — from Saffron that they roasted in Holroyd’s garage, 2.5 pounds at a time.
People responded to the product and the purpose. In a little more than a year, Mission Arabica was importing coffee not just from Laos but Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Columbia and Brazil as well. Roasting beans and selling product online became a full-time job.
Holroyd, Cheney and Whitmer agreed it was time to open a storefront.
The three men leased property in Iron River. They decided on the name Contrast because of the word’s definition — the state of being strikingly different from something else.
When the store opened in June 2016, the reception was great, Holroyd said. He attributes its success to the two pillars of Contrast’s philosophy — “Quality of product, quality of service.”
Contrast sources specialty grade coffee that, under criteria set by the Standards Committee and Specialty Coffee Association, is judged among the top 3 to 4 percent of the global stock. The owners visit different coffee-producing countries twice a year, sampling from several different plantations to find quality product.
But Holroyd added, “if we deliver a good cup of coffee with poor service, we failed.”
That mantra has served Contrast well. They opened a second store in Ironwood in December 2016, then a third in Marquette in October 2017.
The fourth store is slated to officially open in Iron Mountain on Saturday.
The company has spent the past seven months renovating the former Frederick’s Floral building at the corner of Carpenter Avenue and East H Street. Building on the menu at previous locations, the shop will feature crepes, panini, salads, Rishi tea, with nitrogen coffee and Sprecher sodas from Wisconsin on tap.
“Our goal is to be the premier coffee company in the U.P.,” Holroyd said.
Contrast employs more than 40 employees and roasts about 2,000 pounds of coffee a month.
But even as the company expands, its purpose is still unchanged. Holroyd, Cheney and Whitmer are still trying to make a difference, locally and abroad.
Mission Arabica, the endeavor behind Contrast Coffee, provided 17 students with scholarships for the ARDA Language Centre in 2017.
From the customer to the farmer, Holroyd said, “it’s about impacting people’s lives.”