Running out of Right Field
Hey there pal!
Welcome to the Middle of the Inning, a blog by Left Field Coffee and Johnny DeMaagd. If you're familiar with the Left Field story, you'll know that I played baseball in high school (spoiler: I wasn't any good at it). Fortunately for me (and probably unfortunately for the rest of the team), we only had nine people signed up to play. This meant that even though I was terrible at the sport, I always got playing time and had a spot out on the field. I was stationed out in right field and batted 9th, if that tells you anything about how well I could play. However, someone's gotta play right field in the off chance the other team has a lefty up to bat. I didn't really see much action, and when I did, I couldn't throw with any amount of aim, so who knew if I'd throw the ball to first base, the shortstop, or at my coach's head. I was really, really bad at baseball. At practices I used to put headphones in underneath my hoodie and would zone out until the coach gave me an obligatory pop fly once a practice. Eventually though I realized that if I got a little bit better I could end up playing left field, and perhaps even make the switch from batting 9th to batting 8th.
Since I didn't see much action during the games, my secondary job on the team was to fill out the stat book during the middle of the inning. Even though I didn't have much fun during practice, this responsibility made games fun. (Considering how bad I was, I honestly should've just done that stat book, but alas, with nine people you make do with what you can.) I'd stand out in right field thinking "ok the first batter had two strikes, a ball, single. second batter hit a line drive to second, out at first. third batter strikes out. fourth batter hits a pop fly to center field--he's out!" I'd run out of right field and would take my place on the bench, grab some sunflower seeds, and quickly jot down the stats from the previous inning while I was out on the field. The middle of the inning became my time to jot down notes, facts, and info from the previous inning and prepare to take note of what happened for our half of the inning. Once I had all the stat recorded from when I was out on the field I'd begin cheering on my teammates in hopes they'd score a few runs before I gave the team another out (I batted a 0.040 my freshman year; so I basically tried to get hit by the pitch to save my team an out).
Now, in high school I never really got better at baseball. I did get older though, which moved me from playing right field to center. There were younger players that needed the experience in outfield, so they took me from my throne of right field. And while left field was still there taunting me, it was counterintuitive to put a lefty in left field, so there I made due in center. Years latter and after a lot of practice, I now play in the MLB.
I'm joking! But wouldn't that have been funny? No, I'm still absolutely awful at baseball, but I have learned to put my talents elsewhere.
A lot has happened since I sat on the bench during the middle of the inning during ninth grade. I have since graduated from Hope College with honors double majoring in chemistry and sociology and a minor in business. While I was there I was active in residential life, The Pull, Vanderprov improv troupe, student life as an intern for the Alcohol and other Drugs Prevention and Education Team (AOD PET), and the Hope Entrepreneurship Institute (HEI). During my sophomore year a bank was stupid enough to give me a loan to buy a small fluid-bed coffee roaster. I seriously had such a negligible income I'm surprised they even agreed to it. Then again, another bank agreed to give me tens of thousands in student loans, so who knows why they were letting this 18 year old rack up this much debt! After learning about business loans and how many pounds of coffee I'd need to sell a month to pay it off, I purchased the roaster and set up shop in my parents laundry room. I would drive home from classes and roast on the weekend to fulfill any online orders I had gotten during the week and send them out at the mail center when I got back to campus on Mondays. As a resident assistant I would hold weekly hang out sessions called Java Jams in my room where people could come get a coffee or latte, listen to music, and study, hangout, or watch political debates. Java Jams became the first place where I started to sell coffee, right out of my dorm room!
I later found out that coffee can be sold at farmer's markets, so as I finished final exams during my sophomore year, I rushed home to roast coffee and brought it to the market. With classes done for the summer, I decided farmer's markets were the perfect place to get the word out about my business. I was at farmer's markets four days a week and waiting tables on the weekend to have more capital to buy green coffee beans. I was still buying in such small quantities that I even had coffee importers tell me they didn't want to supply to me anymore because I wasn't meeting their order minimums. At this point a 150 pound bag of green coffee lasted me a really long time, and it took a lot of tip money to even buy one of them! There were a lot of early mornings driving to markets and late nights roasting and packing up coffee, but being your own boss was pretty fun!
At this point I had been roasting for less than a year, but I knew that I'd eventually need somewhere that could get certified as a commercial roasting facility, and that wouldn't be my parents laundry room or garage. I looked at a commercial business incubator in town, but it wasn't exactly suited for the food and beverage industry (sawdust. so much sawdust). That summer an old farmhouse went up for sale near my parents house and since I had paid off the coffee roaster early, I thought now would be the perfect time to get a mortgage and turn this place into my coffee roasting haven. (Seriously, I don't know how I managed to make another bank give me tens of thousands of dollars for something I definitely couldn't afford.) I knew I could make it work though, and had visions of transforming the house into our global headquarters once I got the roasting space certified.
During my junior when I became involved with HEI I focused mostly on growing my coffee roasting company and securing licensing from the state that would allow me to sell to other coffee shops and restaurants. My parents and I spent a lot of time sanding down the roasting room during the winter wearing full respirators because of all the lead-based paint. After many months of sanding the walls, baseboard, and floors, we could finally paint and get things situated to move the coffee roaster. My mentor and I decided that we should host a 5K to promote healthy living, sample specialty coffee, and give people a small tour of the roasting room in progress. We called the race the Java Jog and in the spring of 2018 we all ran 3.1 miles around my house in the rural roads of Woodland, MI.
While the 5K only had about 15 or so runners, the sponsored ads for the event caught the attention of the Downtown Development Authority in Middleville, MI. While working on a lab report for my inorganic chemistry class I received a weird message on the website. I honestly thought it was spam at first until it had real phone number and email along with the message saying there was a vacant storefront available downtown Middleville and they'd love for me to check out the space. Now, I'm not entirely sure that they were aware who was behind the screen reading their message, but I suppose that can be a testament to my website work I had done with my mentor. But basically they just offered a 20 year old college junior with like $27 in his checking account a commercial storefront in a downtown area--insanity!
I was well aware that it takes several tens of thousands of dollars to start a functional coffee shop but as someone that waited tables during the weekend to pay for more coffee beans to sell, I'd need to find another route to fund the shop. I planned to start a kickstarter to fund the first $5,000 of equipment, tables, chairs, coffee inventory, and renovation work. And while I received a ton of support from the community, friends, and my family, we fell short of the goal... by like half. I had thankfully just received a tax return, and with basically all the money I could muster serving tables I committed to the lease and planned to open during the fall-right before my senior year started.
That summer was spent roasting a lot of coffee to sell at farmer's markets, waiting tables for extra cash, and bootstrapping a lot of our income to do the renovation work on the cafe with my dad. Eventually summer came and went, the leaves started to turn colors and classes for my senior year began. While I had wanted to be open, it was nice to have a few extra mornings where I didn't have to wake up at 5am. That fall semester was a lot of classes, homework, and driving an hour to the cafe to do renovation work at night--often times well past midnight or just in time to make late night improv practices. When I had finally submitted paperwork for my health department licenses they said they'd be there the next day to look over equipment and cleaning practices. Problem was, however, that there was still so much equipment to move and menu work to be done that it didn't even fully look like a coffee shop! I stayed up all night and into the morning putting some finishing touches on the menu, writing and practicing standard operating procedures, and preparing for the big test. Very extremely fortunately for me, we passed the inspection and scheduled a ribbon cutting for Monday-our big opening day!
There has been so many ups and downs since then. Many mornings I would drive over from campus to open the cafe at 6:30a, work a few hours, drive back to campus for class and co-curriculars, before doing homework often until 2a and repeating it the next day. That first season I often wondered if it was worth it. I continued to bootstrap every dollar we made into paying staff while I was at class, upgrading equipment that was really only rated for home use, and buying other equipment that any rational person would've already had purchased before they'd open. Things weren't exactly profitable either. As someone with no cafe experience--just roasting experience--there were major learning curves in equipment choices, ingredient sourcing for baked goods, and scheduling. Even now it feels like we're still building the airplane as we fly it!
I kept telling myself I just had to make it to graduation; I was just seriously so tired from working every morning, driving two hours every day, a full 18 credit hour class load, and the many many things I was involved with after classes that it made it harder to feel like this was actually a dream come true. It was a lot of work, a lot of mornings, late nights, anxiety, and planning to fit it all in while also finishing my degree. I definitely had more time after graduation, but starting off with such a small amount of economic capital meant that I'd be working 80 hour weeks both at the cafe and waiting tables for the foreseeable future. While this made me devoid of any amount of extra social time, I did gain an immense amount of social capital working the grind trying to pay for my dream. I've met people while waiting tables that had heard of the coffee shop or the business and would leave their meal and go buy a bag of coffee online. I have, and still do, try and use every available tool at my disposal. I think it's definitely come down to being passionate about the business, and treating everyone with kindness. When you're your own boss your actual boss becomes the customers coming in the door and your wholesale partners. So while I'm completely self-employed now I still feel an immense amount of gratitude daily for the people I've made connections with and the friendly faces that walk into the cafe. It's been an uphill battle navigating the world of small business, community development, finishing school and now on top of that, a global pandemic.
Considering we've been open now for just shy of two years, I thought I could share the experience of opening and operating a small cafe and roasting operation in rural Western Michigan. At the time of writing, the Covid-19 pandemic continues to be an ongoing concern..everywhere. I'm thankful we've had the amazing support of our community to keep going and continue to be a place where everyone can gather (at least in a socially-distanced manner). In the meantime, the quieter mornings and afternoons at the cafe have given me the opportunity to reflect on where we've come thus far and share a bit of my experiences in the world of being a young social entrepreneur in a rural area (i.e. I'm fairly liberal but also actively engaged in the world of capitalism). I hope this blog, journal, mess of notes or stats can prove useful or maybe just provide you with something to read while you drink a cup of coffee. As I write this I'm drinking a batch brew of our medium roast from Huehuetenango, Guatemala, another place I hold dear to my heart and I'm sure will write about in the future. However, I'd love to know what you'd like to hear about in this journal: coffee industry specifics, chemistry and roasting fun facts, social entrepreneurship tips, personal finance, building a business debt-free, the sociology of living in a small town, or a mix of all the above. I hope you'll leave a comment letting me know what you'd be interested in and then head over to our online store and snag a bag of freshly roasted coffee so we can share the same coffee roast for the next blog post.
I'll leave you with that, and I hope to read your comments, thoughts, and ideas about the Middle of the Inning.
peace + coffee,
Johnny DeMaagd is the owner and founder of Left Field Coffee Roasters, LLC and Left Field Café on Main. When he's not at the shop he enjoys building Harry Potter LEGO sets, reading and hammocking, and sipping on some gin cocktails.