Meet the Coffee Entrepreneurs


By Holly Beilin / Hypepotamus

If there is a universal language of entrepreneurship, it’s coffee. 

Many entrepreneurs — short on time, employees, and, inevitably, sleep — go through a mildly concerning number of cups per day. But it’s less about the actual beverage and more about the potential of a mug of pure caffeine (milk and sugar optional). It speaks to energy, to passion, to having the mental fuel to take on the day (or the night). 

It’s about the meetings that take place over lattes: a promising discussion about investment, a passionate exchange with a likeminded individual who might become a co-founder, a partner, or a first employee. It’s about the serendipitous interactions that can take place only in a room abuzz with the shared knowledge that everyone in the joint is searching for a connection. It’s about the beads of sweat collecting on an iced coffee as you pound away at your keyboard on a muggy Sunday in August, when all you want is to surrender to the thick summer air and take a nap. But the coffee keeps you going.

Every entrepreneur has a favorite spot — and it’s rarely a national chain. While franchised menus are fine for most corporate headquarters, startup founders are made of different stuff. Luckily for Atlanta’s entrepreneurs, there has been much growth in recent years of a solid local craft coffee scene. In 2016, the city even played host to the Specialty Coffee Association's annual expo.

One can’t talk about Southern craft coffee without acknowledging a long-held favorite of entrepreneurs of any industry: Atlanta-based Octane Coffee, which also has locations in Birmingham. Founded in 2003, the brand was the whole package: Founder Tony Riffel prided himself on both a well-crafted drink and a connected community. Riffel became the darling of the startup scene by making his shops neighborhood hubs of activity “for creatives, artists, community-minded people, students, business people, and startups to be able to coexist and hang out.”

The strategy worked, and Octane earned the high honor of being the sole java provider for both the scooter-riding, pitch-practicing crowd at Atlanta Tech Village and the eclectic, fiercely loyal companies of Switchyards Downtown Club.

But Riffel shocked many earlier this year when news came out that he had sold the Octane assets and brand to Birmingham-based Revelator Coffee. After more than a dozen years of fueling entrepreneurial dreams, Riffel was ready to retire his brewer’s apron.

Though the news hit hard, one can empathize with Riffel’s need to rest. Growing a coffee business from the ground up (pun intended) is consuming. Maintaining it with a meticulous attention to detail, commitment to high ideals, and then pushing it to expand even more is as exhausting as running any high-growth technology company.

Just ask Todd Johnson, co-founder of Firelight Coffee. Firelight is the sole coffee provider for Strongbox West, the longest running and largest (by square footage) co-working space in Atlanta.

“Setting up a coffee business, regardless of which part of the chain you are in (café, roasting, farming, etc.), takes a lot of time, money, space, and energy. That’s probably true in most businesses, but what people might not realize is the amount of planning that has to go into it — coffee is a seasonal, perishable product,” Johnson says. “Not only do we have to track harvest times throughout the year, which have already begun to shift due to climate change, but our roasts have to be planned meticulously so that our customers don’t receive stale coffee. It feels like we’re chefs in one sense and engineers in another.” 


Firelight roasts its beans in-house, within the coffee shop itself. Sitting in the space where the elements of the drink you’re sipping on were actually crafted brings a tangible element to anything you’re working on. In a digital world, seeing a physical product being created is gratifying.

Firelight’s shop, which is open to the public, has become a gathering place for Strongbox residents, which was the intention of the space’s founder, Amy Hoover, when she decided her community needed the addition. 

“It really adds a nice component to our community here, a place for our members to either take a break from their day or a just a change in environment to work in. We worked with Firelight on an expansion of the space in 2016, essentially doubling the shop size, so we've definitely grown together,” Hoover says.

Johnson feels strongly about this camaraderie as well.

“What drew me into the coffee industry was the community that has formed around this beverage — the old French idea of the ‘salon’ from the Renaissance is still alive and happening in cafés across the world,” he says. “Innovation and amazing collaboration are happening over a cup of coffee everywhere, and that type of energy and community building drew me in.”

The policy of community-first isn’t solely altruistic — it’s good for the bottom lines of these locally-grown businesses as well. Johnson points to the pastries sold alongside his coffee at Firelight as an example. He sources them from a fellow Atlantan, pastry chef Ashley Sue.

“Instead of having pre-packaged muffins shipped across the country, we have the benefit and privilege to feature Ashley Sue’s far superior product, which is a win for our customers. On the flip side, we evangelize the benefits of working with a local coffee roaster for the same reason — your coffee doesn’t sit on a truck for days or weeks at a time getting stale, and you have the benefit of building up the coffee culture in your hometown,” says Johnson.

With all these fledgling business seeking a piece of the coffee market, is there enough room for everyone? One might think the craft coffee scene might mimic the sometimes-competitive nature of startup life. 

Jared Karr, one of the founders of relative newcomer East Pole Coffee Co. (and a roaster in our Bitter Southerner Coffee Club), says it’s not so — increased density will help everyone. After all, it’s not like there’s anything special about the Northwest, certainly the region leading the country’s coffee industry, with regards to climate or geography. Coffee beans don’t grow there, either. 

But, in Seattle and San Francisco, there’s a speciality roaster on every corner. Karr is doing his part by building out a brand new brick-and-mortar space for East Pole, formerly just a wholesale distributor. The space, which will open later this summer in the West Midtown neighborhood of Atlanta, will not only serve coffee, but also house the company’s roasting operations. 

“The roaster will be behind a glass partition, so people can see the coffee beans turning from green to brown as we actually serve them our coffee. We want people to ask questions about the coffee, we want them to know where it came from,” says Karr.

East Pole’s three founders are committed to building a sustainable business around their coffee, providing benefits, a living salary, and continued training to their employees. Karr says this echoes many of the Atlanta coffee-preneurs who came before them, who have made a commitment to changing the perception of the industry as a temporary job between careers. 

“We want you to be able to make a good living off of our coffee,” says Karr. “When I went to Italy, everyone working in coffee was over 40. They had been doing it for years. It often isn’t like that in this country.”

The responsibility he feels for his employees also translates to his home city. East Pole is committed to hometown pride, as evidenced by their “From Atlanta” branded shirts. Their motto proclaims their view of Atlanta: “the capital of the South, a pillar of the East.”

Even at this early stage (East Pole company is less than two years old), it has already landed Atlanta-based clients of caliber, including Mailchimp and co-working space Industrious’ local outposts. They served as the coffee sponsor for the Atlanta edition of Breakout, a conference for young, socially conscious entrepreneurs. They poured for the runners and supporters of the annual Independence Day Peachtree Road Race.  

When asked if he would consider opening another shop at a later date, Karr pauses. 

“I would consider it,” he says. “But we’re a wholesale business first — I wouldn’t want our shop to impact any of the businesses we sell to. They’re our first consideration.”

It’s this mark of Southern hospitality that may be the distinguishing factor setting Southern craft coffee apart.

“Even though Atlanta coffee producers and providers are technically in competition with each other, we all have the common goal of providing Atlanta and the surrounding region with better tasting and more responsible coffee. The Firelight team learned to roast from a local roaster in Birmingham, and have since then paid it forward by helping others launch their roasting companies,” Johnson says. “I don’t know if this is something totally unique to the coffee industry, but it definitely feels special.”


Holly Beilin is the editor-in-chief at Hypepotamus, the leading startup- and technology-focused news publication and community resource in the Southeast. Sign up for the Hypepotamus newsletter and follow them on Twitter and Instagram.