podcastsmall business war stories

Meraki Roasting Company: How Small Businesses Impact Their Communities in Clarksdale, Mississippi | Cali Noland and Ben Lewis

How Small Businesses Impact Their Communities | Meraki Roasting Company

We often underestimate the impact that a small business can have on their community while in reality, small businesses are the main driver of job creation in the United States.

One small business has less impact than a major corporation, but as a whole, small businesses create more jobs, create a positive atmosphere within their communities, and create local role models for kids to look up to.

One coffee shop in Clarksdale, Mississippi is a perfect example of such a business.

Cali Noland and Ben Lewis of Meraki Roasting Company have combined their passions for education, community and business to use their local coffee shop to help teach kids necessary job skills. 

With a poverty rate of 40% in Clarksdale, this program is filling an extremely important need for this community. These kids are learning necessary soft skills like time management, that will ultimately help them secure and keep a job in the future.

We get into this program and much more in the latest episode of Small Business War Stories.

Listen to the podcast:

The Soul of America Tour

This episode is part of the Soul of America tour sponsored by Tecovas Boots, Badger Maps, and Impact Dog Crates. During April 2017, I drove with my six month-old puppy Muddy Waggers, my guitar, and my podcasting equipment with the goal of recording podcast episodes with small business owners throughout the heart of America.

Show Notes

A summary of our interview with Cali Noland and Ben Lewis of Meraki Roasting Company is below.

You can use the links below to jump to your interests.

So how did the business start? You guys are relatively new in town. I’d love to hear a little bit more about how this all started, and how did you get inspired to start a coffee company?

Cali Noland: Sure, well, I actually grew up in Clarksdale and went to college and when I came back, knew I wanted to start a non-profit that helped youth in Clarksdale. So about six years ago we started an after school program that was an arts program for youth. And so when they got a little bit older, we started having graduates of our program and we realized that job skills was a really important part of the training that they needed to just be able to succeed and go to college. They needed to be able to get a job and hold a job in order to provide for themselves and in order to maybe just get basic things like be able to buy a car to go to college. And so when that realization came to us, we said, “Okay, let’s do this.” Like we’re going to do whatever the real need is in Clarksdale.

So we actually had a first trial run in the job training program where our kids were growing vegetables and selling them at the farmers market.

Okay, so how did that go?

Cali Noland: Well, it was a great idea.

Ben Lewis: Version 1.0.

Cali Noland: The training portion of it was really successful. The kids that were in the program did really well and graduated and now are employed. The one thing that we had feedback on and that we realized quickly is that if we were going to do this, we needed to invest in a business that was actually going to bring in some income.

So that’s when we started … We pulled back and since we’re a non-profit, we have a board of directors and so I worked with the board of directors to put together a solid business plan. And as we were working that business plan out, it was kind of interesting because we knew what we needed for the job training portion of the program, but we weren’t exactly sure what the business was going to be.

The non-profit is called Griot Arts Incorporated. Griot is actually a West African word. It means storyteller. They’re the keepers of the culture. They pass down the culture to the younger generations through dance, poetry, music. So that inspired the arts side of things.

And then when we started the job training program, of course, we needed another fun funky word for that. So we came up with Meraki. And Meraki is actually a Greek word. It means to put soul, creativity, and love into your work.

There’s the just the basic side of it which hey let’s just teach some basic skills to where we can all hold down a job. The second part of it is that we really feel like that work is a very integral part of life and it’s not just a burden. It can be a passion and a calling. And so we try to when our students are in our program using that word Meraki, and helping them really find what is their calling, what is their passion, and what can they give back to the community. 

When you find that thing that you really love and are passionate about, it becomes a gift to people around you, not only to just yourself to make money.

So the coffee shop, if I’m understanding correctly is then a profitable expression of the desire to have a training program. How did the coffee come into play?

Ben Lewis: Yeah, so the coffee part. I’m originally from Washington State. Coffee is actually a part of my blood. I moved down to Mississippi two and a half years ago to work in education. So my background is in education. I had my own consulting business and I’ve worked with several different roasting companies in the past. So when I met Cali, and she was talking about her vision with the job training program, and she was talking about different potential businesses.

It came down to with this concept to support job training. It can be any business, but whoever is running it needs to have a passion for it. And there’s not much more in this world that I’m passionate about other than coffee and then combining it with my love for education. It’s my ideal dream job.

We chose coffee for a variety of reasons, not just because of my passion, but it’s also a great platform for job training. Coffee is very science and technically-oriented.

There’s process that needs to happen so it teaches that and instills that instructional following, patterning, routine. But then there’s also a lot of variables in coffee that you have to learn to react to.

So it teaches kids they have to go deeper. They have to understand fundamentals of whatever they’re doing. They can’t just do it. They have to understand why they’re doing it.

When you’re roasting coffee, there’s all sorts of variables that get introduced and you have to understand why they’re happening, and then think logically okay, how do I compensate or react to these new variables that are thrown in,

And so it makes a wonderful job training platform for developing those soft skills, which is our focus. The hard skills are secondary. I mean they’re important. We want something that help them build their resume.

The age old problem, if you go to apply for a job, and you can’t get it because you don’t have experience, therefore you can’t build experience. So we’re building those technical skills in so they have something “resumeable.”

But our ultimate goal is we want to help them develop their soft skills so no matter where they work, they can be excellent employees.

What are examples of soft skills that you teach people?

Ben Lewis: Soft skills are things like hope, pride …

Cali Noland: Waking up on time.

Ben Lewis: Yes, time management. And going back to the meaning of Meraki, when you put a piece of yourself into your work, you tend to be more motivated through those hard times.

As we all know hard times are going to come whether we want them to or not, even if you love your work. But then it sometimes gets as simple as just time management. Waking up on time, thinking ahead saying okay I shouldn’t stay out late because I have to be at the shop early in the morning.

How many kids are currently involved in the program?

Ben Lewis: Currently eight. We have two tracks. We have a high school oriented track and those that are not in school. Our target student is the term opportunity youth. I don’t know if you’ve heard that. Came out of the Obama administration. Basically it’s 16-24 that is neither in school nor working, and so that’s our ideal student or youth. They are someone who’s just fallen through the cracks and need that extra help to build their foundation.

Cali Noland: We are here in Clarksdale, Mississippi and I don’t know if you know that there’s 40% poverty here in our town. And so we’re dealing every day, the citizens here are dealing with different affects of poverty. We saw a lot of our students who are in the after school arts program were developing a lot of those values that we were talking about, the hope and just character values, through being in our program.

But a lot of times if you don’t have people around you that necessarily have held a full-time job or really if you’re just struggling, if you’re wondering where you’re going to be able to eat or there’s some chaos going on at home, those soft skills are harder to nail down, and so we’re trying to create not only just this business structure but also this support system and family. It takes a village….and we all are struggling with our own things.

So we’re all just in this together trying to work on help each other, and it’s very cool how even just working with the students that they bring so much into our lives and make us think about things differently. So anyways, just because of our particular situation in Clarksdale, there is a lot more need just for those kind of basic soft skills to be developed.

I think the education system already has so much on its shoulders and there’s not a lot of time just for those basic skills and so that’s one reason we focus on soft skills.

So you guys originally started a agriculture program, and how long ago was that? How long did that last?

Cali Noland: It started about three years ago. The full program lasted a year and then we had a full year cycle of growing and all of that. We also had a recycling pick up program. And then at the end of that year, we realized okay our funding has depleted. We haven’t made a lot.

We had a couple of different people giving us a grant to fund the program. And that’s a great thing about having partnerships with organizations that do grants, because a lot of times they can give some good feedback. And they were the ones who said, “We love what y’all are doing. Could you do this and make more money?”

We’re like “we probably could.” The coffee shop officially launched March 11.

Ben Lewis: So that is we’re going on our fifth week.

Okay. That is amazing, and so far is this working better as a business than the other ventures?

Ben Lewis: We’re in the black.

Cali Noland: Yeah, we have a couple of reasons for choosing the coffee roastery model. There were a couple of times when we thought we could start a café or maybe just a coffee shop, but actually doing the roasting of green beans and then bagging and being able to ship. We can ship worldwide.

We have a subscription model that you can do monthly subscriptions for your home or your business, and we’re also trying to sell our coffee in grocery stores.

Amazing, so that allows you to have a local impact in terms of the community, but it also allows you to scale your sales potentially much beyond Clarksdale…

Cali Noland: Exactly, that’s right.

That’s amazing. Very cool. So tell me more about the subscription model. How has it been working so far and what are some of the pros and cons and challenges of that?

Ben Lewis: Consistency is always the biggest thing especially when working with youth and getting that patterning down. The subscription model is great because it’s predictable revenue, and that’s always a great thing in business.

But the largest challenge is just keeping that consistency when your workforce comes in and out, and then making sure people are trained, and that the product that gets delivered meets standards and quality.

So I imagine, as it’s starting to take shape in my head now, so I imagine that you guys want to build a very strong brand that can then have people have the social impact in the Mississippi Delta through buying some of your coffee?

Cali Noland: Yeah. Our after school program has been around for six years and we just started this new program, that it’s really cool how we have so many contacts and supporters all across the United States. We very quickly got orders from all over the country.

So as of today, people can go and subscribe and have a positive impact in Mississippi youth…

Cali Noland: Yes.

Ben Lewis: Something we all do every morning anyways is drink a cup of coffee, but now you can make positive change through it.

Awesome. So let’s talk about your coffee. Where do you guys get your beans from? How do you think about the roasting aspect? You were talking about the coffee roasting process being very dynamic. I don’t know much about it. What does it entail?

Ben Lewis: Yeah, so there are lots of challenges when it comes to coffee roasting, especially when you speak about sourcing your green beans. One of the high priorities for me is transparency in where the beans come from. Is it sustainably, ethically grown. And so we are at an awkward stage in-between a very small micro roaster or home roaster and a larger scale commercial roaster, which means there’s not many people who will source beans to us and still give us the transparency that we require.

But we are hoping to eventually develop direct relationships with the farmers. Do kind of the farm to cup concept. But right now we do use middlemen to source our green beans from all around the world, which is also the fun part because we teach the education. I’m a firm believer in single origin beans, instead of blending, because each region has a very unique dynamic flavors and then depending on how you roast it, you can bring out different elements.

So tell me more about that. I actually recently learned in the past few years about the difference between light and dark roast coffee, but maybe can you shed some light on that?

Ben Lewis: Yeah. Yeah. You’re asking very complex questions. In a nutshell, there’s kind of two flavors you build into your coffee. You have the origin flavor. It’s very much like wine. The environment it grew in, the minerals in the ground, how much rainfall, was it shade grown, etc., what elevation, all those change the flavors. So that’s the origin flavor, but then you have your roast flavor.

Now generically speaking, and there will probably be some coffee connoisseurs out there that might argue me on this, but the darker you go, the more you lose your origin flavor and you develop what they call a roast flavor.

So single origin beans tend to be … I tend to roast lighter because I want to accent the origin flavor. However, most people are used to darker roasts.

If you have beans tat are not as good, you want to roast them to the dark end. And I’ve done that too. I fall victim to that. I mean it’s what I call nostalgic coffee. It’s what America’s got used to. I mean a lot of people blame it on Starbucks.

The crazy thing about Starbucks is people talk shit about Starbucks. But before Starbucks, coffee in America was Folgers. Starbucks brought forth the idea of like a well-made cup of coffee…

Ben Lewis: Mainstreaming coffee.

Cali Noland: Yeah. But it’s a whole culture shift. It became like the cool thing to do.

Ben Lewis: And they refer to that as second wave. So first wave was what you were talking about, the pre-Starbucks, the Folgers.

Ben Lewis: Second wave is that mainstream, let’s popularize Starbucks coffee. And now what they call, what I believe I’m a part of is that third wave, the art behind coffee. The artisan craft.

Yeah, so it’s the place where coffee becomes more like wine…

Ben Lewis: Yes, very much so, is that third wave coffee and that’s what we’re in now so everybody is looking for what’s next.

You have a storefront here in Clarksdale, so are you holding different events? How do you want to also become a part of the daily street life of Clarksdale?

Cali Noland: So I think we were very intentional from the beginning even with the after-school program, but as soon as we were financially stable enough, we wanted to be downtown in Clarksdale. There’s a big movement to revitalize downtown and just get more people in the buildings. There’s a lot of opportunity around. So we moved our after school program down here about five, four or five years ago.

But one thing that we realized is from the beginning, we really wanted to be that community space, but it wasn’t quite as accessible to the community cause it was really just purely a youth space, which was great for the youth, but now that we have opened up our retail store and tasting room and on the corner of Sunflower and Third in Clarksdale, it’s amazing just the people who get to walk in and one thing that’s really cool about the way that we serve coffee here, we only do French press and pour over.

But it’s very neat because that process of making that cup of coffee takes anywhere from five to seven minutes, so we have these bar stools and most of the people as we’re making their coffee, they sit down and they start having a conversation with us. And so it’s opened up our reach to so many more people that are able to just walk in.

Ben Lewis: Yeah and again another level or aspect to the job training program cause it teaches that communication and relational aspect that’s needed. And so our youth are now interacting with people they wouldn’t normally ever communicate with.

Cali Noland: There are two other aspects to our retail space downtown. One thing is that we have what we call the Meraki Market, and we’re in partnership with the local farmers market and we’re a space where local vendors or anyone who makes anything by hand or grows anything locally can sell their goods in Clarksdale, I mean in our space. And so we do that on consignment here.

The other cool part of that is that by having this we’ve also encouraged a lot of people who wouldn’t do that to start making things and sharing their gifts, so like that one big table was made by our friend, Chris Campos, who comes and hangs out here every day.

He has so many gifts and we were like don’t you want to make a table to put in there, and he was like okay, and so he took two days and put that table together.

And then so the other part of engagement with the community is that we have open mic nights, and we have events for youth in our space, which really before has not really been space.

Where can people find you? What are your websites and your Instagram handles and your address?

Ben Lewis: Yeah, merakiroasting.com for coffee subscriptions. Also on Facebook Meraki Roasting. Instagram Meraki Roasting and Griot Arts, griotarts.com, and 282 Sunflower, Clarksdale, Mississippi.

If you have any questions or comments about today’s episode, please leave them below.


Pablo Fuentes

Pablo Fuentes was the Founder and CEO of Proven. He was also the host and producer of the Small Business War Stories podcast. Pablo is currently the Founder of makepath, a spatial analysis firm. He is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and UCLA. He loves dogs, film photography, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He is also a blues guitar player and builder.

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