A cup of joe and some cultural insight is a business model Michael Rice thinks Chattanoogans need.
When the Georgia native moved to Chattanooga in 2015, he and his wife were excited about living in a smaller city with less traffic that was close to the mountains. It seemed like a perfect fit for them to open a coffee shop, but Rice said there was one thing missing from their new home.
“We quickly found out Chattanooga was a cultural vacuum,” he said, describing the coffee industry in the city as being filled with mostly white owners and baristas, including himself.
So when the 31-year-old opened up Mad Priest Coffee in 2016, he knew he wanted to bring more cultural experiences to the city’s bustling coffee community. With roughly 15 other coffee shops within a mile radius of Mad Priest’s 1900 Broad St. location, Rice said combining the cultural aspect with his coffee also helps make the store stand out amid the crowd.
“I knew I could do it better,” said Rice, sipping his cup of coffee and looking out the window of Mad Priest’s small storefront on an unseasonably cool March morning. “I saw a lack of developed coffee culture in Chattanooga.”
Mad Priest and other coffee shops in town serve coffee from around the world, including the Rwanda Nyamagabe Organic that is one of the top sellers at Mad Priest. The coffee is from Buf Cafe located in the mountains of south-central Rwanda and has flavors of lemon and black tea.
While any shop can pour international coffee for locals, Rice took it one step further by creating Mad Priest Events, which brings what Rice calls “cultural experiences” to the general public through dinners, music and events that celebrate different countries each time.
Rice’s background in events and experiences working abroad in the coffee industry has helped make his new venture a success. Over the past year, Mad Priest Events has hosted an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, formal dinner serving Iraqi food and other events showcasing India, Venezuela and World Refugee Day.
“The goal of this is that when you walk in, you’re in that country for the night until you leave,” he said. “We always have a partner that helps ensure it’s authentic.”
By selling an average of 150-200 tickets for each event, it has helped bring extra cash flow to the coffee side of the business and extend Mad Priest’s mission, which is to “craft excellent coffee, educate the curious and champion the displaced,” according to their website.
That extra cash is also helping Mad Priest open a new downtown location by the end of summer, which will be bigger and include food, coffee and a cocktail bar, Rice said. Mad Priest’s original Broad Street location will still remain open.
Besides Rice and his wife, there are two other full-time employees at Mad Priest — Sudanese refugee, Tarig, who helps with production at the roastery and Luke Pigott, the coffee roaster.
Pigott came to Chattanooga and Mad Priest nine months ago. He started his career in coffee when he was a theology professor in Philadelphia and eventually moved onto roasting full time.
After moving back south, Pigott met Rice and Mad Priest seemed like a good fit.
“I was trying to find a place with good ethics that was also close to my family,” said Pigott, a Mississippi native.
Rice doesn’t believe Mad Priest needs to be a nonprofit to do some good in the world.
“There’s no reason our bottom line couldn’t include social justice, too,” he said. “Our inspiration is to use capitalism for good.”
By Allison Shirk
(c)2018 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)
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