Sup guys! Good times at SCAA in Portland, no? If you were there, maybe you got a chance to meet up with Ryan Knapp, the co-owner of MadCap Coffee Company in Grand Rapids, MI. This 26-year old is pretty remarkable; his roastery/cafe is one of the most succesful ones in Michigan, his roasting skills create buzz around his many wholesale customers on the East Coast, and his barista dexterities knock female customers off their feet. I had an opportunity to interview the guy and here is what came out from our conversation:
V. Hi Ryan! Traditional question brother, how did you dip your feet in coffee?
K. Hi Max! About 5 years ago, I was finishing up college and had no idea what to do with my Theology degree. About that time, I made a trip to East Africa, mostly Uganda and a little bit of Rwanda. I guess I was kind of inspired by how much of an effect coffee could have on countries’ economies and Rwanda specifically, which experienced so much of this during the last couple of decades. Coffee has been its number one export commodity, so on that side of things I was really intrigued by it. And then I started working as a barista in this cafe in a small town in Illinois, and had no idea how much coffee would draw me in. I fell in love with making espresso, and brewing coffee.
Trevor Corlett and I decided to open up MadCap Company together in Grand Rapids, a place where we could deliver the highest level of quality and focus on delicious coffee without cutting corners on any step of the chain.
V. Ah, I see… It could be interesting for some to know why it’s hard to deliver quality coffee in a small town?
K. We were in a super small town, of about 15,000 people maybe, and it is difficult to do coffee with the quality that we wanted to do in such a low traffic area, so we were looking for a bigger city than that. We found Grand Rapids to be an attractive city with a very accepting food culture. The specialty coffee movement was pretty new in Michigan as a whole in the entire state, so we thought we had a lot to offer, and it has been a great community for us so far.
I just think that with buying expensive coffee, you also have to sell a lot of expensive coffee, and we have just been in a town where you don’t have a lot of fancy breweries and restaurants. Sometimes that standard of quality is hard to deliver because it is hard to find somebody who wants it. Specialty coffee isn’t for everyone and not everybody gets excited about it, but that is ok, the more people are excited about it the better (laughs).
V. I have heard that MadCap buys coffee from this sweet farm Finca de Dios, Guatemala. Please tell me about your relationship with it.
K. Quality and relationships are the two things that we are really focused on as a business. We have been buying from Finca de Dios since the first year that we have opened, and we visit it every year. Currently, every coffee that we purchase from them is part of a relationship: we are commited to them – farmers know that we are gonna pay money for their coffee no matter what.
V. What is one of the most effective methods that you have found as far as promoting the public’s interest in specialty coffee?
K. I believe the most succesful method for us has been our Sunday service, where we pair different foods and coffees in a sit down manner. It is not a common cupping experience, it is more closely related to a fine dining experience. Sometimes when you do a cupping format it can be a little intimidating and less sensible for consumers and we want to offer something that is a little more comfortable and unique.
V. Que bueno! What kind of foods do you pair and what has been the general reception from the public?
K. We usually work with local companies to deliver the food to us. The choice varies depending on the service. On our first service we had blueberries, cheese and bisquits. In another one we did chocolate pairings. The main goal is to complement and to highlight the coffees we use.
As far as the reception it has been really, really good so far. The most exciting part about it is having people coming back during the week after the Sunday service and asking more and more questions about the stuff they learned during it.
V. We are nearing the end of our interview, is there something that you would like to share with our caffeinated audience?
K. Yeah, for sure! I think we have grown so much as an industry that you see more and more roasters that are excited to see great coffees. However, more than often I find myself talking with other roasters, and they will say I wish I could do something this way, but I am not able to do this because my customers will get mad, or I don’t have any money. For example, they are afraid to buy expensive coffee because they don’t think their customer base will pay 50 cents more for a better coffee, but I think there is a lot that we can do. Get out of the box and don’t be afraid to operate differently!