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UA graduate turns roasting hobby into business

Maria Beddingfield

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While the idea of starting a company did not become a reality until after the church event, their passion for serving quality coffee and their fulfillment in the home-roasting process encouraged them to take it a step further.

“We decided, ‘Well, let’s roast some coffee, and sell it there and brew it for some people and see what happens.’ We were just going to do it for fun,” said Johnson, who graduated from The University of Alabama in spring 2012 with a degree in management information systems. “It kind of blew up. Everyone really liked it, so we just decided to go a little bigger.”

Johnson, an IT analyst at Ernst and Young, and Harlan, a senior analyst at Home Depot, met two years ago at Grace-Midtown Church in Atlanta, Georgia, after Johnson relocated from Tuscaloosa. Johnson was already roasting his own coffee before he met Harlan, who graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2011, but after they became friends, Harlan’s desire to start his own business mixed with Johnson’s roasting hobby.

“We’re both pretty passionate about coffee, and that’s why I started roasting in the first place,” Johnson said. “I had the gear and I was brewing it correctly, so it’s like, ‘What’s the next step? It’s to roast it ourselves, have it fresh.’ It’s been good.”

Amber Johnson, a UA alumna, accounting assistant at RSUI and Todd Johnson’s wife, said Johnson and Harlan discussed partnering for a long time before making it official.

“[They] talked a lot about having a coffee business together, and they just didn’t know exactly what that looked like. Whether it was roasting or actually having a coffee shop or that kind of thing,” she said. “That artist market really sealed the deal that they wanted to roast.”

Since Atlanta is home to many local cafés and because the two roasters still work full-time jobs, sticking to roasting and selling coffee beans wholesale and made-to-order is currently more feasible.

“You really jump into it full-time when you open a coffee shop,” Harlan said. “But the artist market showed how easy it is to get into the [roasting] market.”

After upgrading from popcorn poppers, which only roast a few ounces of beans at a time, to one-pound roasters, the two launched an IndieGoGo campaign to raise money for a much larger roaster. The new roaster, which is currently on order, can roast up to 11 pounds of beans at a time and has a computing system that will allow Johnson and Harlan to roast more specialized batches and to tweak their processes.

“Since we want to do the online model, we want to roast to order,” Johnson said. “So whenever someone orders something, we’ll roast it for them specifically in a small batch and then ship it out the same day or as soon as possible, so that when they get it, it’ll be really, really fresh.”

Atlanta’s spacious coffee roasting market, coupled with an increasing café count, means more opportunities for the young co-founders to sell their coffee. Since so few roasting companies exist in Atlanta, the community is more about camaraderie than competition.

“Other roasters in town are like Octane and Batdorf & Bronson, and we all go to the same events together,” he said. “It’s really close-knit, and everyone’s super nice. Everyone’s willing to help each other out, so you won’t hear us saying bad things about anyone else’s coffee.”

They plan on selling at local farmers’ markets to spread their presence and reputation, and they eventually hope to sell to specialty grocery stores, similar to Whole Foods.

With backgrounds in MIS, industrial engineering and entrepreneurship between them, Johnson and Harlan agreed they never would have started a company on their own without the knowledge and experience they gained in college. College propelled Johnson into the corporate world and showed him what running a business would be like, and for Harlan, it prepared him for problem-solving and innovative thinking. By marrying their skill sets, Amber Johnson said, they balance each other out.

“Things that Todd is stronger in, he’s able to handle and then same with Ryan. So the IT side, Todd’s got, and Ryan’s good at client-basing and making sales, so I think he’s pretty charismatic,” Amber Johnson said. “I think these two really complement each other too. I think that they’re pretty much the perfect team.”

On August 1, the two hope to officially launch their website and be in the full swing of things with the new roaster, selling both wholesale and by-the-pound orders to anyone who is interested. All of the beans they sell are organic, fair trade certified and in-season because they said they care about serving quality products that come from ethical means.

“We’re working with the other roasters to increase the market share of the city. We want more people to drink better coffee,” Harlan said. “I love giving someone a fresh bag of coffee and saying, ‘This is going to blow you away.’”

To check out the campaign or to get updates on the company’s progress, go to atlcoffeeco.com, or find them on Facebook at Atlanta Coffee Company.

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UA graduate turns roasting hobby into business