History is littered with successful people who didn’t take the traditional route. Even in a niche like coffee, many well-known roasters took their own unique paths. Lauren Schelfhaudt and Jean Paul of Dancing Ox Coffee Roasters spent twenty years as World Champion ballroom dancers. Bryan Gibb of Bolt Coffee never went to college. And Trevor Corlett, founder of Madcap Coffee in Grand Rapids, Michigan, attended college but never graduated.
“I performed very well in high school and didn’t know what I wanted to go to college for,” he says. “So I picked the thing that was easiest for me, which was computers. But I was bored and not very motivated. At a certain point, I realized I wanted to spend my life pursuing something I enjoyed.”
For Corlett, that was coffee. By any metrics, the company looks like the picture of entrepreneurial success. But the road to four retail locations, a roastery, hundreds of wholesale accounts, and a nationally-recognized brand took time.
The Birth of Trevor Corlett
Kenny Gould: Where are you from?
Trevor Corlett: I grew up in Illinois, about an hour south of Chicago. I came out to Michigan for college and was studying computer information systems. After about three-and-a-half years, I dropped out to pursue coffee.
KG: Why coffee?
TC: I didn’t actually drink coffee until midway through college. My mom was a pot-a-day coffee drinker; growing up, I tasted Folgers and said, “I’m never trying this again.”
But I fell in love with coffee shop culture. I had a lot of friends playing coffee shop gigs because in the 90s, that’s what people went to coffee shops for. Today, when people come to me and say, “I want a place to open a coffee shop because I want a cool place for people to hang out,” I say, “Forget it.” It’s not a good business model. But that’s why I started pursuing it initially.
How Corlett Got Into Coffee
KG: What made you think you could do well in coffee?
TC: While I was in college, I gained a lot of retail management experience. So I felt like I could manage a space. I’d never worked in food service before, which I think is an interesting disconnect from a lot of people in coffee today. But I started writing business plans and attempted to open my own shop a couple times. When nothing worked out, I thought, maybe I’ll get some experience in it. I applied for a job online for a startup cafe and music venue in Indianapolis called The House Café and Music. It was a 300-seat music venue. I convinced them to let me run the music venue and coffee and co-managed the food side.
KG: How long did you do that?
TC: About a year-and-a-half. And through that job, I actually met my first specialty roaster, which was an Indiana-based operation called Alliance World Coffees. They were sourcing coffee themselves. I saw latte art there for the first time. There was a lot of hidden talent there, like Chris Defario. He now runs a podcast called Keys to the Shop. And eventually their roaster went to Seattle to work for Zoka.
KG: So you made some great relationships.
TC: Yes, but I was motivated to do my own thing. I moved back to Illinois. By this point, I’d been married for a couple years. I made my wife move into my parents’ basement. Then I bought a five-pound batch roaster on Ebay and rented a 200-square-foot office space. I’d roast coffee and sell to whoever I could. At the time, I also made $6.75 an hour working at a water softener company.
Corlett Starts His First And Second Coffee Projects
KG: So you had passion, even if you didn’t have direction. When did you start your first solo venture?
TC: The whole time at the water company, I convinced myself I was going to learn about water. Mind you, I was doing flavored coffee at that time. I had no real standards. Specialty coffee still wasn’t really a thing at that point. So I spent a few years doing that, and in that time, I built a relationship with a real estate person who had an old used car lot. In maybe 2003 or 2004, I started a drive-through coffee business.
KG: Was that successful?
TC: It lasted a year. We weren’t a big city and no one wanted drive-through coffee. That’s actually a theme in my life — I kept starting these businesses in places where people didn’t want what I was offering.
KG: So what’d you do next?
TC: I started another coffee shop that lasted about 3 years. I got some financing on that one. Just like the drive-through shop, it looked like any other 90s Bohemian coffee shop. It was very eclectic, with live music in the evenings. I was doing fruit smoothies and paninis and I had flavored syrups.
The World of Barista Competitions
KG: But obviously something changed. How’d that happen?
TC: Around 2005 or 2006, I drove out to Intelligentsia in Chicago. There, I went to my first competition and watched people compete. There were maybe twenty people in the audience. They’d made shirts for all the competitors and they had so many extra they gave them out for free.
Being a competitive person in general, I got sucked in. I became obsessed with the idea of participating in a competition. Because I was from a small town south of Chicago, I had no way to gauge the value of what I was doing compared to all the big guys like Intelligentsia and Stumptown. I thought the competition would be a good platform to get feedback on what I was doing right. It took me a couple years, but I finally competed in Milwaukee in 2008 at the Great Lakes Barista Championships.
KG: And this is when things began to change.
TC: After that first one, I was hooked. At the time, there were no limits to how many people from a company could compete. Altera, which is now Collectivo, had a bunch of people competing. One of them is now the owner of Kickapoo. Another was Mike Phillips, who now works for Blue Bottle. And Charles Babinsky who started Go Get Em Tiger. I met all those guys in Milwaukee.
KG: How’d you perform?
TC: A lot of those big guys finished in the top six, and I came in seventh. People were like, “Who is this guy?” And that was it. At the time, I’d been in disputes with the finance partner at the café I owned because I wanted to change things. I made the transition to Fair Trade and got rid of the syrups. He was like, “We’re profitable, don’t change anything.” It didn’t end well. I chose to walk away and gave up my shares.
The Start Of Madcap Coffee
TC: That’s when I decided to start Madcap Coffee. My old café used to close at midnight, so I’d close the cafe and hang out with my staff and talk about what Madcap would look like.
KG: When was this?
TC: In December 2008, I signed a lease on a space in Grand Rapids. Three of my employees from that café followed me out. Eventually, I gave one of those employees ownership. That’s Ryan Knapp, our green coffee buyer and my co-founder.
KG: And when did the first Madcap location open?
TC: We opened late 2008, early 2009. Everything we did was probably a first in Michigan. That being said, Nick at Wrecking Ball Coffee in San Francisco once said, “Never be the person who claims you’re the first to do anything, because there’s always someone else who did it first.” And I agree with that.
But when we opened Madcap, Michigan had the worst economy in the country. It was right after the recession. I caught a lot of flack for opening. The downtown was dead. The city was dying. Even a few years following, there was a lot of media publicity about Michigan and Grand Rapids being one of the worst places to find yourself at any point in time.
Mad Cap Coffee: The Early Years
KG: What was opening like for you?
TC: We had a few delays with construction and buildout. The more time we had to think about how we’d open, the more intense we got. We went from, “We’re only going to do five or six flavored syrups” to “We’re only doing two and we’re making them in house.” We said, “We’re only going to have one coffee size.” To give you perspective, it was in early 2009 that Intelligentsia eliminated one of their drink sizes. It was a huge deal.
So here we are in Michigan not offering anything anyone really wants. The only option was which coffee we were brewing. We had three coffees every day and focused on single origins. And we decided that we were only going to buy coffees where we had direct contact with the producers. When we started, we had maybe three or four origins. We didn’t buy any coffee from Colombia for years, which is now one of our favorites.
KG: How was opening Madcap different than what you’d been doing?
TC: I’d been in it for eight years but in small town. But I’d been roasting for five years and working with importers. Back then when I started, getting information was really hard. Social media wasn’t a thing yet. I had to have an employee get me a college email account so I could get a Facebook account to promote my business through Facebook.
Additionally, the mentality of coffee roasters up to that point was pretty secretive. No one wanted to give away their “secrets.” Unless you went and apprenticed somewhere or paid someone an outrageous amount of money to teach you, you had to figure it out on your own. That included sourcing.
KG: How do you think competitions affected the way you opened?
TC: My now-business-partner Ryan was competing as well and both of us did well out of the gates. For better or worse, success at the competitions provides a certain respect and recognition that might not be warranted. But it gave us an opening into networking and connections with folks, whether it was importers or what have you.
KG: When you first opened, how’d you choose the farms with which you worked?
TC: We started wherever we could build relationships. Guatemala and El Salvador. We have a family in each of those countries with whom we’ve had relationships since we started. It’s cool to have twelve years of a relationship and we look forward to speaking with them every year. Our relationships continued to grow from there.
Madcap Coffee Becomes A National Brand
KG: What do you think set you apart from other roasters?
TC: We were sourcing and roasting coffee in a capacity that was very unique to the state. On top of that, until June or July of 2009, we’d been French pressing all our filtered coffee. It was very Stumptown of us. But right after Intelligentsia switched to pour overs, I was talking to founder Doug Zell. I had lunch with him or something right after they made the switch to brew-by-the-cup. However many locations they had, they had lines out the door because it was so much slower. But he fully stood behind their decision.
Doug sort of called me out and asked if we were making that move. He said, “If we can do it in downtown Chicago, you can do it in Grand Rapids.” I went from being really motivated by that conversation to implementing pour overs at our spot. So six months after opening, we went to brew-by-the-cup. We got some local publicity and people were trying to rationalize why we’d do everything manually. Why we’d slow the process down.
You take that, you take our focus on the coffee and doing single sizes and making people choose coffee and really trying to focus on a high-level experience and telling the stories behind the coffee, and it was very different from what people were used to.
KG: But did they respond well? Were you popular from the beginning?
TC: No. The first couple years, our business was very slow. I mean, we started right after a recession, and we didn’t really have a product people wanted. But the interesting thing I saw happening, especially in hindsight, was that we didn’t make any compromises to try and get more business. For good or bad, we stuck to our guns. We developed loyalty.
There was definitely criticism for doing things the way we were doing them, but there were also people who respected an individual who’d stick by their standards. And any publicity was good publicity. People were coming to see what the hype was all about or to join in the criticism, but they were coming.
How Madcap Changed Coffee
KG: How are you different now than when you opened?
TC: At the beginning, we were definitely so passionate about the product that hospitality wasn’t great. It just wasn’t a priority. We came across as us having a huge chip on our shoulder. And we did. At the time, we thought, We put all this work into sourcing this bean and paying the farmer the way we have and you want us to do what to it?
It wasn’t until further down the road where we had this eye-opening moment where we thought, We’re alienating a lot of people and not doing ourselves any favors. With age comes wisdom. At the end of the day, coffee is just an ingredient. We can still do the product justice but we can prioritize the people not just on the growing end but on the receiving end. So it took us a bit to think about creating a really awesome experience for people.
KG: You were the quintessential coffee snobs.
TC: When you’re executing at a high level, there’s always someone who looks at what you’re doing and says, “Those guys are super pretentious.” It’s like, “No, we just believe in doing things really well.” But in creating more opportunities for people to engage with us, hopefully we can win them over.
KG: What else changed for the better?
TC: Sometime within the first year we made a shift to doing our branding in-house to partnering with a couple guys locally. One of them is still the designer we work with on packaging and café design today. When we rolled out our packaging, we wanted to be super intentional. Everything was supposed to tell a story.
KG: What does that look like in practice?
TC: The logo on our bags is a fabric patch. You don’t really know it unless you pick that bag up and feel it and interact with it. It speaks to the craft nature of what we do. The color labels, early on we started doing color labels on a black and white bag and it popped. The intention was to find an approachable way to interact with customers where they wouldn’t have to pronounce any hard names of beans. They wouldn’t have to remember anything. They could just say, “I want the blue one.”
When you first went into our cafés, the coffee menu just had laminated labels from the bags that we swapped in and out depending on what was brewed. We wanted to make it as easy for people as possible. Because we purchase based on seasonality, people can say, “When is that lime green from Ethiopia coming back?” We made it an easier way for people to connect. They didn’t have to remember these exotic names.
That impacted how people ordered. When you only have three coffees and you’re trying to explain something, you want people to feel comfortable. With the way we had things set up, we didn’t make people feel comfortable.
The Community At Madcap
KG: When I think about Madcap, I don’t just think about the beans. I think you’ve built a very strong community. Was that intentional?
TC: When you look at the history of coffee, it has always been less about the beans and more about the communal experience. Peter Juliano who used to work for Counter Culture talked a lot about that. Does coffee’s popularity come from the coffee itself or the environment that surrounds the coffee?
Even our downtown Grand Rapids location is such an interesting study in human behavior. Where it’s located, there are a lot of office buildings and medical stuff. So you have all these suits. But we also have an art college that’s a couple blocks away. So you have art students. Kids with tattoos and piercings that are drawing and painting. People from different walks of life that are working together. They all come for the same thing. In some cases, it’s to drink coffee, but mostly they’re there to meet and mingle.
I mean, just look at the history of coffee. Think about all the political parties have been formed over coffee. Is it really the product? Is it the idea of people coming around? Caffeine affects people, not as drastically as alcohol, but there have definitely been times around the world where you get the same sense of camaraderie and community.
KG: How has your locality affected your business?
TC: I’d argue that our company’s growth has been interesting. Our popularity in Michigan has been really slow. For a long time, Michigan could’ve cared less that we existed. Because of that, we had to develop a wholesale business that I wasn’t interested in initially. I was fairly opinionated about how things should be done. But then the brand started taking off and California emerged quickly as a wholesale state. We were selling more there than anywhere in the country, even Michigan.
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