By Judy Berthiaume, UW-Eau Claire Integrated Marketing and Communications Department
Life is about to get even better for Blugolds who love both their coffee and their university, thanks to a team of UW-Eau Claire entrepreneurial students.
Blugold Roast coffee — special organic blends created for a newly established student-run coffee business — will be offered at UW-EC special events this fall, and soon will be available for purchase online. Eventually, the students hope to sell the coffee on campus.
Students in the Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization in collaboration with the university’s Dennis L. Heyde Entrepreneur Program established Blugold Roast and will run the business.
Blugold Roast will offer a dark, a medium and a light blend, as well as a decaffeinated option. All will carry the Blugold Roast label, with the dark roast blend also having the distinction of being known as the Chancellor’s Blend in honor of Chancellor Jim Schmidt, a coffee lover who helped select that blend.
The coffee was shared on campus for the first time during the College of Business’ recent 50-year anniversary celebration.
Students have been involved in all aspects of the business, from developing the business plan to identifying a coffee roaster to marketing its product, said Ann Rupnow, entrepreneurship and economic development coordinator in the College of Business.
Establishing a student-run coffee business has been in the works for more than a year, with Blugolds traveling to Seattle, Minnesota and Costa Rica to learn about the coffee industry as they developed their plans for launching their own business.
Setting Up a Student-Run Business
The idea for a student-run coffee business came after UW-Eau Claire alumnus Jim Stewart, a leader in Seattle’s coffee roasting industry, met with entrepreneurial students during a visit to his alma mater. He suggested the students visit Seattle, the coffee capital of the world, and helped them connect with an established coffee roaster.
“The trip to Seattle really helped us understand the coffee business in a new and more complete way,” said Tyler Anderson, president of UW-Eau Claire’s Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization. “The people we met with there were incredibly generous with their time and with sharing information about their industry.”
Unfortunately, high shipping costs from the West Coast to the Midwest made a partnership with Seattle-based roasters impossible, but the lessons the students took from those meetings gave them the direction and inspiration they needed to turn their idea into reality, Anderson said.
When they realized they needed to find a more local roaster, they acted on a referral from another UW-EC alumnus and successful entrepreneur. Zach Halmstad, co-founder of JAMF Software, which has offices in Eau Claire and its headquarters in Minneapolis, introduced Rupnow to a Twin Cities-based coffee roaster that he uses for his business.
Eight students traveled to Minneapolis to meet the recommended roaster, and they knew immediately they’d found a partner in Alan Krohnke’s Roastery 7, a local wholesale artisan coffee roaster.
Recognizing that it takes 4 pounds of carbon to produce and distribute one pound of coffee, Roastery 7 donates a portion of the proceeds from its business to fund reforestation efforts in Ecuador. Over time, the trees will remove more carbon from the atmosphere than was emitted through the coffee process, making it a carbon negative initiative, Anderson said.
Gathering Feedback About Blends
With the roaster selected, the student entrepreneurs began to research and solicit feedback about potential coffee blends.
For example, a survey during an Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce breakfast event in the spring helped students learn more about the coffee patterns and preferences of potential customers.
And feedback from a summer cupping event on campus helped them finalize the blends — including the Chancellor Blend — they will offer through their Blugold Roast label.
“We gathered a lot of information and feedback, and then shared it with our roaster,” Anderson said. “We knew the chancellor is a coffee enthusiast so we were eager to get his input during the cupping event. A number of other people, including Christian Wise, resident district manager/executive chef for Sodexo, offered feedback. The blends we’re offering reflect what we heard people say they liked or didn’t like.”
Thirteen Students Involved
Nine students currently are involved in the business, and four others were involved last year but have since graduated, according to Anderson, a Chippewa Falls native who said he enrolled at UW-Eau Claire partly because of its growing entrepreneurship program.
Bringing together students to plan and create a real-world business has been a great lesson in the benefits of teamwork, a skill that will be of great value wherever his career takes him, Anderson said. While the students are making the decisions, they have experienced faculty to guide them and offer support.
By meeting with professionals in the coffee roasting business and local business leaders, students gained not only practical advice but also valuable networking experience and professional contacts, he added.
“We’re using what we’re learning in the classroom to establish and run a real business, but we’re doing it at very low cost to us, and with the support of knowledgeable professors,” Anderson said. “You don’t get a chance like this at many universities.”