By Bethaney Wallace
Brew, coffee, cup of Joe–whatever you choose to call it, there’s no denying that this hot goodness is a crowd favorite. It’s consumed by those of all ages, and in all careers. What’s unique about the coffee bean business, however, is that more and more veterans are choosing to take it on. From those who roast and create unique java flavors, to those who serve it by the cup, this longtime favorite has become an ever-growing way to make a living–post-service and beyond.
1. Cutback Coffee Roasters
“We’ve always been big advocates for good, quality coffee,” says owner Shawn Vanover, describing his and his wife’s passion. Together, they have been micro roasting and selling coffee beans–which means they work in small batches–for the past two years.
It’s a method that helps ensure freshness and the highest flavor potential, Vanover says.
After nine years in the Coast Guard (seven active and two in the Reserve), he began working as a full-time fireman, a position he still holds today. However, it was a surfing trip in Oregon that led him to pursue the art of bean roasting. Though he’d had an interested in coffee before, on this trip he talked to pros and even made his first batch of beans . . . by hand-roasting them in a pan.
“It sparked my interest,” he said.
He took the new skill back home where his wife, Amber, talked him into sharing his flavor profiles. Immediately, the two earned rave reviews and requests to buy. Meanwhile, between experimenting and calling other roasters and asking questions, they honed their method and their flavors.
“We got busy enough where we had to get a small roaster,” he said, after outgrowing their frying pan and then a Whirley Pop popcorn maker. The pair soon upgraded to an even larger roaster that churns out 12 pounds per hour.
“We just grew from there,” he said.
As for the name, it was inspired by another of Vanover’s hobbies: surfing. Coffee drinkers can order their favorite ocean-inspired, freshly-roasted blends through Facebook.
2. Bunker Coffee Company
Though David Palmer was a coffee drinker, it wasn’t something he planned to pursue as a business, he said. He’d gotten out of the military after three years as an Army medic, and was searching to find his way back in the professional world. In the meantime, he began learning coffee roasting as a hobby: “I needed somewhere to put my energy and I started learning. It snowballed; I wanted to learn and before long, I actually knew something.”
Then, during a visit to the VA in 2014, he heard about a vet in need. As a way to raise funds, he and his wife, Kendra, decided to host a pop-up coffee shop. The money was donated and before long, people starting calling, asking the Palmers to open a coffee shop.
With encouragement–and possibly a large nudge–from Kendra, the pair started Bunker Coffee Company in the NOTO district of Topeka, KS. Palmer is behind the coffee flavors and recipes and Kendra is the heart of it, he said.
Bunker is also down the street from a homeless shelter. Palmer said homeless vets often come through to talk.
“My wife is so good at helping identify a problem and find out what they need,” he said. The interaction has also helped him personally: “I was in a place before where I didn’t see the good in people anymore. And now I do, so I’d say in that aspect, the coffee shop has been immeasurably good.”
Palmer said he also works with the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Federation to volunteer and help others. “I feel like it’s really taking a good path right now and looking out for our own,” he said of the group.
And as for his coffee shop, “It turned into a place where other vets can go if they need something, so for that I’m really thankful.”
3. Alpha Coffee Company
After 21 years in the Army, it should come as no surprise that Carl Churchill started his coffee business with a four-part motto. He wanted to be sure all his bases were covered, of course, and relied on his previous work experience to help get him there.
Now, after more than six years in the business of selling beans to consumers and businesses, Alpha is home to a coffee shop in Salt Lake City.
First opening as Lock ‘n Load Java on September 11, 2010 (“Because we wanted an auspicious start date that meshed with our mission.”), he and his wife, Lori, have since rebranded as Alpha Coffee Company. “We say ‘Alpha’ best describes who we are. We really feel like we have the best coffee and the best mission,” he said.
That motto is: awesome coffee, be a warrior, have fun, and give back. The former is achieved by choosing the best beans and roasting for optimum flavor. Carl and Lori ask only the best of themselves and their employees. . . while having fun doing it, of course.
As for giving back, the brand sends coffee to down-range soldiers. Each sale gives funds toward that mission, with more than 10,000 pounds donated to date.
“We wanted to start a business and do something that gives back,” he said. “To do something we both love and provide a quality product.”
He also said their brew is good for morale, offering deployed soldiers the chance to drink quality coffee. It’s a move he finds especially important after recalling some of his deployments where, despite being stationed where some of the best coffee in the world is grown, he said, he was stuck with terrible blends.
“My wife gets tears in her eyes when she gets thank you notes from some of the troops. They say the coffee reminds them of home,” he says. That and a strive to offer a quality experience is what keeps them going.
To nominate deployed soldiers for free coffee, go here.
4. Midtown Coffee House
When switching from active duty to the National Guard, Mike Maldonado and his wife, Angie, knew they wanted to start a business– one that was cozy and allowed folks to come together. “We thought, ‘What better place to have that community atmosphere than a coffee shop?'” he said, and the pair never looked back.
They opened up their location, Midtown Coffee House, in Columbus, GA in 2013, and have been brewing cups of coffee, along with tasty lunches and baked goods, for nearly four years. The coffee house is complete with a private meeting room where church groups, study sessions, businesses, and more can gather.
“I think once people see a combination of those to things – taste the food and the coffee–it draws in return customers,” he said. Adding that most lunch goers are regulars, he said, “I’m surprised by how many times I see people a week.”
It’s that community feeling they were hoping for all along, he said.
While Angie is in charge of the kitchen, Mike manages up front–all while working on his master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.
In addition to adding to the local vibe, Mike says they’re looking to help through their roaster, Land of a Thousand Hills. It’s an organization that sells Rwandan coffee, while helping the country heal after its 1994 genocide. Coffee, which is grown and purchased through fair trade, is sold to give a percentage back.
“That’s a huge thing that we really enjoy–the ability to help,” he said. “Coupled with the fact that it’s awesome coffee.”
Mike, along with seven of his regulars, even took a trip to Rwanda to see how else they could help, and how their coffee funds had made an impact.
“It was cool to see. It was always others helping them and now it’s just the Rwandans.” After all they’ve been through, he said Midtown is happy to do what they can, while serving great coffee along the way.