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Local coffee business expands, developing interactive cafe

A Mechanicsburg coffee business that began as a church mission has steadily grown, and is now filling a previously vacant warehouse in a roughly $100,000 expansion.

Hemisphere Roasters has operated for several years in a small downtown shop at 22 S. Main St. in Mechanicsburg. But owner Paul Kurtz recently reached an agreement to lease a previously vacant warehouse across the street at 39 S. Main St., and is investing close to $100,000 to turn the site into a local destination for coffee lovers.

If successful, Kurtz said the expansion will also allow customers to learn more about where their coffee comes from, while providing a better life for rural farmers in Asia, Africa and South America who grow the beans.

The roughly 6,300-square-foot warehouse will provide space to roast beans and store coffee. But it will also likely include a small cafe, and an interactive display that will help show visitors how coffee is grown, and how it gets from distant countries to their coffee mug.

“For many of the farmers I deal with, this coffee is their hope for something better,” Kurtz said.

Americans spend more than $40 billion a year on coffee, according to information from the National Coffee Association. But farmers in countries like Thailand and Ethiopia rarely profit and often struggle to feed their families, Kurtz said.

Some renovations have already begun on the new space at 39 S. Main St. The warehouse sat vacant for more than a decade, but if Kurtz is successful he said it could become an attraction to draw coffee enthusiasts to Champaign County.

Along with purchasing a $35,000 roasting machine, Kurtz said he plans to use a portion of the building to display storyboards, interactive kiosks and a film. Along one wall, a display is already set up to resemble the thatched roof of a building where farmers in Asia or Africa might sort their product.

The work is expected to be complete in mid-June and the Champaign County Preservation Alliance has said it will include the warehouse in a tour this summer.

Kurtz had little interest in coffee initially, but frequently traveled overseas while working for the Rosedale Mennonite Missions, an organization that represents between 40 and 50 churches. Many of the people he met were impoverished, despite their involvement in an industry that is booming across the U.S.

He then began working with coffee industry executives in the U.S. to try to find ways to help coffee farmers earn a better living off their product.

“I just figured I would come here, pull a few strings and get out of it,” Kurtz said.

Instead, he became involved in the business himself, and began learning how to properly roast the beans and distribute them to vendors in the U.S. Hemisphere Roasters now roasts and distributes beans to customers across central Ohio, including Der Dutchman.

He also works with several smaller businesses like Braden’s Cafe and Sweets in St. Paris and Sweet Aromas Coffee in Bellefontaine.

One of the reasons farmers earn so little is they often have to work through middlemen who buy the beans and get them to the market. Kurtz travels overseas several times a year and said he works directly with farmers to ensure they receive a larger share of the profits.

He is also working with a network of other roasters who have the ability to sell the beans across the U.S. once they are purchased in large quantities.

“We’ve spent years doing our own research trying to figure out how might coffee become a tool for eliminating poverty,” Kurtz said.

Sweet Aromas Coffee has operated in Bellefontaine since 2012. When it started, the Bellefontaine business conducted a lengthy search for roasters and selected Hemisphere in part because of its proximity and its mission, said Will Zell, who owns the coffee shop with his wife.

“Even more important than the proximity is the mission they stand for,” Zell said.

The Mechanicsburg business began roasting beans just a few years ago in the back of a small store at 22 S. Main St., and eventually opened a retail coffee shop about four years ago. But the company’s main business comes from roasting and selling the beans.

The new warehouse will provide more space to store and roast the beans. But Kurtz is optimistic it will also draw visitors to Mechanicsburg, and potentially change the way they think about coffee, he said.

Many struggling farmers worldwide may eventually leave the business altogether if a better business model isn’t developed, Kurtz said.

“We’re going to lose the great specialty in a generation if we don’t shape up and pay what we need to pay for them,” he said.

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