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Roaster Roundup: Happy Cup

Perhaps because if its long association with the concept of fair trade, coffee has settled into many a cozy marriage with social enterprise and other ethically motivated business concepts.

Enter a new Portland coffee roaster—in a town bursting to full with them already—called Happy Cup. The nine-month old company is roasting approximately 2,000 pounds of green coffee a month on a rented 6-kilo Probat, with plans for big growth. Already, 27 Portland Metro area grocery stores are carrying the jaunty bags. How did they do it?

Happy CupWith a good story—and a little savvy marketing muscle. Happy Cup is a for-profit company that supports Portland’s population of developmentally disabled adults in two ways: First, and perhaps most importantly, by employing them on its production line. (“Line” in this case is a bit of a misnomer: The production space is a bright, smallish room with rectangular tables, like a not-depressing office break room.) Over 78% of this population is unemployed in Portland and those that do find work often have trouble keeping their jobs for more than a few months at a time. But at Happy Cup the work is designed to fits the needs of the population, not the other way around. It is built as a safe space in which adults with special needs can develop their job skills. You’ll find employees working short, two-hour shifts to fill, stamp, and seal bags of beans, earning minimum wage ($8.80 per hour) for their efforts. One employee, Suanne, talks about what earning her paychecks enables her to do: “I’m going to the beach next month, and I’m saving for a trip to Seattle to see some of my family.” Dustin adds, “I go bowling, to the video arcade and to outdoor markets. I’m not bored at home anymore.”

The company also plans to donate 100% of its profits to the Full Life Foundation, which will support arts programming for disabled adults. The Foundation’s work will build on the work already being done by a for-profit organization called Full Life, just down the street from the Happy Cup roastery. At Full Life, adults with special needs engage in job development activities and arts projects—everything from making macaroni collages to putting on small-scale theater productions, to hosting Britney Spears dance parties (occasionally the latter happens spontaneously). Full Life is a for-profit job training and recreation center, generally funded by money from the state. Adults are most often referred to its programs through Medicaid. It’s these same adults who are finding employment at Happy Cup. The roastery expects to begin turning a profit within about six months, at which time a good portion of their profits will fund the nonprofit Full Life Foundation.

Both Full Life and Happy Cup exist because of Rachel Bloom, a former special education teacher with an entrepreneurial streak. The idea for Happy Cup came after a chance encounter with Trevin Miller, the owner of one of the country’s only brick-and-mortar green coffee supply stores, Mr. Green Beans. Miller was looking for a space large enough to house his 6-kilo Probat; Bloom had the space and an idea was born. (The roastery is unique in one other way: Miller’s Probat is also available to other Portland roasters—everyone from local microroaster Sterling Coffee Roasters, which is filling in gaps while their own new machine is installed, to a man who roasts 25 pounds of coffee for his nursing home each week.)

Miller of Mr. Green Beans sources the coffee for Happy Cup, and works out the roast profiles (there are currently eight blends and one single origin coffee). Each coffee is charmingly named by the staff (ex: Boom! Boom!, Hot Bean, Flying Unicorn are just three examples). Charlie Austin, formerly a home roaster, does production roasting for the company.

Bloom has big plans for the future of Happy Cup—she hopes it will be a national brand within in the next few years. How will she accomplish that scale of growth? The same way she’s grown Full Life to serve 160 adults every day, and the way she’s already grown Happy Cup into a surprisingly weighty local brand—“I’m a hustler.”

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