BeanFruit Coffee Company‘s owner, Paul Bonds, grew up disinterested in coffee. At Mississippi College, he drank commercial-grade stuff mainly as fuel for his studies. Yet today, his roasting operation in Jackson, Mississippi, is good enough to have earned a 2015 Good Food Award.
It was seven years ago that Bonds had his epiphany. During a cupping in 2008 at Mississippi Coffee Company he tried a washed Ethiopia Yirgacheffe that “changed my mind completely about coffee,” he recalls. Since there weren't many options nearby, he began ordering coffees online from Austin's Cuvée Coffee, Brooklyn's Café Grumpy, Santa Cruz's Verve Coffee Roasters, and San Francisco's Ritual Coffee Roasters to brew up at home.
“I would taste the coffee and be like, ‘This is good, you know, what else is good?' ” Bonds says. “I would try different things from different origins, and it just opened up a whole new world to coffee.”
Soon after, Bonds slid further down the rabbit hole when he began to roast at home for fun. First, he oven-roasted beans on pans before stepping up to a small Behmor roaster. After a friend's suggestion to pursue roasting further, Bonds considered graduating his hobby to a business. At the time, he was working on the manufacturing floor at an aerospace company, a job with benefits. But all he needed was a two-kilogram Ambex roaster, which he set up in the guest bedroom, and a trial run selling beans at a local farmers market in Jackson. With a humble start, BeanFruit Coffee was launched in 2010.
As his customer base grew, Bonds began pulling double-duty days, beginning as early as 3 a.m. to roast, squeezing in coffee deliveries on his lunch break, and following up with customers after work at night. This went on for several years before he decided to leave his job in 2012 and pursue BeanFruit full time.
The Good Food Award paid tribute to Bonds's hard work, but he almost didn't even enter the competition. He admits he lacked the confidence, but a push from Ben Myers, owner of Athens, Georgia's 1000 Faces Coffee, led Bonds to submit his washed Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Chele’lektu for the 2015 award cycle.
“When I went out [to San Francisco for the awards] I actually spoke on behalf of specialty coffee, too,” Bonds says. “I tell my friends I felt like a donkey at the Kentucky Derby because I'm just this guy from Mississippi who's roasting. Then I'm standing onstage with the owner of Blue Bottle…and all these other companies that were there. It was pretty overwhelming.
“[My winning brought] more attention to BeanFruit, of course, but [also to] specialty coffee in Mississippi. We're not known for it.” It also caught the attention of potential new clients. “The owners of GoCoffeeGo were there. We sent them coffees and they really liked them, so that also got us an entry [with them], which helped get our brand and our name out so much more. It wasn't some Oprah effect, but any kind of publicity and positive attention can help.”
Currently, Bonds hones his craft in a warehouse space in Pearl, a suburb of Jackson, on a yellow, 10-kilogram Ambex roaster. On a visit there one early summer Thursday, the temperature inside the BeanFruit warehouse stands at 86 degrees, with 71 percent humidity. Equipped with merely a stopwatch and a clipboard, Bonds begins to roast. Approximately every 30 seconds he uses the tryer to pull out a sample of roasting beans, checking the smell and the beans' color. Bonds focuses in, making occasional adjustments to the roaster's gas. He roasts several batches and begins bagging them for a retail delivery to Sneaky Beans, the quintessential Jackson coffee house and one of BeanFruit's first wholesale customers.
At one point the phone rings. Bonds chuckles over the line. Even though BeanFruit is currently just a roasting company, he regularly fields calls from people asking if they can swing by to buy beans. When the callers arrive, Bonds describes his current selections at length, including a Colombia Finca San Jose that just scored 92 points on Coffee Review. After selecting two bags, Bonds steers the discussion toward brewing equipment as he walks them through various options (he stocks some gear for his web store). The Good Food Award medal is camped out on his desk during all of this. Soon a Chemex goes into the shopping bag, before the happy customers thank Bonds and head off.
Quickly, it's back to work. The beans are loaded up and taken to Sneaky Beans. There, Bonds chats up the baristas as he unloads the delivery. It's been a long road to this point, but he knows he needs to keep moving forward. “Grind, hustle,” he says. “Typical words you hear from entrepreneurs [that] you understand like, ‘You just got to make it happen.' I feel like it can either defeat you or it can give you drive, and with me it was the latter.”
Evan C. Jones is a Sprudge.com contributor based in St. Louis. Read more Evan C. Jones on Sprudge.