Kids Get Roasting with Humphreys Street Coffee
Brian Hicks was craft-roasting coffee in Nashville before craft-roasting coffee in Nashville was cool.
“Back then it was only us and Bongo Java,” Brian says, recalling the origin of Humphreys Street Coffee and Soap in 2007. But today, even with every other café showcasing shiny new roasters and their own house blends, Brian is still producing one of the best products in Nashville —and doing it with a team of teenagers.
Yes, teenagers; South Nashville teens who come in knowing little to nothing about roasting (or drinking) coffee. For these kids, it’s hard to imagine a better gig. They get on-the-job training in making high-quality products, as well as opportunities to learn from Nashville entrepreneurs and professionals, all provided by Harvest Hands Community Development (Humphreys Street’s umbrella organization).
The best part? It’s working. “I’ve seen what it’s done for people’s lives; it’s actually doing what we wanted it to do,” says Brian, looking proudly over at Ruben Torres, walking proof of the program’s success. Ruben first teamed up with Brian at age 11 just as Humphreys Street was getting started. Now a graduate of Lipscomb University, Ruben has returned to manage the roasting room and mentor new recruits in the art and science that is coffee roasting.
Under Ruben’s seasoned stewardship, today’s Humphreys Street Coffee facility, like the roaster within it, runs like a well-oiled machine. The company operates out of a glistening new building on Old Hermitage Avenue. They have a dedicated roasting room complete with its own tasting kitchen, state-of-the-art grinders and espresso makers, and giant bins of fair trade beans from around the world. If you ask Ruben for a cup of coffee, he will bust out a high-tech scale and an iPhone app.
Brian had no more experience starting a business than the teens he was working with, but, ever dauntless, they approached fellow parishioner Cal Turner, whose family founded Dollar General. Cal was intrigued and, after coaching them through writing a business plan, funded the purchase of a Diedrich, A.K.A. the Cadillac of coffee roasters. Cal also sent Brian and a then-14-year-old Ruben to Idaho to learn how to use the machine from Steven Diedrich himself. Shortly thereafter the business started to take off with clientele including the Well and Dose, among many other local notables.
Customers, Brian says, might like the company’s mission, but what keeps them coming back is the high-quality coffee. A great product also encourages the teenage employees to take ownership over the process and pride in the result. They carefully choose fair trade beans and roast them lightly, believing that light and medium roasts better steward not only the coffee’s subtle flavors but also the efforts of farmers. “When a smaller farm sends us a 150-pound bag of coffee,” Brian explains, “that might be their entire harvest for the year. If I mess this up, that is someone’s whole year’s work.”
Humphreys Street is a non-profit business driven by high quality, but a big part of that is treating their young employees with dignity and respect. The coffee is fantastic, but the point is and always has been to create opportunities for empowerment. “We sense so much potential for the people in this neighborhood,” says Brian. “If we provide the pathway, people will take the opportunity to be who they’re meant to be.
For more information and to order coffee go to humphreysstreet.com or visit their store at 155 B Old Hermitage Ave, Nashville, TN 37210