Jitterbean’s Coffee

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Lying under Madison Grant’s bed is a cast-iron skillet that jump-started her career. She’s not a chef or a cook, but she does know how to do a roast. As in coffee.

Grant is CEO of Jitterbean’s Coffee, an upstart coffee roaster that started as an idea when Grant was attending Coastal Alabama Community College near her hometown of Elberta, Alabama, a couple years ago.

“I was traveling 45 minutes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday just to get to class,” said Grant.

All that traveling and studying – and the busy nights associated with a hectic schedule – meant coffee was a must.

As fortune would have it, a friend introduced her to a coffee shop in Fairhope – aptly named Refuge Coffee – where she went three times a week.

“At the time, I wasn’t a big coffee drinker. I had Starbucks and I got the sweet stuff, and at that time I was going through a phase where I didn’t want too much caffeine,” she said. “I don’t want to be dependent on caffeine – I can’t believe I thought that back then.”

Studying at Refuge, she got to know the locals who spent time there, as well as the baristas, who taught her the nuances of a good cup of coffee.

Among the regulars was a man from Cuba who worked on his Macbook every day, and they chatted quite often. Grant realized coffee shops are special gathering places.

“Coffee is kind of the same thing that brings everybody together. Everybody goes to a coffee shop to drink coffee and have a conversation,” she said. “You have all different backgrounds, all sorts of beliefs – all there to have coffee.”

She saw an opportunity to bring that social vibe to the community via a coffee truck. But what would she call it?

“I was watching a show on television called ‘Flash,’ and there’s a coffee shop called Central City Jitters, and I thought, ‘Dang it, ‘jitters’ would be such a cute name for a coffee shop – they stole it from me,’” she said with a laugh.

But she wasn’t ready to let go of the name quite yet. After all, the jitters makes sense with the shot of caffeine from a cup of coffee, but ‘Bean’ also happens to be Grant’s nickname.

So, with a play on words, Jitterbean’s Coffee would come to fruition.

She transferred to MSU in August 2017 and soon joined the eClub, or Entrepreneurship Club. On Pitch Night with the university’s VentureCatalyst program, where students presented their ideas, she talked about her mobile coffee truck idea.

“Without giving the name, I pitched the coffee truck to serve the masses, whether it was at Bulldog Bash or a football game, and that over time it would either franchise or have multiple trucks in every SEC town,” she said.

She and her initial four business partners got a $500 grant from the VentureCatalyst program in November 2017, and two months later got another $500 to do more testing on their product.

They were hoping to get full funding of up to $2,000, but Charles Freeman, an assistant professor of apparel, textiles and merchandising at MSU, said the coffee truck wasn’t unique. What would make it special would be roasting their own coffee on site.

Enter the cast-iron skillet.

Grant bought some unroasted coffee beans from a wholesaler in New York, and borrowing a griddle from a friend, she bought a 15-inch skillet.

“We didn’t know anything about roasting coffee beans, or even what an unroasted coffee bean even looked like,” she said with a laugh. “We heated up the skillet, poured the beans in and waited. Nothing happened because it hadn’t gotten hot enough. But we waited a little longer and started to stir the beans, and then they started to flake and turn yellow, then brown.”

The rich, earthy aroma of roasting coffee beans is unparalleled and nothing like the smell of brewing coffee. While both smells are pleasant to most noses, they are unique, distinctive and quite memorable.

Grant and company knew then that roasting with a skillet on a griddle was unsustainable.

So they bought a 1-pound roaster, about the size of a microwave. Grant pushed through more than 200 pounds of beans for family and friends or for herself. At first, Jitterbean’s Coffee was sold by the bag on a small scale, but carrying the coffee on their shelves was another big step.

The Idea Shop in downtown Starkville was the first place Jitterbean’s Coffee became a wholesale supplier. The 2,000-square-foot building is a part of the MSU Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach operated by the College of Business and School of Human Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. It’s a hub for members of the community as well as MSU to test their products in a retail setting.

“It felt like a confidence booster, because you’re really not sure about the product. You’re thinking, coffee is a saturated market, there’s coffee everywhere,” said Grant who graduated in May. “The Idea Shop had a soft opening, and the first thing that was bought was a bag of coffee, which I thought was so neat.”

Then another big thing happened. Aramark, which is the food and beverage vendor on campus, contacted Jitterbean’s about supplying the coffee for the popular State Fountain and Bakery in the Colvard Student Union.

“I was so shocked, but it was a validation that people found value in what we were trying to do,” Grant said. “They may not see value in our coffee, but they see value in the fact we’re students and trying to start a business, and they see a value in the story we’re telling.”

With the Aramark opportunity staring them in the face, Jitterbean’s moved to get a new logo and roaster.

In May, Vowell’s Marketplace in Starkville began selling the coffee after hearing their story. And recently, a new bakery opened in town, Proof Bakery, and is selling Jitterbean’s Coffee.

“So now we have four or five places where you can find us, and we’re looking for more,” Grant said.

Grant hasn’t given up on the coffee truck, but it’s not a priority any more, since the business plan for Jitterbean’s has evolved.

“I’m definitely not where I expected to be at this point, but that’s always a good thing, because it’s so much better than what I expected,” she said.

As for the future of the company, Grant’s next hope is to get her coffee in all of the Vowell’s stores – there are a dozen locations in all – and maybe the local Kroger.

“I really think I can set a higher bar for the next four or five years,” she said confidently. “I’m a planner, and I like to plan ahead. But when it comes to the business, I’ve learned not everything I planned is going to work. I have to approach this one day at a time and do what I can now … I wrote three different business plans for a coffee company, and each had a different outcome. And none are anything like what we’re doing now.”

Flexibility is key to the success of any business, and that’s what gives Grant the advantage. She knows what it’s like to have a plan change. As program outreach coordinator for MSU’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Outreach, she can tell students she’s “been there and done that” when offering them advice.

“It’s very important to know that you’re not going to get it right the first time,” she said. “Maybe it’s the 50th time or the 100th time, you never know.”

Grant doesn’t necessarily see Starbucks or the local Strange Brew Coffee as competitors. As a wholesale supplier, she’d love to have Jitterbeans in as many coffee shops and stores as possible, those included.

“I found myself writing the phrase, ‘Be a community, not a brand,’” she said. “Just like a coffee bean can come from all over the world, coffee can bring people together. And that’s the goal of our company. No matter how small it is, no matter how big it is, we want our coffee to bring people together.”

1 Comment
  1. Grant’s cast-Iron roasted coffee beans is an idea used by my Choctaw Apache ancestors. Only they roasted corn kernels, boiled them in spring water over a fireplace or wood burning stove. I plan to buy Jitter bean coffee.
    Congratulations to Grant.

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