By Crystal Chen
Lansing Mosaic caught up with James Defrees, founder of the 517 Coffee Co in Lansing, Michigan. His business is all about serving small-batch, craft-roasted coffee through community. He talks about what motivated him to start his business and challenges he is facing now.
This summer, James Defrees keeps a quite busy schedule. He has several farmers market to attend every week, including weekends when “business stuff takes up so much time” in his own words.
James Defrees is the founder of the 517 Coffee Co. The coffee is roasted on Monday and Friday, and orders are shipped on Tuesday and Thursday. Coffee lovers can find its bagged coffee at several locations, such as Southeast Lansing Farmers Market and 1910 Food Market in Lansing.
Defrees became obsessed with making things and creating things from a very young age. “I was roasting coffee as a hobby. I like doing things like that,” he says. “I’ve been on this journey with coffee from when I was younger, drinking Folgers which my dad still drinks, to learning more about the coffee industry and trying to find better coffee.”
Eventually it led him to sourcing brew coffee, like small amounts, and roasted himself at home and learning what the best process is.
And that’s not the whole story of the 517 Coffee Co. When he was roasting coffee at home, Defrees worked as a youth pastor in downtown Lansing at the same time. He had seen those kids having very hard time finding jobs.
“There are lots of reasons,” he explains. “They were kids, they were in their early 20s, and there are so many things they didn’t know on a basic level, like how to interview for a job.”
One day, he took one kid out to dinner at Subway. “He was 15 or 16 at that time. His mom just passed away,” Defrees says. “And he was telling me that he wants to get a job.”
Defrees asked the boy why he is looking for a job since he was still in school. The boy told him, “I’ve been doing really good at school, not getting any fights and my mom was really proud of me, and I think she would want me to continue that path, and having a job would help keep me out of trouble.”
When they went up to order and there was a hiring sign upon the cash register, so they asked how old one have to be to get a job here? The answer was “you have to be 18.”
“Those are some of the challenges that our youth in the area face,” Defrees says.
When he left Youth Ministry, he thought it would be cool if he can start a business that could eventually employee youth, could train youth on hard and soft skills. “That one way that I as an individual citizen in our city could be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.”
A core part of his business is to invest the life of young people. “It doesn’t have to be like at large scale, it can just be like one or two kids in a year or something like that. You are actually working with them, or somebody you employ is working with them, and giving them the skills they are not been given at other places,” he explains.
And that’s where the name “517” comes from. 517 is the area code of Lansing.
“When we started the business, I really want the name of our business to reflect the fact that we want to be invested in our community,” Defrees tells Lansing Mosaic. “Lansing Coffee company just sounds too generic, and people do refer to Lansing as the 517.”
To him, quality is always the priority. All fresh roasted coffee he’s selling are from direct trade. Under this model, farmers are encouraged to invest their farms, they get people helping them with resources to better their crop qualities.
The downside is, there are a lot of trust between customers and the seller.
“When I put ‘direct trade’ on the label, you have to trust me that I’m telling the truth,” he explains.
“There’re importers contacting me all the time, wanting to know if I want samples. But when I talk to them or go to their website, if there’s anything questionable, such as if I’m not seeing that they know exactly where their coffees coming from, or if they don’t have any direct relationship with who they’re getting coffee from, I don’t deal with them.”
Starting a business has never been easy. Finding customers is one of the challenges for small business owners, and the 517 Coffee Co is not an exception.
Defrees started his networking at different farmers markets, and that was also how his business got moved out from the basement of his house into license kitchen. At South Lansing Farmers Market, he met the wife of the owner of Hannah’s Koney Island in East Lansing, and she said, “you know, my husband has a restaurant, and I think it would be really cool if you roast coffee there.”
Finding time to do everything is an everyday challenge, he says. During the school year, Defrees works full-time as a school bus driver for Lansing schools. He gets up at 3:45 am and is usually in bed by 10 pm.
“You have to be willing to put in the time. It’s a delicated balance especially if you have a family,” he tells Lansing Mosaic. “The last thing I would want anybody do is neglecting their family. But at the same time, you do have to be ready willing to make some difficult choices.”
Obviously, the family supports his business. Defrees’s wife and daughter have been helping his at farmers markets since beginning when his daughter was just 8. The girl does all the cash handling, taking orders, and stuff like that.
“My daughter is really good at Instagram, like doing stories and things like that,” he says, laughing, he tries to get her to run the account for his business, “but sometimes she just doesn’t want to.”
This summer, the 517 Coffee Co is starting a Pop-Up café from July at Cedar Street Art Collective, Monday through Wednesday from 7am to 1pm.
The 517 Coffee Co is in its fifth year now. Defrees says he really wants to have a coffee shop. He did a crowdfunding campaign earlier this year and raised some money. Right now, he has couple of different locations he’s looking at. “We’re considering a larger location that we can eventually move this (machine) there and have coffee shop.”
More about the 517 Coffee Co:
Phone Number: (517) 862-4495