Blair Edwards’ love for coffee began at age 7. He drank it every morning while living with his parents in Atlanta and became familiar with roasting coffee at his first job as a teenager.
“I’ve always worked in coffee; that was my first job at the place with the green mermaid (Starbucks),” Edwards, 32, told the Mississippi Free Press from Starkville in a Zoom interview on March 11. “That was my first job when I was 15, and I’ d worked there off and on maybe till about five or six years ago.”
Edwards moved to Starkville from Atlanta in 2009 to attend Mississippi State University and study anthropology. After a year and a half, he dropped out because he could not afford the school fees. Over the ensuing years, he would relocate elsewhere but repeatedly returned to Starkville. The last time he returned was in 2017.
His romantic interest in Bonnie Brumley, a ceramics artist, prompted his return to Starkville in 2017. “I came back here for a girl; it worked out,” Edwards said with a laugh during the Zoom, flashing his wedding ring. They married in December 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “I guessed it’s the end of the world, we might as well (do it).”
Edwards started operating The People’s Cup MicroRoastery in 2017, using Instagram and Facebook pages to publicize the outfit, first posting in September that year. From the beginning, Edwards has emphasized the importance of ethical coffee-bean sourcing. He wrote in a September 2017 Instagram post that his business’ mission was “to bring ethically sourced coffee from eco-friendly farms and micro-lots for an affordable price.”
“Americans consume 400 MILLION cups of coffee per day and import $4 BILLION worth of coffee each year. Most of the farmers that produce that coffee live in poverty — if it hasn’t already turned into an industrial farm,” Edwards wrote in the post.
“With over 10 years of experience working with this magical bean, I want to … continue to support these farms. A better cup from a better bean from a happy farmer for a better price!” he added.
On Oct. 21, 2017, Edwards posted a photo on Instagram that showcased his setup in an outdoor location and said he was selling coffee beans, affogatos and espresso. The post served as an advertisement to the 50,000-plus people gathered at the Davis Wade Stadium at Mississippi State University to watch its football team take on the University of Kentucky. He asked them to stop by before or after the game.
Edwards moved his stand from place to place. In January 2018, he received his certificate of formation from the Mississippi Secretary of State for The People’s Cup MicroRoastery LLC, operating as a coffee- and tea-manufacturing and mobile food service.
One year later, in January 2019, Edwards opened his shop at 12-½-B Lummus Drive in Starkville. He announced the move on Instagram and Facebook. By the time Edwards submitted his first annual report to the Secretary of state in May 2019, he had modified his business focus to coffee and tea manufacturing and snack and nonalcoholic beverage bars.
Edwards described himself as a coffee roaster, and visitors can witness the coffee-making process in the shop. “I try to buy it directly from farmers if possible, make sure that money goes into their pocket instead of the importers — or at least (buy from) a collective,” he said.
He maintained his shop until October 2019 when he closed down to pivot back to the previous nomadic business model, moving from place to place.
“We weren’t granted the same privileges as the other restaurants in the neighborhood — mainly being able to have music,” Edwards told the Mississippi Free Press.
Edwards’ neighbor heard what happened to him and offered him a place at 206 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in east Starkville, but it needed some work.
“They were going to open up a restaurant (at the place) but decided to move it to a different location; so he offered me (the space),” Edwards said. “So we were working on remodeling this old gas station. It’s from like the 1930s.”
He announced the new location in a Jan. 18, 2020, Instagram post: “After we closed the old shop, we got the opportunity to start fresh in a lot of different ways. After some doubt, luck, growth and most importantly-encouragement to move forward, we were blessed with the opportunity to continue the dream! Bottom line: we got a new home!”
Initially planning to open at the new location in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic would not permit such a move. As an alternative, Edwards announced free delivery for his Starkville customers in an Instagram post that month.
The pandemic caused a massive setback for sales that would have provided funding for making the building ready to open.
“We missed a lot of business over those two years — at least four different festivals where we have upwards of 50,000 extra people in town,” Edwards said. “We only had the farmers market and online sales to survive during that, but that’s not actually enough to finish the building and reopen.”
In January 2022, Edwards was no longer sure if he could stay in business, so he began looking for loan sources online. He discovered SOAR, connected with Communities Unlimited, and received $10,000 in loans within a few days. It was the first SOAR loan in Mississippi.
One year after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Communities Unlimited, based in Arkansas, joined 12 other CDFIs to form the Southern Opportunity and Resilience Fund to offer low-interest loans of up to $100,000 to small-business owners hurt by the pandemic across the South.
SOAR launched in April 2021 with $50 million from philanthropic, private and corporate investors. The initial plan was to grow the fund to $150 million.
“It was actually a pretty easy loan decision for me to make when I saw the amount of effort that he had put into it,” Bryn Bagwell, Communities Unlimited director of lending, told the Mississippi Free Press.
“What we saw was that he had a product that he could sell from a cardboard table at the market — that people would come to him because it was that good. He was selling a product that he had spent a lot of time making sure of the quality,” Bagwell added.
Bagwell said that Edwards did most of the work on the building himself and had the community’s support.
“There’s a lot of intangibles that you can’t put on a piece of paper that we were able to hear,” she explained. “Normally we spend a lot of time making sure they understand the financial side of their business, and we didn’t have to do that with him.”
During his Zoom interview with the Mississippi Free Press, Edwards described the SOAR funding as a “lifesaver.”
“I did $10,000 (on loan) just to kind of, like, get me out of the debt that I put myself in from trying to run things from my personal finances,” he said. “I’m (now) getting my electricity done. That’s the main thing I’m trying to (do to) finish my building, and I just paid off a little bit of credit-card debt. That was really it.”
Edwards said that the building — apart from the electric work, which is on its way — is 90 percent ready and that he plans to open in the coming months.
“Once that happened, I just have to pour concrete countertops, close up walls, essentially, and get my health inspection,” he said.
Edwards added that Communities Unlimited had connected him with a team of management consultants free of charge. “We’re working on spreadsheets, projections of numbers, all those things, essentially,” he said. “They’ve also connected me with the team of those guys for free. So that’s really nice.”
This Mississippi Free Press article was edited for length. You can find the full article online at mississippifreepress.org/22076/a-life-saver-starkville-coffee-shop-owner-gets-funding-from-communities-unlimited/.
COFFEE-TOFFEE CAKE WITH CARAMEL FROSTING
Betty Crocker Kitchens
¼ cup instant coffee granules or crystals
¼ cup boiling water
1 cup water
1 box white cake mix
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 container vanilla frosting
¼ cup caramel topping
3 bars (1.4 oz each) chocolate-covered English toffee candy, coarsely chopped
■ Heat oven to 350 degrees (325 degrees for dark or nonstick pan). Grease bottom and sides of 13×9-inch pan. In a small bowl, dissolve instant coffee in boiling water.
■ In a large bowl, mix cake mix, 1 cup water, the oil, eggs and coffee with an electric mixer on low speed 30 seconds, then on medium speed two minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Pour into pan.
■ Bake as directed on box for 13×9-inch pan. Cool completely, about 1 hour.
■ In a medium bowl, mix frosting and caramel topping. Frost cake with frosting mixture. Sprinkle with toffee candy. Store loosely covered.