A red house on Hamilton Road in Ann Arbor now serves as the logo of Red House Imports, a Detroit-based coffee company co-owned by University alums Jamie Olson and Travis Heeren, who graduated in 2011.

Olson said he remembers sitting on the porch of the house on Friday afternoons where he had valuable conversations with his friends.

“We sort of selfishly named the company after the house to remind ourselves that you want to be a business that’s going to make the right decisions for the right reasons every step of the way,” Olson said.

Though Red House Imports was founded in August 2013, it really began in September 2014 after more time and energy was put into growing the business, Olson said. He is currently running the company while Heeren is in graduate school in Vermont.

Olson said Red House Imports sells their coffee online on their website, through Door to Door Organics and in seven stores in Metro Detroit. These locations include Parker Street Market in Detroit and Ypsilanti Food Co-op.

“Our landlord from Hamilton has a bed and breakfast on Washtenaw and she was the first business-to-business sale that we had,” he said. “So she brews it for her clients every morning.”

Red House Imports has a special focus on being environmentally and economically conscious, while also giving back to the economy, Olson said.

“One of the things that is kind of unique is that we chose to start it without seeking investments because we didn’t want to give away from the mission of the business,” Olson said.

Heeren said he chose to base the business in Detroit because of his love for the city and Olson said he is also coming to understand this appreciation for the city.

“I just got back from Seattle and was like, ‘This is the best city I’ve ever been in,’ ” he said. “Everything is perfect and everything is functional. You can walk five miles straight across the entire city and feel totally comfortable the whole time. And then it kind of dawned on me, like, after living in Detroit for six months, I thought, ‘Well I don’t know if I like that.’ You want to be a part of something and it’s not always easy. And Detroiters have that pride, and I’m just starting to get that.”

Red House Imports has partnered with nonprofit organizations in Metro Detroit. Olson said he has been working with Hope Center, a nonprofit food pantry in Macomb.

“A lot of food pantries will just be a depressing scene of metal shelves, and a lot of it is empty so you feel like you’re getting the scraps,” Olson said. “You’re having a having a subhuman experience when you’re going out and seeking food from people who are trying to help you, and so Hope Center has totally redesigned it. They’re trying to make it look like almost like a farmers market.”

Coffee from Red House Imports supplies the coffee for the pantry. Hope Center pays for the coffee at cost, meaning Red House Imports will break even.

“We always envisioned being able to do something at both ends of the supply chain, in the community and Costa Rica where we import from,” Olson said. “This was the first opportunity at such a low budget that we’re able to do something. Hope Center could obviously go out and get Gordon Food Service coffee for many dollars less but the point is that this coffee is good enough to be in snobby coffee shops so you’re offering a great quality product in a great aesthetically pleasing environment.”

Olson said he also hopes to have a section on their website where customers can pay a couple extra dollars for their coffee and choose a nonprofit to donate the money to, which will be matched by Red House Imports. This would give these nonprofits small, consistent donations, rather than large, inconsistent lump sums, which can be difficult to manage.

Olson said Red House Imports their coffee from farmers in Costa Rica. The connection to Costa Rica was made while Heeren participated in a University Program in the Environment trip to Costa Rica.

“Some high-quality coffees will have a really distinct citrus flavor or something like that, but that’s not really what ours is,” Olson said. “It’s distinctly smooth and that’s what’s known for Costa Rican coffees.”

By importing their coffee beans already roasted, Red House Imports also supports their farmers in Costa Rica. The company is able to pay the farmers $4.50 per pound, while the fair trade price is only $1.40 per pound.

The farmers also have a low impact on the environment by growing the coffee under a canopy of trees with high biodiversity in low light. This is how coffee is naturally adapted to grow.

“If you’ve got more tree species then you’ve obviously got more diversity in trees, more diversity in food sources, more diversity in space, so more ecological niches for other species to survive,” Olson said. “The point is these are much better than a monoculture like where you would grow corn. It really doesn’t make sense to grow coffee in a monoculture like that because it doesn’t do better when it’s exposed to more sun.”

Olson said some other coffee companies intentionally deceive buyers by using buzzwords like “local roasting” to create the idea that they are helping the local economy.

However, local roasting offers little benefit to community because the coffee was still grown elsewhere and that’s where a lot of the money goes. Local roasting also has a more negative environmental impact because unroasted beans are heavier than roasted beans, meaning the plane burns more carbon dioxide when flying them to the U.S.

Other businesses also import unroasted beans because they stay fresher for longer, so they don’t have to pay the farmers as much money, Olson said.

“We try to combat that freshness issue by having really frequent shipments so that we can offer it close to fresh,” he said. “We know that our farmers are great at roasting and by importing it with it roasted already, we kind of put that part of the supply chain on them and their expenses might be higher but it allows us to pay them a lot more.”

Though running a business is challenging and time-consuming, Olson said, he likes the daily obstacles and freedom to do things his own way.

“I like that we’re not really trained in it and so there’s so much to learn and that challenge is fun,” he said. “And then we can do it our own way. Like coming from a direction of this is how you’re supposed to do it, we can solve how we think is the best way to do it. And it’s a learning process definitely. Our first cold e-mail was probably like a page of text. But no one will ever read that, so just refining that and getting better and better at it is awesome.”

Because of the hard work it takes to run a business, Olson said, he enjoys the victories.

“Friday I think I delivered 700-some dollars in coffee and then I invoiced two or three stores and it was just like, ‘This is awesome. You’re actually doing this,’ so that’s pretty fun,” he said.

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