Takeaways

1

In 2004, Jerry Thalmann founded the North Central College Coffee Lab, a student-run coffee company that traded directly with Guatemalan farmers.

2

The Coffee Lab has become a hands-on cross-disciplinary learning lab for students and faculty across campus—from business to computer graphics to the hard sciences.

3

While the Coffee Lab originally partnered with a local roastery, in 2019, they purchased their first roaster and now manage every aspect of the business, from purchasing to roasting to packaging and distribution.

4

Today the Coffee Lab has direct partnerships with coffee growers around the globe, including Colombia, Ethiopia, and Papua New Guinea.

Jerry Thalmann

Founder, North Central College’s Coffee Lab

Expertise: education, social entrepreneurship

Coffee insight: For every 300 lbs. of coffee the Lab sells, one farmer can sell solely directly to the Lab at a 150% to 200% markup, rather than on the open market for significantly less.

Fun fact: The Lab also runs a shop, working with other artisans to bring their products to market, including woodworking, ceramics, textiles, and chocolate.

Jerry Thalmann's Top 3: 1.) Pour over coffee 2.) Black Coffee, and 3.) 1-2 cups a day

Jerry’s Coffee Origin Story

After a few years working as a professor of accounting at North Central College, Jerry became the advisor for the campus chapter of Students in Free Enterprise (now Enactus), an organization for students interested in social entrepreneurship projects.

Jerry realized quickly that they needed to raise funds for things like travel. A member of his church introduced him to the idea of selling coffee, which he thought would be a great fundraiser for his students. The group started by importing and packaging beans for local sale, but the lab has grown to include its own roastery.

Jerry Current Role

Jerry is an associate professor of accounting and the director of North Central’s Coffee Lab, a groundbreaking project that gives students hands-on education in the coffee business and has created a cross-disciplinary learning lab for North Central students.

What Fuels Jerry’s Work

Having formed direct relationships with growers in Guatemala, the students decided to turn the fundraiser into a full-scale business. They would pay farmers fair wages, import green coffee to be roasted locally, then package and sell it on campus and in the community. But while social entrepreneurship was a key tenet, Jerry said it was important that students saw that they could run a socially responsible business profitably.

For every 300 lbs. of coffee the Lab sells, one farmer can sell solely directly to the Lab at a 150% to 200% markup, rather than on the open market for significantly less.

While Jerry is nearing retirement, he says his work is not done: “As long as there are more farmers we can help…get their product to market, I’ve still got work to do.”

What Jerry Wants Coffee Drinkers to Know

Jerry says that the Coffee Lab is proof that a successful coffee business can balance ethically sourced coffee, profits, connecting with consumers, and making a really delicious product. “When we first started,” he explains, “we were doing it more for the farmers… And we were really pleasantly surprised when we found out, not only is it good for them, it’s good coffee and people appreciate it as well.”

How Jerry Cultivates Community through Coffee

North Central’s Coffee Lab has grown into a campus-wide initiative for applied learning. Coffee Lab students have traveled to Guatemala with North Central biology faculty to study the carbon footprint of coffee farming. Computer graphics students design labels. Chemistry students help determine the caffeine content in different roasts. Engineering students have worked on designing accessible roasting equipment.

When their original roasting company sold their roasting equipment, one of Jerry’s accounting classes took on a capital budgeting project that focused on purchasing a roaster; it helped Jerry see the viability of creating their own in-house roasting company, which they did in 2019.

Since then, the Coffee Lab has developed direct relationships with farmers in a number of other producing countries—including Costa Rica, Colombia, Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea—expanding their offerings while maintain a focus on direct relationship and fair-trade practices.

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