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Have you ever dropped by Grand Rapids local coffee shop Madcap just for the allure of the place? Maybe it was chic architecture or the trendy urbanites behind the counter that caught your attention. Perhaps it was the coffee. Your friends have been telling you to try it for ages, and every cent is worth it, they say. Maybe it just somehow feels different--otherworldly. What if I told you that feeling you get when walking into Madcap is more than an illusion--it’s a feeling built on an ideal and has functioned on this ideal since it was birthed by friends Trevor Corlett and Ryan Knapp who shared their story at this year’s INsight conference. A conference designed for businesses owners to assemble and talk about different aspects of owning a business. Corlett and Knapp sat on a panel and talked honestly about their story and successes and failures that got them where they are today.
In 2008 Trevor Corlett and Ryan Knapp opened up what is now their popular establishment Madcap, known as a trendy hangout spot for hipsters on the corner of Monroe and Ottawa. But before it was a Grand Rapids favorite, it was nothing. “We looked at a map... and noticed no one had [specialty] coffee in Grand Rapids,” Knapp says, recounting his early experiences forming the shop. And that is how Madcap ended up in Grand Rapids. Corlett and Knapp saw Grand Rapids as an opportunity to start something new in a place that was not already filled with shops, doing what they wanted to do. Once the two decided on Grand Rapids the choice to open up downtown came shortly after. “Everyone told us not to open up downtown. People are scared to go downtown, they said. Downtown was a lot different than it is today,” recounts Knapp.
Yet both Corlett and Knapp were determined to live out their dream of creating and serving a great product. They began by focusing mainly on roasting, buying and selling. Corlett, after participating in two failed businesses, dove deeply into his passion for great roasting, while Knapp honed his skills for buying. Knapp was largely influenced by trips he took to Rwanda and Uganda to study coffee the decade before. “It started from loving coffee and going deeper,” Knapp told business owners at the INsight conference. Corlett and Knapp spent their early days deeply invested in creating good coffee. “A big bulk of our work is roasting and distributing,” Corlett recounted. “We spent most of our time asking customers things like ‘How is your grind, how is the extraction, what’s the water temperature?’” These little things were important to both Corlett and Knapp; for them, great coffee-making doesn’t end when the barista hands the coffee over. Much has to do with how the customers prepare it at home.
Once Corlett and Knapp finally got the hang of the day to day operation, they began to branch out, focusing on other parts of their business that took them away from the store. “We spend about a 3rd of the year outside of the country visiting different farms,” says Knapp. “And we distribute to just over a hundred businesses.” Corlett and Knapp are very passionate about the impact every part of their business has. They focus on fair and direct trade, which is why their business has taken them out of the country. “Coffee is going to go through so many pairs of hands before it gets to us,” says Knapp. “A big part of what we do is to work directly with the farms we buy from. In El Salvador we travel to the farm and work directly with the farmers, but in Ethiopia you’re dealing with big systems” says Knapp.
Now that Corlett and Knapp have gotten this kind of popularity, they spend much of their time focusing on the business and education side of coffee instead of the artistry of making coffee. Yet the goal remains the same for both; success. For both Corlett and Knapp, success is having something to be proud of.