Over a decade ago, Floyd Sartin and Harlin Thomas were two young men from the eastside of Detroit at Western Michigan University sharing ideas and dreams. One New Year’s Eve, they made a pact to build a business together.
As burgeoning entrepreneurs, they tried different things: cosmetics, fashion and even a mobile carwash. Through trial and error, they soon realized that the overhead for entering these sectors was costly.
Sartin thought they should create a subscription box, but it had to be something people would need. After a few trendy endeavors and some hard thinking. Thomas came up with one thing: coffee.
Sartin admits they knew very little about the industry or the bean, but this did not deter either of them. While Thomas was driving to work, he noticed a sign that read free coffee tour this way. He immediately told Sartin about the opportunity.
The tour was with a local company in Maryland. Thomas recalls the person giving the tour mentioned they too knew nothing about coffee when they first entered the industry.
“This actually gave us more confidence that this was something we wanted to pursue,” Thomas says.
One month later, they went to a coffee convention—Coffee Fest in New York. A sea of people all after one thing.
Sartin and Thomas were one of the very few Black people at the event. “We stayed because we stood out—we knew we could be special in this industry,” Sartin says.
There were Black coffee brands at that time, but they knew they could champion the industry in the D.C. area where they both now live.
They went on to meet dozens of people who had experience and so much knowledge to share. Two of which became their mentors and continue guiding them in their business.
According to the International Coffee Organization, the annual growth rate of global coffee is about 1.3 percent. Millennials continue to embrace the coffee culture. A Bloomberg report notes that this group consumes 44 percent of all coffee in the United States and overall, global consumption of coffee is expected to grow by one-third by the year 2030. That’s an additional 200 million bags.
With the momentum from the coffee convention and mentors' support, Sartin and Thomas went on to start MochaBox Coffee Company in 2015.
Getting to Where They Want to Be
MochaBox derives its name from the place in Yemen where coffee was first traded. At first, customers received a monthly trio sampler from growers within the U.S.
“We developed a strong partnership with a third-party company that marketed our subscription product as a potential offering to different company employees,” Floyd explains.
This led to invitations from different company locations to do coffee demonstrations and sell their products.
The subscription included three to four origin coffees that had different flavors in their tasting notes. Customers also received tasty treats like coffee-infused chocolates and cookies.
Mentors found their subscription approach interesting and unique but still wondered what Sartin and Thomas were ultimately seeking. After they demonstrated a coffee roast, Thomas was convinced that he and Sartin could learn to roast and cut out the middleman.
From this, they purchased equipment to roast their own coffee. The coffee entrepreneurs were no longer the young men from the East side of Detroit drinking java to study for exams.
“You have to drink the coffee to know what you’re getting in your cup. “We’re not coffee snobs,” Sartin jokes. “But we can tell the difference between a good cup and a bad one.”
Now MochaBox has morphed into a full micro-coffee company over the last five years, offering online commerce to consumers and wholesale to businesses.
In addition to the coffee, the coffee brand also sells merchandise. Some of their most popular shirts combine coffee culture and Black vernacular. A grey crew neck reads “come through drippin’” with a coffee pot pouring out.
Sartin and Thomas traveled throughout the D.C., Maryland and Virginia (DMV) area to local shops, events and pop-ups where hundreds of customers sampled their unique brews. Coffee drinkers’ opinions and palates weighed in on what would become the hybrid model of business.
While the college friends are entrepreneurs, they still both have full-time jobs that help fund MochaBox.
“This hybrid approach to entrepreneurship we’ve taken on has served us both well. We are getting closer to being solely entrepreneurs with MochaBox, but for now it does allow balance,” Thomas says.
“We’ve been moderately aggressive as far as entering this market. We know we can go full fledge and start working with bigger retailers, however for capacity sake, it’s not something we can take on now,” Sartin admits.
They had to consider what they were building in the beginning rather than the sales that were being made. Sartin and Thomas understand the importance of a sustainable business model and its longevity.
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“At the very least, we are setting up generational wealth…none of these large retailers you see were an overnight success. It took years to amass where they are now. We want to have a legacy,” Sartin says.
Changing the Narrative
Coffee is one of the most consumed beverages next to water globally. Ironically, most of the individuals producing and harvesting the seed are Black and brown; however, this doesn’t exactly translate to Black and brown individuals with ownership in the industry's business and representation.
Sartin and Thomas join the small ranks of Black entrepreneurs pursuing their share of the market, such as Portrait, Russell’s Gourmet, BLK & Bold, Cxffee Black and Kahawa 1893. The push to support Black-owned business has increased amid the political climate in the U.S. and after Starbucks banned its employees from wearing any Black Lives Matter paraphernalia on their uniforms.
“We have seen our business pick up; in fact, 2020 has been one of the best years for us,” Sartin shares.
Sartin and Thomas strive to build a sustainable legacy, focusing on scalability and sustainability.
This means building more capital to meet the demand of their customers, making decisions like investing in themselves or the business, scaling up to a newer larger roaster, and acquiring a small facility to conduct operations. The new roaster is helping to meet the supply and demand and foster the growth of the brand. This along with innovative strategies has ensured their continued success.
“Through our mentors, we gained access to farmers who harvest. We had someone reach out to us from Facebook five years ago. They have a second generation-owned farm trying to work with brands in the U.S. This relationship gave us direct access to Colombian trade,” Thomas says.
A Cup for the Culture
Sartin and Thomas continue to maintain the relationships they built initially, which have positively impacted growing their coffee venture. The MochaBox slogan reads, “where coffee meets culture.”
“When we talk about coffee and culture, we’re talking about art, music, fashion, culture just everyday Black life. “We are trying to normalize coffee. We’ve been to Broccoli City Fest throwing a pop coffee café environment or day party with coffee-infused cocktails,” Sartin says.
They are influencing the industry with their unique style and cultural background, which has helped them apart from others in the industry. This entailed challenging java jammers and those who have had a bad brew.
“A part of this has also been education. We’ve had people who want to support, but they may not drink coffee,” Sartin says.
They allow others to taste their roasts and explain how they achieve the different flavor components and aroma. MochaBox offers single-origin coffees with great tasting original flavors that are all locally roasted in Prince George’s County Maryland.
Customers can select 12-ounce resealable packages or whole bean, medium or coarse grind.
MochaBox’s signature coffee is Colombiana: a medium roast with hints of cherry and sweet pecan. It originates from the village of Finca de Lima in the Paisa region of Colombia. Sartin suggests roasting it to a medium level to experience all the goodness.
Haiti Blue is a single-origin coffee. It has a creamy smooth finish with hints of almond and butter. This one can be purchased with grinds ranging from whole to fine.
If you like your coffee roasted to a dark level, Dark & Lovely is a great pick. This coffee brings you a well-balanced, bold cup with hints of hazelnut and cocoa. It hails from the Don Don region of Haiti.
Dark sugar sweetness caramel aromatic spices—that’s Black Bottom vs. everybody. Black Bottom is named after Sartin and Thomas’ Detroit roots. You just may dance with your mug in hand as it has rich culture from Rwanda and a lively roast with floral notes with hints of honey.
“People love it. They say they can smell it in the mail and get really excited,” Sartin shares.
Getting in Position in 2021
Sartin and Thomas are hoping to solidify a partnership with a major grocery retailer in 2021. Their unique brews would be featured among other locally-owned brands in the DMV area.
As MochaBox continues to expand and gain a larger consumer base, Sartin and Thomas know growth is necessary. “We need to really get the messaging across and promote that our coffee tastes good without being corny about it,” Thomas says.
They encourage others interested in entrepreneurship to just start without striving for perfection and not to give up because the learning comes along the way. If you are interested in the coffee industry, there is room for more in the industry. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know.
Sartin and Thomas are truly brothers in brew and life who balance and complement each other in the business. Admittedly, this has been another significant influence on their success.