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Create: How Charlie Mustard and Jittery Joe’s Are Redefining Community Investment.

Rigmarole Stories

Posted by Ryan Woods - 15 October, 2019

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Roasting coffee beans was never a vocation Charlie Mustard contemplated.

Then, serendipity intervened. The South Carolina native was sitting inside Jittery Joe’s in the 1990s, crunching numbers for a master’s thesis in nutrition. He overheard the proprietors strategizing about roasting their own coffee beans. A favorite haunt of Athens musicians and students like Charlie, Jittery Joe’s was a local institution as known for being open 24 hours a day as for its potent brew. But a mention in Rolling Stone had catapulted the cafe to national recognition. Now the coffee shop was looking to do their roasting in-house rather than outsourcing.

Eavesdropping on the conversation, Charlie interrupted to volunteer his services. “We worked it out so I would roast their beans in exchange for all the coffee I could drink while I wrote my thesis,” he remembers.

It was an audacious offer, because Charlie Mustard had never roasted coffee beans in his life. He didn’t know the first thing about the trade. So his next stop was the library, where he promptly checked out all the reference books he could find to teach himself about coffee.

Charlie may not have been experienced in roasting, but his meandering career path had trained him to follow his passions, to pay attention to details, and to work hard to get things right.

From the time he earned his merit badge in animal care as a Boy Scout, he’d apprenticed himself to a local veterinarian. He fully expected to become a vet, even pursuing certification requirements in Athens during his senior year of college. But the closer he got to finishing his studies, the less inclination he had for that vocation.

Upon graduating, he accepted a position teaching anatomy and physiology at Clarke Central. That bought him some time to decide on a new career trajectory. After a couple years teaching high school, he enrolled in a master’s degree in nutrition at the University of Georgia. He figured he could secure a research job in a growing field.

But something came alive in Charlie during those solitary hours roasting beans for Jittery Joe’s. It was a lot like spending time in a laboratory, except he came out of the crucible with something delicious, not just spreadsheets and line graphs. He liked to play with the variables to generate distinctive new aromas and tastes. By all accounts, he mastered the trade quickly. People loved his coffee so much he soon got an offer to stay on as roasting supervisor at Jittery Joe’s.

That was twenty-five years ago. Athens has changed a lot during that time, and so has Charlie’s operation. Jittery Joe’s operates a number of franchises in the area and sells its coffee to regional and global vendors. Its iconic cans help position the brand in the crowded marketplace of artisan coffee. But it’s the company’s work to nurture social good in its hometown that’s distinguishing it these days.

Throughout Charlie’s tenure at Jittery Joe’s, partnering with local nonprofits has formed an important component of the company’s DNA. These initiatives have always developed organically rather than programmatically. Unlike larger corporations, which hire PR firms to manage community outreach, Charlie’s work relies heavily on involvement in the community, word of mouth, and an open door policy. “Anyone who comes in and wants to use our coffee to help their organization, we’ll work with them,” he maintains.

Education occupies a special place in his heart, so it’s unsurprising to see schools benefiting from Jittery Joe’s initiatives. In addition to his own stint teaching at Clarke Central, his wife works at Cedar Shoals, and his two kids went through local public schools. From these personal investments in public schools, Charlie found himself helping these institutions flourish.

It wasn’t hard to find ways to pitch in. Lack of funding limited the opportunities schools could offer students, particularly in fine arts and languages.

So Jittery Joe’s started partnering with schools to leverage coffee consumption to shore up beleaguered schools. The average American spends over $1,000 every year on coffee. If they opted for one of Charlie’s fundraising blends to replace their usual brew, the roaster could channel the profits into programs that desperately needed capital. For example, he developed Cafe Escobar, a custom Central American blend, to help fund a Spanish teacher at his son’s elementary school. It was a strategy that put Jittery Joe’s in homes while enriching the lives of Athens children.

Seeing the tangible benefits of this community involvement over the years, Charlie wanted to embark on something more ambitious. The more he worked with educators and community organizers, the more he met visionaries who just needed enough capital to make their dreams realities. There were so many working on all kinds of life-changing initiatives. What they needed wasn’t an individual campaign, but a scaffolding they could adapt for their own needs.

That’s how Create started. For the program to be sustainable as a fundraising platform, Charlie would have to build in efficiencies everywhere, and make a blend that could compete at supermarket prices. So, he got to work. Taking advantage of a recent increase in warehouse space, he brokered volume buys to lower costs. He ditched the signature cans for vacuum-sealed bags to cut costs further. After taste-testing hundreds of store-bought brand name coffees, he concocted a brew that could compete in that space.

What makes Create special is the spectrum of support it offers its nonprofit partners.

For every bag of Create Jittery Joe’s sells in supermarket chains or out of his own cafes, Charlie earmarks $0.50 for a special fund housed within AthFest Educates. Most of this revenue is used to purchase equipment for high school education. Because instruments, art supplies, and recording hardware (to give a few examples) tend to be more expensive, they’re out of reach for many enrichment programs. Create helps to make this apparatus accessible to orchestras and art classes who need them.

Beyond this educational fundraising, Charlie offers partnership opportunities with Create. Nonprofit organizations can purchase the coffee at low costs, then mark it up, resell it, and pocket the difference for their own use. This provides a ready fundraising resource for any initiative, and makes these partners brand ambassadors, furthering the causes of community building and good coffee.

At a time when companies giving back has become a calculated strategy for corporations, Create represents an organic, scalable alternative. Nothing against corporate-driven social programming, of course. It does accomplish good. But it can come off as a calculated maneuver, a limited tranche of programs to offset, the daily work of legions of accountants companies hire to reduce tax exposure or the attorneys they retain to avoid prosecution for polluting.

Create is something very different: a platform that depends not on artificial buzz generated by advertisers, but on genuine relationships nurtured over time. It’s a true partnership, not patronage. And it’s set to make a real difference in the community where Charlie lives — Athens, Georgia.

Maybe the most significant impact Create makes comes from being close the visionaries working on the ground to improve Athens. There’s something to be said for heeding what folks need to get their programs started, and stepping away to let them do what they do best.

Charlie should know. From the beginning, he’s built his career on listening to others when they speak.

Topics: Creative, Entrepreneur, coffee, stories


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