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Electric Brew owner buys beans directly from Central American growers

By Marshall V. King

GOSHEN, Indiana — Myron Bontrager doesn’t tell his customers that the coffee he sells them will change their life.

But if they ask, or if he has a chance, he’ll tell them about how it changes the lives of the people who grew, picked and processed it.

He’ll tell a customer in Goshen or Elkhart, Indiana, where locations of The Electric Brew hum with business, that it cost him 1.25 cents from that $2 cup of coffee to buy fair trade coffee directly from a cooperative of producers in a coffee-growing region far closer to the equator than northern Indiana.

He’ll tell them about buying green coffee beans from Café Justo. (See sidebar, next page.)

He may tell you that the Bald Brothers blend is actually coffee produced by all-women’s cooperatives in Sumatra and Guatemala.

Bontrager wants quality beans at a price that works for his business. But he also wants one more thing. “My goal has been to find more and more coffees with a story that comes from a reputable source,” he said.

The Electric Brew brought coffee shop culture to Goshen when Brenda and Tony Hostetler Kauffman opened it in 1996. From the early days, brewed coffee and espresso drinks were served with from-scratch baked goods, simple breakfasts and lunches.

From left: Dana, Myron and Jeremy Bontrager operate The Electric Brew shops in Goshen and Elkhart, Indiana with principles that help all those who touch the coffee, from growing it to selling it.From left: Dana, Myron and Jeremy Bontrager operate The Electric Brew shops in Goshen and Elkhart, Indiana with principles that help all those who touch the coffee, from growing it to selling it.

Bontrager and his family returned from Ecuador in 1998 after serving there and in Costa Rica with Rosedale Mennonite Missions. In 1999, he became founder and pastor of 808, a young-adult ministry that sprang into a church that met at the Goshen Theater.

Over time, he became frustrated with book theology and the isolation from the rest of the world that enveloped him as a pastor. He became more involved in the city and was on a committee with Brenda Hostetler Kauffman.

She was ready to sell the coffee shop and by 2007 Bontrager was ready to buy the shop at the corner of Main and Washington Streets.

He liked the way the Brew meshed with and reflected the community and didn’t want to change much. He started roasting beans himself rather than paying a company for finished coffee and started buying fair trade as he could to pay international producers more fairly. He brewed the coffee stronger. When a local priest complained, Bontrager added some water to the cup.

That was easy. Bontrager had learned long before not everything in the coffee business is easy.

In Costa Rica, he encountered fresh-roasted coffee for the first time and spent a day picking coffee on a pastor’s small farm. “I thought this is hard, hard work. Brutal work.”

Bontrager wanted to help producers from the time he bought the Brew. Owning a shop wasn’t just about customer service and caring for employees. It was being mindful of the people who helped provide the coffee.

Brew customers with logo in window

He and his family persevered through a recession soon after they purchased the shop and the business continued to grow, allowing them to help more farmers via fair trade or direct trade. “If I care about the customer coming in here, then I should also care about the person who picks that coffee,” he said.

Values inform how one does business — whether the values are good or bad, he said.

Relationships are at the foundation of how Myron, his wife Dana and son Jeremy operate their business. “For me, quality control starts with relationships,” said Myron.

“To me, if I don’t care about brewing the coffee well, then I dishonor the woman sorting the coffee. I should care about this woman sitting wherever she’s sitting sorting coffee for us. I should care about roasting it well, brewing it well, and serving it well to people we care about.”

Over the years, relationships have deepened, and new ones have formed with growers and customers. After buying Nicaraguan coffee for a number of years, a Massachusetts distributor asked Bontrager in 2018 if he would take 3,000 pounds of green (unroasted) beans. If they could get the coffee out of a country whose crisis was deepening, it would give workers income for another year. Bontrager quickly said yes and the coffee sold quickly once customers learned the situation.

In 2013, the shop moved across the street to a larger location and in 2015 was named Indiana’s Main Street Business of the Year. The 81 seats downstairs and 18 in a small conference room upstairs are often full. The customers range from homeless folks to the city’s mayor. The family purchased the Elkhart location in 2015. Together, the two shops sell a lot of coffee. The Brew roasted nearly 20,000 pounds last year.

In a business with tight margins, he pays his 36 employees $15 to $20 an hour with some benefits. He takes a salary that is never more than 2.5 times what an employee makes.

“Our goal is not wealth. It’s relationships.”

Marshall V. King, a food writer since 2000, is a freelance writer and photographer in Goshen, Indiana.