Photos courtesy of Sam Schaefer
[E]arlier this year, Sam Schaefer began working on Mockingbird Coffee, a coffee roasting company and tasting room to be located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Alongside his friend Peter Littlejohn and with funding from a sole investor, Schaefer was working to create a sustainable roasting project that would, they hoped, move the coffee scene in Southeast Michigan forward.
In September, we sat down with Schaefer at the nearly-opened Mockingbird roastery for a “Do You Know?” interview, wherein he discussed his background, his love of coffee competitions, and his future plans. Unfortunately, before the issue went to press Mockingbird’s investor had a change of heart and removed funding, and Schaefer’s project was put on hold.
Now, a few months later, Schaefer and Littlejohn are restarting their company, under a new name, Espy, and with a different structure and vision. We caught up with Schaefer to find out what went on with Mockingbird, how Espy came to be, and what the future looks like now.
Can you give a brief summary of what happened with Mockingbird, for those who don’t know?
Mockingbird Coffee was a coffee roasting company with a tasting room located in Ann Arbor. I was a part owner, sharing the business with the sole investor of the company. We were working through a beautiful idea to empower coffee shops, coffee drinkers, and make coffee roasting more efficient financially and environmentally. A main goal was to achieve net zero waste and net zero carbon. We planned a fairly large-scale project with our investor, but he changed his mind without warning. Ultimately it became too big for him to continue to support. It had gone too far into development, and it was now impossible without him and his investment, so we had to shut it down.
Can you tell us how you transitioned from Mockingbird to Espy? What happened in between?
[Peter and I] were scrambling to find new jobs, and also trying to imagine how to keep going without any investment. We all believed in our ideas, and felt like we needed to finish what we started. We acquired the green coffee we had in the Mockingbird roastery, and began a plan to reopen. Our friends at Anthology Coffee [in Detroit] opened their doors to us immediately, offering us any support to get back online. We originally planned to take all the conceptual work we did with Mockingbird, and continue to sell coffee under the same ethos, just under new circumstances.
But sometime around October, I think literally the day before my wedding, we received a letter from the USPTO [patent and trademark office] about our declined application for trademarking “Mockingbird Coffee.” A restaurant decided to contest us and, following that, we received a cease and desist letter from this restaurant’s legal team. Long story short, all of the lawyer friends we spoke to said we could easily fight and probably keep our name, but it would probably become very expensive. So we took this as a moment to truly restart.
We dug into ourselves and reimagined how, what, but mostly why. Why coffee, why anything. We realized our relationship was contextualized by coffee, but hasn’t exclusively been about that. Peter and I met in art school. We love and make art, music, sound, food, and coffee all because of the same thing: we love what great things show us, and how they make us feel. So we kept the name simple, yet encompassing who we are, and what we’re doing. We are S and P. Sam and Peter. Yet the word “espy” helps connect us to what we plan to do.
What will Espy the company look like?
As of right now, we are exclusively an e-commerce coffee roasting company. We are roasting out of Anthology Coffee. The Anthology crew are the most sincere coffee people we know—if you haven’t had their coffee, you need to! We are roasting weekly and shipping coffee right to your door.
We want to provide sweet, vibrant, complex, and balanced coffees to anyone, and also provide context, information, and meaning to go along with every coffee we roast and serve. We want to make it easy to enjoy great coffee, and to understand exactly what, how, or why it is unique.
What are your long-term goals for the company?
Beyond breaking even on our debts, we intentionally don’t have them. As much as we believe small businesses can be ideal catalysts for global change in a capitalistic society, we also know we can’t change the world alone. Espy will be constantly aiming to do everything as well as we can. We are committing to the process, yet aiming to have fun. We plan to roast coffee, we plan to share coffee.