Brewing a difference in the U.P.

For the three founders of Contrast Coffee Co., finding a way to make a difference with a business venture was primary.

“We were on a phone call one day and chatting. Family was good, life was good, but something was missing,” recalls Adam Holroyd, one of the three founders. “So, we started thinking if there was anything we could (do that would) have an impact on people's lives.” 

Looking into various businesses and needs, Holroyd, along with the other founders, Chris Cheney and Gabe Whitmer, eventually discovered that a coffee enterprise was the right option. Coffee could have an impact.

They started with a two-pound roaster and put together various wholesale options for grocers and coffee programs for office spaces. Soon, there was growing demand for their initial Mission Arabica brand. 

“If we had found something else to do instead, we would have done that, but coffee is what worked,” Holroyd said. “As we started researching, we realized there was money there and this was feasible.” 

The company launched in 2015 and continues to roast coffee beans at its Iron River facility. That initial wholesale approach remains apparent with the manufacturing process – multiple forms of packaging, from large ordering to individual k-cups, are available. 

Eventually, growth proved solid enough that it forced the trio to commit to Contrast. “With the web-based ordering increasing, we were either going to have to go all in or outsource the roasting,” Holroyd said. “We had to go for it.” 

Focusing on the positive impacts of their business has allowed Contrast Coffee to do things that other major businesses in the industry could not.

The interior of the Marquette location of Contrast Coffee.

Contrast is able to keep all of its beans at the specialty category through the Specialty Coffee Association cupping form. That grade accounts for only the top seven percent of all beans produced across the world, so larger producers cannot produce such a high-quality product due to quantity numbers alone.

Some of the company’s profits have helped fund English as a second language education programs in Laos and Azerbaijan, where friends of the owners have taught overseas. There are other donations to community organizations, and the company has a form on its website for those seeking donations.

In 2016, the trio shifted to opening their first storefront, a small shop near their roasting facility in Iron River. That exploded to three shops in four years before the pandemic slowed down expansion. Holroyd credited the boom to customer service. 

“The customer service aspect was 100 percent intentional. The outcome is by accident,” he explained. “By emphasizing customer service, we backdoored ourselves into this culture, and it’s worked for us. How you set up your customer service is important.” 

While Contrast Coffee is not the only independent coffee purveyor in the U.P., its success has been felt by local economic leaders. 

"It is not very common to see a larger food and beverage producer enter the direct sale market with shops like Contrast Coffee and the Iron County community is lucky they have," said Zach Hautala, director of the Iron County Economic Chamber Alliance. "Contrast Coffee's expansion from wholesale coffee producer to full-service coffee shop and restaurant has had a significantly positive impact on the local Iron County economy by creating a great gathering space by offering quality drinks and menu options while creating quality jobs at the same time." 

The shops have expanded the overall clientele of Contrast Coffee from wholesale options to retail offerings of various hot and iced drinks -- and food. Products are similar between the locations, even though some logistical concerns occur between the sites almost 90 miles away from the main roasting facility.

But now, instead of just grocery store shoppers and office suppliers, each cup of coffee is matched with a specific professional getting ready for a conference call or a student studying for a final. 

Tapping into and creating community is important to Contrast Coffee. Its website says, "Contrast exists to be a facilitator of community, hosting the connections that come so much easier over a cup of coffee."

That sense of community -- and connection -- applies to the company's partnerships with farmers around the globe and local vendors. 

but we aim to represent it as best we can through every cup served, in the partnerships with farmers around the world, with the local vendors we proudly purchase from, and the incredible friends and neighbors across the U.P. 

Melanie Mottinger, general manager of Contrast's Marquette location, said customers give each store a unique vibe, but key values about being a responsible business make Contrast Coffee a consistent product across the board. 

“It used to be that customers asked about fair trade and sustainable harvesting, but that’s a lot less now than what it used to be. It seems like it’s just kind of expected now out of a lot of companies to make those better decisions,” Mottinger said. “Something that really drew me to Contrast was Adam’s outlook on why they do what they do, and the ethical outlook was something I could get behind.” 

Mottinger recalled working on a weekday with terrible weather when she called Holroyd to see if she should remain open. 

“He said, ‘We do this to make a great cup of coffee and to give good jobs, so if you have people willing to buy and work, stay open,’ and it was so refreshing to hear,” Mottinger said. “We know when running a business, you have to pay attention to the bottom line, but to take into context the staff and the community and the needs they have in these circumstances is important too and that is the kind of business Contrast is.” 

Pictured left to right: Nate Heffron, Negaunee City Manager; Christopher Germain, LSCP CEO; Brandon Wolever, Contrast Coffee Negaunee General Manager; Chris Cheney, Contrast Coffee Negaunee Owner/CEO; Adam Holroyd, Contrast Coffee Part-Owner and Head Roaster; Dave Aro, Marquette County Ambassador; Heather Mosher, Marquette County Ambassador; Brooke Quinn, LSCP Senior Business Development Representative

Last month Contrast Coffee opened up its newest location in Negaunee, taking over a former fast-food restaurant that had been shut down since before the pandemic. Bringing more opportunities to a growing coffee market in Marquette County, the Negaunee site features freshly roasted coffees, high-quality teas, and made-to-order Lotus energy beverage and a variety of food options. 

Negaunee is the second central U.P. location for Contrast Coffee, which may consider Escanaba for another location. Holroyd also talked about the growing opportunities in Houghton and Hancock to create a Copper Country location.

While the initial run of shops put locations in Iron River, Iron Mountain and Ironwood, don’t expect a push south into Wisconsin anytime soon. Connecting the Upper Peninsula into aspects of the branding has been very successful for Contrast Coffee and will remain a focus until the original goals are met for the company.

“We’re kind of right on that line already of where do we go? Our original intention was six,” he said. “If we can get to six, we would reassess and make decisions to go from there. We're kind of at that line, and we’ve already got some eyes on locations for shop number six.”

Wherever Contrast decides to go in the future, the company will stay grounded in the values that have led them to such success so far, Holroyd said.

“For me, personally, as we can maintain those standards, and we can maintain those qualities of services, we will expand. Then we can have those greater impacts with power of purchase, employing more people with good jobs,” he said. “As long as we can maintain those standards that make all this happen for the right reasons.”

Brice Burge is a regular contributor to UPword.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.