‘A Life Saver’: Starkville Coffee Shop Owner Gets Funding from Communities Unlimited

‘A Life Saver’: Starkville Coffee Shop Owner Gets Funding from Communities Unlimited

Thirty-two-year-old Blair Edwards’ love for coffee began at age 7. He drank it every morning while living with his parents in Atlanta, Ga., and became familiar with roasting coffee at his first job as a teenager.

“I’ve always worked in coffee; that was my first job at the place with the green mermaid (Starbucks),” Edwards told the Mississippi Free Press from Starkville, Miss., in a Zoom interview on March 11, 2022. “That was my first job when I was 15, and I’d worked there off and on maybe till about five or six years ago.”

Edwards moved to Starkville from Atlanta in 2009 to attend Mississippi State University and study anthropology. After a year and a half, he dropped out because he could not afford the school fees. Over the ensuing years, he would relocate elsewhere but repeatedly returned to Starkville. The last time he returned was in 2017.

His romantic interest in Bonnie Brumley, a ceramics artist, prompted his return to Starkville in 2017. “I came back here for a girl; it worked out,” Edwards said with a laugh during the Zoom, flashing his wedding ring. They married in December 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “I guessed it’s the end of the world, we might as well (do it).”

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Edwards started operating The People’s Cup MicroRoastery in 2017, using Instagram and Facebook pages to publicize the outfit, first posting in September that year. From the beginning, Edwards has emphasized the importance of ethical coffee-bean sourcing. He wrote in a September 2017 Instagram post that his business’ mission was “to bring ethically sourced coffee from eco-friendly farms and micro-lots for an affordable price.”

“Americans consume 400 MILLION cups of coffee per day and import $4 BILLION worth of coffee each year. Most of the farmers that produce that coffee live in poverty—if it hasn’t already turned into an industrial farm,” Edwards wrote in the post.

“With over 10 years of experience working with this magical bean, I want to … continue to support these farms. A better cup from a better bean from a happy farmer for a better price!” he added.

On Oct. 21, 2017, Edwards posted a photo on Instagram that showcased his setup in an outdoor location and said he was selling coffee beans, affogatos and espresso. The post served as an advertisement to the 50,000-plus people gathered at the Davis Wade Stadium at Mississippi State University to watch its football team take on the University of Kentucky. He asked them to stop by before or after the game.

Edwards moved his stand from place to place. In January 2018, he received his certificate of formation from the Mississippi Secretary of State for The People’s Cup MicroRoastery LLC, operating as a coffee- and tea-manufacturing and mobile food service.

One year later, in January 2019, Edwards opened his shop at 12-½-B Lummus Drive in Starkville. He announced the move on Instagram and Facebook.

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In a January 2019 Instagram post, Blair Edwards announced that he had officially opened his coffee shop at 12 1/2 B Lummus Drive in Starkville.

By the time Edwards submitted his first annual report to the secretary of state in May 2019, he had modified his business focus to coffee and tea manufacturing and snack and nonalcoholic beverage bars. That same month, Starkville Daily News featured him as a rising star under 35.

Edwards described himself as a coffee roaster, and visitors can witness the coffee-making process in the shop. “I try to buy it directly from farmers if possible, make sure that money goes into their pocket instead of the importers—or at least (buy from) a collective,” he said.

He maintained his shop until October 2019 when he closed down to pivot back to the previous nomadic business model, moving from place to place.

“We weren’t granted the same privileges as the other restaurants in the neighborhood—mainly being able to have music,” Edwards told the Mississippi Free Press.

Edwards communicated the change to his followers on social media, writing: “Hey y’all, we’ve got some news! Tomorrow will sadly be the last day of us operating in our current location (#thesecretgarden in the Cotton District) BUT we’re going mobile again! We’ll be out and around town almost every morning starting next week, so stay tuned! It’s been a pleasure to provide this space to the public, but it’s time for us to #grow. #mississippimicroroastery #brewbetter”

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Blair Edwards announced on social media in October 2019 that he was leaving his location at 12 1/2 B Lummus Drive in Starkville.

Edwards’ neighbor heard what happened to him and offered him a place at 206 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in east Starkville, but it needed some work.

“They were going to open up a restaurant (at the place) but decided to move it to a different location; so he offered me (the space),” Edwards said. “So we were working on remodeling this old gas station. It’s from like the 1930s.”

He announced the new location in a Jan. 18, 2020, Instagram post: “After we closed the old shop, we got the opportunity to start fresh in a lot of different ways. After some doubt, luck, growth and most importantly-encouragement to move forward, we were blessed with the opportunity to continue the dream! Bottom line: we got a new home!”

Initially planning to open at the new location in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic would not permit such a move. As an alternative, Edwards announced free delivery for his Starkville customers in an Instagram post that month.

The pandemic caused a massive setback for sales that would have provided funding for making the building ready to open.

In January 2020, Edwards shared, in a Facebook post, his opportunity to restart at a new location.

“We missed a lot of business over those two years—at least four different festivals where we have upwards of 50,000 extra people in town,” Edwards said. “We only had the farmers market and online sales to survive during that, but that’s not actually enough to finish the building and reopen.”

He started looking for funding sources online. “So that’s kind of when I started looking for, getting desperate essentially, we need to finish this, and I need to know I have a business still, you know, so I was looking online,” Edwards said.

Bryn Bagwell, director of lending for Communities Unlimited, decided to climb the ladder of banking success as an example to her two daughters that a woman can do anything she sets her mind to.

“I had been working in banking, trying to demonstrate to my daughters that women could be anything,” she told the Mississippi Free Press over Zoom on March 11, 2022.

‘A Life Saver’: Starkville Coffee Shop Owner Gets Funding from Communities Unlimited

She entered the workforce as a bookkeeper at Arkansas-based Beverly Enterprises Nursing Homes in January 1982, and within two years, she rose to become the assistant administrator and then administrator. Bagwell joined Pickens Bond Construction in 1985 as the administrative assistant and became office manager within a year. She had a one-year stint at Chemsearch International as a sales trainer in 1986 before joining Twin City Banks. As a regional manager over three branches, she grew deposits by 250%.

On her LinkedIn profile, Bagwell wrote that over her eight years at Twin City Banks, from 1987 to 1995, she increased consumer and commercial loan portfolios by 130% per year, managed $10 million in commercial-loan portfolios, planned and conducted bank-wide monthly sales meetings for branch sales staff, and increased sales-incentive earnings by 25%.

She left for Arkansas Capital Corporation, a Community Development Financial Institution, in 1995 to serve as the company’s vice president. After five years there, she spent four years as Southern Development Bancorporation-Arkadelphia’s senior vice president before becoming Farmers Bank and Trust’s senior vice president for commercial lending between 2004 and 2011.

She then joined Arvest Bank as senior vice president and spent five years there before accepting a position as president for Generations Bank Market in 2016.

After decades in traditional banking, Bagwell had had enough. She says she spent her time courting multimillionaires, taking them to lunch at county clubs, cozying up to them to transfer their loans to her bank with the promise of reduced interest rates and more attention.

Bagwell lacked fulfillment, she said, even as her bank accounts swelled with bonuses because of her marketing success.

“I realized that my soul was not being fulfilled by helping banks make more money, and shareholders make more money, while we served only a high-income population,” she told the Mississippi Free Press over Zoom.

“So in my capacity as president of the bank, I had lending authority, and I would sneak around and make loans to women- and minority-owned businesses within my lending authority,” she said. “But they take a lot of extra time, and the bank was not supportive of that, which I understood—it doesn’t make as much money for the bank.”

“I’m leaving banking. I don’t know where I’m going, but I can’t do this anymore,” Bagwell told a friend on the phone in 2020.

“You need to apply for this job, my job,” the friend replied. That friend was the director of lending at Arkansas-based CDFI, Communities Unlimited.

Bagwell agreed and later trained under her friend before she retired. “She trained me, worked side-by-side with me for a year before she retired because I had a lot to learn—to jump from not having been in this world to being the head of a CDFI,” Bagwell said.

Though that move came with a 50% pay reduction, she said she feels more fulfilled in her new role.

“I looked for the opportunity at this point in my life to make a difference in the world and help those who didn’t have the opportunity to get a loan from a bank,” she said over Zoom. “A hundred percent of my time and then some is (now) spent on those that need it most.”

“For me, it’s been much more rewarding and satisfying to work with people who every single day think about ways that they can make it easier for those who have not had an easy path,” she said.

One year after the COVID-19 pandemic began, Communities Unlimited joined 12 other CDFIs to form the Southern Opportunity and Resilience Fund to offer low-interest loans of up to $100,000 to small-business owners hurt by the pandemic across the South.

SOAR launched in April 2021 with $50 million from philanthropic, private and corporate investors. The initial plan was to grow the fund to $150 million.

Bagwell said it was vital for Communities Unlimited to be part of SOAR. She told the Mississippi Free Press it was because the company “represents seven southern states, Mississippi inconclusive, and we work consistently in rural and persistent poverty areas, within our seven states\.” “We tried to access, as most CDFIs, those that are not able to access traditional financing, and we focus on small businesses of color and women-owned businesses.”

In a March 15, 2022, press release to commemorate two years of enduring the COVID-19 pandemic, SOAR said that the funds are to provide long-term resources to combat the effects the pandemic has incurred on small businesses.

“To date, the SOAR program has deployed nearly $23 million to more than 470 businesses and currently has $40 million still available,” SOAR wrote. “Long-standing inequities in small-business lending often mean the small businesses most in need of financing are unable to access the funds they need to thrive and grow.”

“Even before the pandemic, minority-owned small businesses were routinely denied funding at higher rates than their white-owned peers,” it added. “The smallest of small businesses also face barriers to accessing funding because traditional financial institutions often do not make small-dollar loans.”

SOAR said that 78% of loans have gone to women and persons of color, with 52% to Black-owned businesses: “Nearly 90% of the loans went to businesses with 10 or fewer full-time equivalent employees, and 82% of recipients have annual revenues less than $500,000.”

In January 2022, Edwards was no longer sure if he could stay in business, so he began looking for loan sources online. He discovered SOAR, connected with Communities Unlimited, and received $10,000 in loans within a few days. It was the first SOAR loan in Mississippi.

“It was actually a pretty easy loan decision for me to make when I saw the amount of effort that he had put into it,” Bagwell told the Mississippi Free Press.

“What we saw was that he had a product that he could sell from a cardboard table at the market—that people would come to him because it was that good. He was selling a product that he had spent a lot of time making sure of the quality,” Bagwell added.

Bagwell said that Edwards did most of the work on the building himself and had the community’s support.

“There’s a lot of intangibles that you can’t put on a piece of paper that we were able to hear,” she explained. “Normally we spend a lot of time making sure they understand the financial side of their business, and we didn’t have to do that with him.”

“We felt like he was a good guardian of his business,” Bagwell said.

During his Zoom interview with the Mississippi Free Press, Edwards described the SOAR funding as a “lifesaver.”

“I did $10,000 (on loan) just to kind of, like, get me out of the debt that I put myself in from trying to run things from my personal finances,” he said. “I’m (now) getting my electricity done. That’s the main thing I’m trying to (do to) finish my building, and I just paid off a little bit of credit-card debt. That was really it.”

Edwards said that the building—apart from the electric work, which is on its way—is 90% ready and that he plans to open in the coming months.

“Once that happened, I just have to pour concrete countertops, close up walls, essentially, and get my health inspection,” he said.

Edwards added that Communities Unlimited had connected him with a team of management consultants free of charge. “We’re working on spreadsheets, projections of numbers, all those things, essentially,” he said. “They’ve also connected me with the team of those guys for free. So that’s really nice.”

The business owner plans to finish paying back the loan well before the five-year agreement he signed, with the first year focused on interest payment and the principal for the next four years.

“So it goes from like 30 bucks a month this whole year, like 35 or something like that, and then next year it goes something like ($200 or) $250 or something like that—maybe a little bit more, instead of it compounding every year,” he explained.

“So that’s pretty nice as well.”

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