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For Recent Alum, It's About More than Coffee

When she entered Smith as an Ada Comstock Scholar, Melissa Krueger ’03J had rarely even drunk a cup of coffee, let alone roasted and sold the stuff. Now, a few years after graduating, making and selling coffee is her business.

“I never really needed coffee ‘til I went to Smith,” says Krueger, who owns the Elbow Room Café, the Green Street nook that supplies daily doses of coffee to many in the Smith community. “Back then, I had no idea I would open a coffee shop.”

Two years and a few months after opening her business, Krueger not only drinks coffee regularly, but knows better than most the intricacies of the liquid’s production, quality, commerce and political history.

Krueger will speak about what she’s learned running a business during an upcoming talk (rescheduled from Thursday, September 28), titled "I've Got Spirit: Experiences of a Grinspoon Entrepreneurship Award Winner," as part of the Women and Financial Independence (WFI) lunchtime series.

The Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation is a program -- administered by WFI for Smith students -- that gives cash awards to students and alumnae to help develop entrepreneurial projects. Krueger was awarded a Grinspoon grant last year. Six months ago, she purchased a coffee roaster with the assistance of her Grinspoon Award, and roasts most of the coffee she sells.

Krueger, who majored in cultural anthropology at Smith, not only wants to sell coffee and build a successful company. She endeavors to employ fair-trade policies in her business practices. She insists on paying her employees a “living” wage nearly twice the required minimum. And she buys coffee from Dean’s Beans, an organic fair-trade coffee wholesaler in Orange, Mass., that purchases coffee from growers for a rate commensurate with the value of the product, emphasizing quality over profit.

“I want to run a socially responsible company,” says Krueger. “What’s really rewarding is that we’re successful enough to run my company the way I want. We try to have a positive impact on the community.”

Krueger also plans to facilitate a study-abroad program for Smith students with Oro Verde, a coffee grower in Lamas, Peru, to teach the global ramifications of the coffee industry and study fair-trade policies. And, she hopes to create a Five College Coffee shop operated by students using fair-trade practices.

Before opening the Elbow Room Café, Krueger was an employee for its predecessor, Shelburne Falls Coffee Roasters, a chain that operated a store in the same Green Street location.

“I used to stare at the place and think of what I’d do with it,” she says of the store before she owned it. “I used to sit here and wish I owned it.”

Now that she is beyond the critical two-year mark of owning a business and has overseen a 30 percent growth last year at the Elbow Room Café, she can reflect on what she’s learned and share it with future entrepreneurs.

“It’s the most exhausting and rewarding challenge I’ve ever experienced. I’ll try to give students some practical tips they can use,” she says about her upcoming talk. “I want to impart to students that there’ll always be some risk [in running a business] and that you’ll have to absorb that, and that you’ll be okay.”

9/25/06   By Eric Sean Weld
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