Knoxville Collaboration: Rich Stone and Memoirs Coffee
Rich Stone roasts on a manual MCR-2 in a roastery about twenty minutes outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. It’s a small-scale operation modeled like a large-scale operation, with a focus on efficiency and impact.
Setting the Scene
Rich Stone worked as an EMT in Knoxville, Tennessee until the stress and pressure of being a first responder became unsustainable. He found his next passion at Keurig Green Mountain, where he started working in 2009.
After eight years, he moved to the Bay Area in California on the lookout for more coffee work. He found it with a startup called Kuju Coffee, where he helped design a single-serve pocket pour-over for the Boy Scouts of America.
Shortly after that, he roasted for Peet’s Coffee. In that role, he spent a lot of time thinking about, and working with, greens. After a few years there, he realized his true interest in specialty coffee was in sustainable sourcing.
In January 2020, he moved back to Knoxville to close the distance between him and his family. On his return, he realized just how little specialty coffee culture existed in the area; it was a drastic change from the Bay Area.
Instead of seeking out his next job, he took a pause to consider what it might look like to start his own business and fill that market gap with what he’d learned with Kuju and Peet’s.
“A lot of Knoxville roasters want that community but don’t know how to bring it together,” he says. And he felt up to the task of joining the Knoxville roasting community with a goal of helping unite it, as well as build a company focused on highlighting and serving producers and farmers.
Memoirs Coffee opened for business in 2020.
The Way Up
Throughout his careers both in the Bay Area and Knoxville, Rich had built up a reserve of equipment and finances. The preparation and experience ultimately helped smooth his launch of Memoirs Coffee.
His first order of business was to build out the roasting facility, a 500 sq ft space built on a property owned by Rich’s folks. He installed his manual MCR-2 in late 2020. Drawing from his experience in commercial roasteries on the West Coast, he modeled the facility after the roasteries he’d worked in before, albeit on a smaller scale.
From there, he started selling at popup events in the Knoxville area, always looking for collaboration opportunities with neighbor roasters to help strengthen the specialty coffee community.
Although he knew what he wanted Memoirs Coffee to accomplish, Rich wasn’t sure what to expect from the Knoxville scene at first. The area is receptive to small businesses, and it has grown considerably in the past few years. But the preparations he made to help the business start didn’t exactly apply to the work of establishing the brand and its vibe, which had to grow more organically through word of mouth.
There’s also been a struggle to find continuous tech support for all of Memoirs’ roastery equipment. It was the quality of customer support that drew Rich to Mill City Roasters in the first place. With other equipment, he hasn’t been as lucky. “That’s the southeast region struggle,” he says. When his espresso machine is down, the process of fixing it isn’t as easy as calling for aid.
Additionally, the fluctuating nature of business ownership was a source of concern in the beginning. The ebb and flow of good and bad weeks, and fluctuations of the business checking, surprised Rich. “I’ve had to realize that’s normal,” he says. “And that’s hard to come to terms with.”
With the business in its second year now, Rich no longer expects consistency, but rather looks for markers of normalcy in the monthly cycle.
The Memoirs Coffee Menu
Memoirs Coffee offers their full menu of fourteen roasts at the Knoxville farmers market, which includes a mix of complex and approachable profiles. The newest addition, a washed Ethiopia Guji, is a bestseller, taking its place alongside the Guatemala.
In the online shop, Memoirs Coffee offers a selection of five or six coffees from the full lineup. Because Knoxville is a college town, Rich wants a menu online that people can buy from after finding his brand locally. “I want people to be able to get what they like online,” he says. And keeping a small eshop menu helps reduce overhead with shipping.
He sources his coffee from Genuine Origin, which offers 65-lb greens boxes, a much more feasible supply for a roastery of this caliber. “You’ve got to make it worth it with the cost of shipping,” he says.
To get a handle on what was necessary for customers to consider Memoirs a hub for education and good drinks, Rich made sure to be present at any popup he could, and focused on creating a transparent and welcoming energy with all of his customer interactions.
His first collaboration opportunity came through his relationship with Capybara Coffee, a cafe owned and operated by a couple with a focus on bringing specialty coffee from Brazil to Knoxville.
Their relationship has only continued to grow, and Rich sees a lot of potential in how their business models compliment each other. Rich, with his focus on wholesale accounts, is happy to supply Capybara Coffee with coffee, which they serve out of their storefront. The co-op model gives each business more room to focus on its specialty, and crafts a more unique experience for their joint customers.
As another part of Memoirs’ investment into the specialty coffee community of Knoxville, Memoirs Coffee also offers events like cuppings out of the Capybara storefront for a low cost. Lowering the barrier for entry gets more people in the community involved; and because of the smaller price tag, Rich can plan more casual events, like girls’ nights out. “I wanted to create a way for people to find a new passion,” he says. “And I wanted to create a way that people could afford to be a part of that.”
Most of all, Rich wants to expand the collaboration between Memoirs Coffee and Capybara Coffee, possibly working together on opening a joint venture cafe in the next year or two. More space would also allow him to offer roasting classes in a more curated and public-friendly roasting space.
He’s also pursuing more wholesale account leads, looking to get the brand a wider reach of customers in the coming months in both retail stores and cafes.
Bring Memoirs Coffee Home
Shop the curated online shop on the Memoirs Coffee website. If you’re in the Knoxville area, catch Rich at the Knoxville farmers market every Saturday, other local events such as the Old Sevier Sunday Market. If you’ve got a soft spot for Brazils, check out their Brazil lineup at Capybara Coffee. Otherwise, you can follow them on Instagram or Facebook.