Social Impact Roasting: Borah Dawson and ARK Coffee Company
Borah Dawson lives in Columbus, Ohio. She and Johnny, her husband of ten years, own a plot of land that includes their house and a secondary building, where the ARK 6 kilogram lives and works. Roasting on her home property suits Borah: there’s no lease payment, and her kids can come in to help whenever they want, on the roaster they call the “Willy Wonka Machine.”
Setting The Scene
In 2016, Borah Dawson bought the Tree of Life Play & Cafe in Columbus, Ohio. In 2017, she opened it to the public.
She supplied Tree of Life with a local roaster’s coffee, but by 2019, the demand of the shop had grown to a point where the cost of wholesale ordering was too much. Borah did some research about small-batch roasting, and as she learned more about it, she started coming around to the idea that she might supply her own shop with roasted coffee. “I thought, wow, I can actually do this myself,” she says.
That summer, she took the opportunity to take Mill City Roasters’ Roasting 101 class in Minneapolis. Afterward, she invested in a Mill City 6 kilogram and started roasting to supply Tree of Life under an LLC she named ARK.
With Tree Of Life’s busy season right around the corner, Borah held off on her plans of building out the roastery fully until she had a better idea of the logistics of running both.
The following year, COVID-19 hit, and took a huge bite out of foot traffic to the store. And in July of 2021, Borah found herself scheduled for brain surgery. Between the pandemic and the recovery, she made the decision to close Tree of Life.
The Way Up
While in recovery, Borah found immense support from her family–her husband Johnny and four children–as well as from the Acoustic Neuroma Association. She wanted to do something to give back all the help she had received, but wasn’t sure how.
She found that opportunity in ARK. Since it was already a registered LLC, the company was just waiting to be built out and put into motion. All she needed to do was find a business model conducive to giving back.
She chose a social enterprise model: ten percent of proceeds from her coffee would go to organizations like the Acoustic Neuroma Association, with missions to directly support communities across the nation. The ANA was one of ARK’s first partners.
In September of 2021, Borah launched her company.
For inspiration, Borah did–and does–a lot of research on other small-batch roasters, looking mostly at the difference between where they started and where they are now. It’s encouraging, she says, to consider where humble roots might lead. She considers companies like Black Rifle and Onyx, lining up their benchmarks with her own to try and plan for the evolution of ARK.
As the company grows, she hopes that its impact will grow as well. One challenge she currently faces is deciding which organizations to showcase on her website. “I have a lot of passions I want to follow,” she says.
Learning when to say yes–and when to say no–is new territory for her. She has to choose a select few nonprofits if she wants the impact of ARK to be tangible.
Because she is the sole pillar of ARK, Borah has to do everything to keep it running. That means time is as much a resource for her as money, space, or greens. Her husband Johnny helps her out sometimes, as do her four children, who love to pull the drop lever on the “Willy Wonka Machine.”
Otherwise, it’s Borah’s brother Anthony who comes in to help shoulder the hours in the roastery. He’s an independent contractor, and she hires him for an average of twenty to thirty hours per month. The rest of the time, Borah alone roasts, bags, and ships from home.
The Ark Menu
ARK Coffee has four coffees available for purchase on their website; a light, medium, and dark single origin, as well as the Roll Blend. Ten percent of proceeds from the Roll Blend go directly to Pelotonia, a Columbus-based organization whose fundraising efforts support innovative cancer research.
It’s her best-selling coffee, drunk both black and creamy. When creating the profile, she made sure it was well-balanced, sweet and floral on its own but strong enough to hold up under cream and sugar. “It’s the perfect middle-of-the-road coffee,” she says.
When customers buy her single origins, they choose which nonprofit to support with their purchase from a drop-down menu on the website. The ten percent is built into the cost. Donation options include Festa, The National Veterans Memorial and Museum, and Ignite Our City, among others.
Borah is appealing to a customer base she’s seen growing in recent years. Consumers are beginning to think more critically about what they’re consuming and the impact they have by buying. “Lots of companies are looking towards that [interest,]” she says.
The challenge with being a social enterprise is keeping prices competitive. Because ARK coffee prices include the ten percent give-back, it’s even more important that Borah finds wholesale partners that value the same things she does. Otherwise, it will be difficult to convince companies to invest in higher wholesale costs.
With the change in consuming habits, Borah is hoping more companies will be open to a partnership with ARK. For now, she’s still planning out the best way to approach bigger distributors like grocery stores, as well as laying the foundation for more white label accounts.
ARK Coffee also offers a subscription, as well as upcoming seasonal offerings debuting this winter.
Borah hopes that with the success of ARK, she will be able to increase the scale of her impact. As of now, over two thousand dollars have been donated through her company, a number she’d love to grow in coming years through bigger distribution channels, wholesale accounts, a coffee-of-the-month subscription, and a re-entry into the brick and mortar world.
Since Tree of Life closed, she’s found more meaning in her current business model; a coffee shop that followed that same path would not only help fuel Borah’s choice organizations, but also fuel the growth of ARK as a company.
In the next cafe, she says, the roaster will be centered in the commercial space; her customers will be invited into the process of roasting just as they’re invited into the process of social and community impact.
You can purchase the Roll Blend or any of ARK’s three single-origins on their website, which is also a great place to learn about the Acoustic Neuroma Association, Pelotonia, and the rest of Borah’s curated beneficiary partners. You can also follow ARK on Facebook or Instagram.