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Meet the Mad Priest of Coffee

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Nestled into the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Chattanooga, Tennessee is famous for its riverside bluffs and world-class rock climbing and hiking trails. This small city made it into the top three of Lonely Planet’s Best in the US for domestic travel. As you walk through the revitalized downtown or strut along the riverbank, you’ll begin to understand its place of honor. Chattanooga is home to nuanced southern cooking, award-winning breweries, and some of the best coffee you can get this side of the Mason-Dixon. 

A batch of roasted coffee emptying into the cooling tray.

Practically baptized in coffee, Mad Priest Coffee Roasters crafts heavenly cups of joe, and they do it all with a triple bottom line of social, environmental, and financial success. Michael and Cherita Rice founded Mad Priest as a business and social enterprise in 2015 with a mission to “Craft excellent coffee. Educate the curious. Champion the displaced.” Working with their community and partnering with local nonprofits are just some of the ways they help seek social justice. Through their partnership with Bridge Refugee Services, Mad Priest has hired five displaced persons. They provide these employees with the tools to succeed by training them in customer service, improving their knowledge of the English language, and developing skills that will help them in almost every aspect of their life.

“My goal is, I want everyone in the company to be growing,” Michael told me. “Whether they stay with me for 10 years, or they move on to another company, I want them to move on to become a better person both philosophically but also a better professional. Because I hire people that want to be in the industry.” Michael and his team are always learning and seeking educational opportunities, including recently participating in a sustainability workshop offered by the Specialty Coffee Association.

Coffee cherries unloaded at origin.

While working in India, Michael and Cherita spent a lot of time in the local coffee shops which led to conversations with Syrian, Iranian, and Iraqi refugees who’d been displaced to India. Hearing the stories of these people without a home inspired him to build a profitable business with a purpose to help all displaced people. However, the definition of displaced people has changed for Mad Priest over the years to include more than refugees such as ex-cons who can’t find work, those pushed out of their home by gentrification, and any other persons who find themselves without a home. Their first official employee, Tarig Idris, is a Sudanese refugee who has been with the company since the beginning, and Tarig is about to become a partner and part-owner of Mad Priest this year. Vinnie Malveaux, talented barista and salesman extraordinaire, is a felon who struggled to find employment until Michael asked him if he’d ever worked behind a coffee bar before. Now Vinnie is an invaluable member of the team and runs the entire drive-thru operation at Mad Priest’s roastery.

Vinnie praying for another good day at the drive-thru.

The diverse team of baristas at Mad Priest brew a mean cup of coffee, and they’ll show you how to do it yourself. Education is at the foundation of Mad Priest’s mission, so they take the time to hold lessons and public “cuppings” for anyone willing to participate. Their regular “Coffee Catechisms” educate people about all things coffee. During the global pandemic, they’ve shifted these classes online, so you can learn more about the art of espresso and the history of coffee from the comfort of your couch. You can also check out our very own “Coffee Primer” for an in-depth look at the growth of coffee culture in the United States and the process from seed to mug. Mad Priest believes everyone from hipsters to grandmothers should know about good coffee, so they feel it’s part of their mission to spread the good word. 

When a new species of coffee was discovered in Yemen this year, Mad Priest knew it was their chance to share the discovery with their community and to be a part of coffee history. They spared no expense at the Cup of Excellence coffee auction when they purchased the lot of “Yemenia” coffee for over $140 a pound. “I want people to have access to something so wild and unique,” Michael shared before saying, “I don’t want to make a dime on this.” Instead, starting November 1st he will begin a giveaway competition. Afterward, they will sell the coffee entirely at cost. “My plan is to just get it as far-reaching across America as possible,” Michael said, “at the bottom dollar cost, and let people experience something that’s just mind-blowing and revolutionary for the industry.” The Yemenia coffee comes from Yemen, an area of constant turmoil and displacement. On November 11th, Michael sat down with Faris Sheibani, founder of Qima Coffee as well as researcher and importer of Yemenia, to talk about Yemen, displacement, and of course, coffee.

Michael (Left) and Vinnie (Right)


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