The flowing hills and pastures of Wisconsin’s Driftless Region serve as a place for people to escape the noise and crowds of the city, and breathe fresh air under bright, Midwestern blue skies. This topographical wonder has been virtually untouched by glaciers after thousands of years, giving the land a soft, rolling hillside that makes it perfect for hard-working people to build a business, farm, or family. Nestled into the Driftless Region is Viroqua, a town of about 4,500 people, and home to one of the best specialty coffee roasters in the United States. Although it’s not where you might expect to find world-class coffee, Wonderstate Coffee uses its place in the heart of rural Wisconsin to do good.
“Denise and I were ready to leave the city, move to a quieter more rural setting,” shared TJ Semanchin, Co-Founder of Wonderstate Coffee, in an interview with The Business Download. After spending 10 years in the coffee industry at Minneapolis’ Peace Coffee Co, he decided to settle down, start a family with his wife, Denise, and start a coffee company of his own. After meeting Caleb Nichols, another person who came to Viroqua to be with family and a “sensory experience savant,” the trio set up shop in an old train depot. “That focus on family and being in that rural setting, that’s really at the heart of our company,” TJ said. “There’s a lot of reasons why we started here, and why we live here, and it’s part of the Wonderstate culture.”
Although they’ve outgrown their first location, they are still committed to preserving the beauty of their Viroqua home. That’s why they became one of the first coffee roasters in the world to power their roaster with 100 percent solar power in 2015. The company that installed it is based right in Viroqua, one of their neighbors. “We had local expertise, and it was something for us to be interested in,” TJ said. “We have a strong drive to want to reduce our carbon footprint, and once we saw the economics of it, it was, it was a no brainer.” The team at Wonderstate also purchase carbon offsets to cover their shipping footprint, and source 94-96% of their coffees from organic farms.
With farmers as their neighbors, the team at Wonderstate feels a real connection to the Earth they share with everyone and especially to the farmers producing their coffee. That’s why they pay one of the highest published minimum prices to their coffee farmers. Meaning they pay far more for sustainably sourced coffee coming to them from their coffee producers than almost any other roaster out there, empowering the people in these largely developing communities. TJ shared, “We’re always striving to push ourselves into finding those ideal relationships with farmers that are bringing the smallest, most marginalized farmers into the realm of high quality, high, value coffee.”
An independent study showed TJ that the amount of money coffee farmers were earning for their labors was actually lower than in the 1970s, so he decided to change that with their Raising the Bar campaign to pay farmers more. “That was us kind of unilaterally just like acknowledging that dynamic and setting a minimum price at $2.85, and committing to raise that price by a nickel, every year.” In 40 years, coffee farmers hadn’t really earned a cost of living adjustment, but Raising the Bar was designed to change that.
The team at Wonderstate is always finding new ways to give back to its global and local community. That’s why they give 5% of their revenue to community-based programs focused on making the world a better, more equitable place. Their partnership with the Valley Stewardship Network works to preserve the beautiful Driftless region through water quality research, community engagement, and education. “A lot of what they do is work on watershed improvement,” TJ said. “Looking at it from an ecosystem perspective and working with local farmers, this brings in like anglers and conservationists and farmers.”
Wonderstate also gives back to the Vernon Trails, an organization that is hard at work building trails for hiking, running, biking, skiing, and anything else you can do in Wisconsin. Vernon Trails serves their community by not only blazing these trails but they provide access to the beautiful Driftless Region for countless people to enjoy. “It’s improving the quality of life for folks locally, but it also is a mechanism for ecotourism,” TJ shared. “We haven’t had a lot of access to the quality, beautiful open space that’s here. The infrastructure hasn’t been there, so Vernon is about creating access.”
Even as they succeed and grow, Wonderstate is constantly pursuing the values they were founded on. “You know, a lot of our values were embedded in our sourcing model, but as we’ve grown, we began recognizing the implications of just being a business and being a good business,” TJ shared. “There’s other places that our values play out in the community and around the world.” The coffee company faced a difficult realization in 2020, that led to their renaming under the banner of Wonderstate.
Formerly Kickapoo Coffee, and named after the Kickapoo River Valley, they realized that they were appropriating the name from the First Nation Kickapoo people the valley was named after. “When we started the company, we didn’t understand the significance of that word, we knew it was a Native American word but we did not know it was an actual indigenous nation of people–– people that are here today and thriving and are still a culture and language and a nation.” So they changed their name, and in the change, specifically during the social justice movements throughout the country, they found that there was “room to heal.”
What does their new name mean? Well as TJ puts it, “It’s an invitation for interpretation. The word wonder, coming into a state of questioning of curiosity.” They want people to feel the creative tension that comes from the hundreds of hands that touch the product until it reaches you and your mug. They want people to notice that coffee connects rural communities in Wisconsin with their peers in far-flung Sumatra, and brings people together at their local coffee shop.
The small, wondrous little bean is at once metaphorical and real, and that conflict is now named in the core of the company. “ It’s part of our origin story. Caleb, with his focus on quality and, and Denise and I embodying the social justice and commitment to the farmers,” TJ said. “We do that with high-quality, organic coffee that is elevated but approachable, sophisticated but rural. We embody a lot of these.” With all the care and kindness they put into the world, it’s no wonder they make such a good cup of coffee.