Entrepreneur brewing coffee businesses around the state

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Published: November 15,2004

If you stop at Starbuck’s on your way through the Memphis airport, you’ll be picking up a cappuccino or latte in a place opened by Thomas Blanche, a man who has always been fascinated with coffee.

“I remember when I was seven years old,” Blanche said, “I’d dunk my toast and it would taste much better.”

Blanche, who was working for Marriott, the airport’s master concessionaire, when he opened Starbuck’s, has gone on to start his own coffee business in Mississippi, a three-part entity that includes coffee houses, coffee roasting and serving as consultant for people who want to open a coffee house.

The venture started with Uptown Coffee House in Oxford just off the square. Now in its third year, the coffee house is constantly filled with Ole Miss students and professors, townspeople and, on football weekends, Ole Miss alumni.

“The Oxford coffee house is showing a 30% to 40% increase in business this year, month by month,” Blanche said. “And we’ve signed a deal for a second Oxford location in Kenlan, a huge residential and hotel development being built out by the convention center.”

Blanche also owns a place in Memphis, called High Point Coffee House. In November, an Uptown Coffee House will open in Tupelo and another one, now under construction, is expected to open next spring. There are also Vicksburg and Columbus locations.

“And we’re trying to find a second location in Memphis. We’re also looking at the Jackson market, because when Ole Miss alumni visit Oxford, they always go to Uptown Coffee.”

Blanche is originally from Iowa but has spent the past 30 years in the South. His wife, the former Martha Jane Ellis, is the Ole Miss connection. A native of New Albany, she holds law and medical degrees and is now practicing medicine.

Unlike some other places, Blanche’s coffee houses sell only sweets and desserts.

“If you sell sandwiches and salads, it’s no longer a coffee house. It’s a deli that also sells coffee,” he said.

The keys to being successful in the coffee house business, according to Blanche, include the location and the coffee that’s served, and particularly the managers and employees.

“I rely on my managers. I teach them to be very close to the business, to ‘touch the product,’ pay close attention to storage. My manager in Oxford, Ashley Allen, is doing an extremely good job. I believe in hiring good people and in giving back to managers and staff.”

He also praised the manager and staff at the High Point Coffee House in Memphis.

Blanche emphasized finding something that you really enjoy, something you’re passionate about and said that, “It’s a big factor in everyone’s success.”

Allen said that what she likes best about working at Uptown Coffee is, “People interacting. Oxford is a happening place and the people are so friendly and everybody always says, ‘Hi.’”

“I always knew that one day I’d be roasting coffee,” Blanche said. “We try to keep as much as we can inside the company, so that we can control quality and price for Uptown and High Point. We also sell to other coffee houses. And we have an online business.”

At High Point Roasters, which is located in New Albany, Blanche has a partner, Dan Skinner, who owns 50% of that operation.

“He’s the roaster,” Blanche said. “And he runs the operation on a day-to-day basis.”

Blanche added that the only problem with the roasting business so far is that there are almost more customers than they can handle. High Point Roasters sells some 22 different single origin, blended, decaffeinated and flavored coffees, including the blends served in the coffee houses that Blanche owns.

He believes that it makes no sense to pay a regular fee to some franchise that people have never heard of. “There’s Starbuck’s and there’s no second place, no other name-recognition franchise. A new coffee house is much better off being independent and building its concept.”

Current clients include Crescent City Coffee in Ruston, La., Kozibean Coffee in Franklin, Tenn. and K.Bean Coffee in Troy, Ala.

Javabiz is the consulting part of Blanche’s business.
“I started consulting two years ago,” he said. “It was just something that happened. People would ask me about opening a coffee house. Things started to evolve. Consulting wasn’t in my original plans. But if an avenue of revenue presents itself, you take advantage of it.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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