SAULT STE. MARIE MICH. - Ron Kurnik’s earliest memory of coffee was when its aroma saturated his three-year-old brain on a flight across Canada. It wouldn’t be surprising if this paleo-impression didn’t lead to his opening the area’s first coffee roasting business in 2012.
But Kurnik’s Superior Coffee Roasting Company came by way of Texas and Arkansas, where the 2003 Texas A&M graduate grew a true passion of becoming an entrepreneur.
“In college, I really enjoyed brewing beer,” Kurnik recalled. “A bartender roommate brought home beer bottles for me to wash and fill. Another friend worked in a print shop, so he ran off labels I designed. The ingenuity of brewing, bottling, and thinking about creative marketing really lit a fire for me to go into business someday. Meanwhile, it got me and my friends into the finest parties in Austin.”
In 2003, armed with a baccalaureate in speech communication topped with a Masters in sociology, Kurnik landed not in sociology or speech, not even in the Lone Star State as a craft brewer, but on a river in Arkansas.
“I loved the outdoors and wanted to build capital,” Kurnik said. “I wanted to go into business, have fun, and then sell it. After doing some research, I found an outfitter business for sale in the Ouachita Mountains of southwest Arkansas.”
The area has natural beauty marbled by branches and tributaries of the Arkansas river, without the notoriety of being overrun with tourists. It was a perfect place to buy an established business in canoe, raft, and kayak rentals primed to grow.
“The outfitting business taught me the value of destination,” Kurnik said. “Market your location, keep the best gear on hand, and then word of mouth will generate a return and new business. Some outfitters were in cutthroat competition with one another. Many used the same gear year after year to boost the bottom line.”
Kurnik’s philosophy ran counterintuitive to that of most of his competitors.
“Selling my used gear kept people on the river and in the lifestyle,” he said. “The latest and newest equipment gave them a premium experience. My marketing didn’t revolve around taking a competitor’s business. On the contrary, the assumption was that there would always be a healthy business for all. An influx into the Ouachita Mountains as a destination literally raised all boats.”
The formula worked, and Kurnik sold the business in 2010 for triple what he paid for it seven years earlier. With capital in hand, he set off for a change of scene.
He came to the Sault.
“This part of the world feels like home,” Kurnik said, who spent part of his time growing up in northern Ontario. “I really wanted to come back to the four seasons. The humidity down in Arkansas took its toll. It’s very hot down there.”
For the next two years, he researched his next venture. That’s when the idea of coffee roasting began to percolate in his mind.
“At an early age, I appreciated excellent coffee and developed a special attention to it,” Kurnik said. “Our family used to get premium Gevalia coffee in freeze-dried bricks. We eventually graduated to the whole bean and grinding our own coffee. Mom even invested in a countertop coffee roasting machine. It looked like a glorified hot-air popcorn popper. I’m pretty sure it was one of the first on the market.”
That memory, and the earliest memory of coffee combined with going somewhere on a plane, lit a spark for him to create something than just brewing a cup of coffee. Freshly roasted coffee conjures not only specific memories but offers delectable flavors as varied as the countries that coffee beans came from.
Coffee roasting - there was nothing quite like it in the Sault.
Twelve years later, Lake Superior Coffee Roasting Company roasts, grinds, and sells coffees sourced from throughout the world. Superior also offers the whole bean for those who want to grind at peak freshness.
“We’ve got a good six or seven different country origins,” Kurnik said. “We settled on Nicaraguan for our main Central America offering. From that, we make two blends that are our bread and butter – Mariners and Sailors Sunrise. We’ve also got an exceptional expresso roast.”
The flavored coffees came later with customer demand.
“It’s turned into a significant segment of the coffee-drinking population, certainly in the Midwest,” said Kurnik. “I researched a better way to flavor coffee. The conventional way is to ‘candy coat’ or add syrup to beans. It unappealingly uses propylene glycol and lends bitterness to the flavor. The beans become sticky and not grinder friendly. What we do is like a dry rub that transfers flavor to the whole batch with no hotspots. The flavor is all natural and organic compliant.”
One of the bestselling flavors is Michigan chocolate cherry.
Which harkens back to how smell and taste tie into travel and destination. Many of Superior’s return customers come across the coffee they enjoy while on vacation in Michigan.
And that coffee reminds them of their time in the EUP as well.
“I get calls all the time from people who want to be able to buy in their local supermarket a coffee they discovered during vacation,” said Kurnik. “Superior Coffee will soon be carried throughout Michigan in Meijer’s stores.”
As far as Kurnik is concerned, there’s plenty of demand for coffee that taps different aspects of the Michigan and Upper Peninsula experience.
“There’s a new roaster in Cedarville that has the surrounding beauty of the Les Cheneaux Islands,” Kurnik pointed out. “The Dancing Crane in Bay Mills offers live music where the Tahquamenon Scenic Byway follows Whitefish Bay.”
Kurnik contends that fresh and flavorful coffee ties it all together and makes people come back for more. “Make this a destination, and everybody will have enough business,” he said. “And not just in fresh, roasted coffee.”