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Welcome to Becoming the Boss, our series celebrating small business owners who have made the transition from solo-entrepreneur to employer. Check back periodically for new installments.
Tucked between the mountains of central Pennsylvania is the town of State College, home of Penn State University. Nicknamed “Happy Valley,” much of the town’s activity revolves around student life and university events, such as Nittany Lion football games, homecoming, and graduation.
Loaded with term papers, research projects and exams, quality coffee is a necessity for the 46,000 undergraduates that call Happy Valley home. Several local and regional shops compete to keep students caffeinated, but none are more unique than Barranquero Café, which has been making a splash with students since it opened in April.
Barranquero Café is the brainchild of State College native Susan Jermusyk and her uncle, Gerry Kistler, the latter of whom was inspired to open his own coffee shop after traveling to Columbia. Today, Barranquero Café is a comfortable hangout spot for both students and locals, serving up several varieties of high-quality coffee and authentic Colombian treats, like empanadas, arepas, and pan de queso.
Free Enterprise recently caught up with Jermusyk to learn more about how she and her uncle got the business off the ground, forged a partnership with an entrepreneurial farmer in Colombia, and what it’s like being a business owner and a boss.
How did you get into the coffee business?
My uncle actually owns a software company, so he can work from anywhere in the world. He moved to Columbia in 2010 and found this coffee shop that he absolutely loved called the Café Jesús Martín—run by a man of the same name—and decided that he really wanted to open up his own shop.
My uncle wanted somebody in the family to be his business partner, and at the time I was working in a local hospital’s ER department. He came to visit me and noticed that I was just so burnt out—working night shifts full-time was really stressful—so he said, ‘do you want to open this coffee shop with me?’ and I said, ‘sure, why not?’ and it kind of went from there.
Did your uncle travel to Columbia to find good coffee with the intention of starting a business, or did it just happen?
It happened afterwards. Gerry has always been a coffee lover, so when he was living in Columbia he was going around to different shops to find a good cup of joe.
He learned about Café Jesús Martin, and really wanted to bring that coffee to our hometown, State College. I had already been to Colombia before we had the idea to start a business, but afterwards I went back and worked in Jesús’ café and they taught me a lot about coffee.
I also went to Tulsa, Oklahoma to take a barista training course called Barista Level One Pathway through the Specialty Coffee Association of America. All the while we were also doing research about how to open a shop, looking for a location, and trying to figure out how it would work.
What’s the story behind Café Jesús Martín, your coffee supplier?
They’re really, really passionate about their coffee, making sure that everyone involved in the process is paid a fair wage, and have really high quality measures that they’re very strict about.
The majority of our coffee comes from their farm, which has been in Jesús Martin’s family for five generations—almost 100 years. Jesús is the first in his family to roast coffee; other family members were focused on the growing side and selling beans. When Jesús said that he wanted to roast and sell coffee, it was a bit of a wild idea in his family, but he’s done a fantastic job and it’s turned out really well.
How did Barranquero Café get its name?
Barranquero is the name of a bird that lives in the region where we get our coffee. My uncle loves birds and bird watching. The birds in Columbia are so colorful and so beautiful, and the Barranquero was one that he especially liked. When we were thinking of names, nothing really seemed quite right, and then we thought of the Barranquero, and it just kind of stuck.
What has been your favorite part about being an entrepreneur and running your own business?
It’s been really nice to be in a position where, when things aren’t working, I know that I can change them. I know that we can do things differently to make things more efficient or work better to keep my employees happy.
It’s been a journey, for sure, but one of my favorite things is knowing that what I’m doing is actually making a difference. If somebody comes to me and they say they’re having a problem, I can make changes to make it better
How many employees do you have, and how did you find your first employees?
We have somewhere around 20 or 25 employees. I think it was a little harder at first to get people to apply for jobs, because the business wasn’t actually there. It was still under construction when I first started hiring, but I started posting online and used Facebook to kind of get the word out there. Once we opened, though, I had a lot of people inquiring about work.
What was the most exciting thing about bringing on your first employee? Were you nervous?
It was weird doing the hiring for my own business. I really had to think back to interviews that I had in the past. I also did some research online, and put together questions to ask people. It was a little strange at first, but as time went on it got a little easier. I remember in my first interview I almost felt like how I did when I was the one being interviewed [for a job].
What does it feel like to not only have created your own job, but to have created jobs for other people
Sometimes I still can’t believe it myself. It’s still in that new phase where it’s really incredible, and sometimes I still don’t believe that it has truly happened. I am very close with a lot of the people that I’ve hired, so to be able to give them a job, where they can use their money to pay bills and support their families, is really meaningful.
What are your long-term goals for your business?
We really want to become a staple here in State College. I would love to become a well-known name so that when people come in, it’s like a second home to them.
We have a mezzanine that has comfy chairs and board games upstairs, and I love it when I see people playing Connect Four or Monopoly. I’d really love to just continue that, get a following of people, and become better known in the community.