As the owner of Mad Priest Coffee Roasters, Michael Rice has taken the art of making a superior cup of coffee and paired it with a Walter White level of science.
From his not-so-secret lab on Wilcox Boulevard, where Mad Priest Coffee Roasters just launched a drive-thru espresso bar, Rice combines a fanatically curated selection of beans with a German-built Probat coffee roaster to produce what he says he believes is the best possible cup of coffee his business can make.
It’s a holy quest that has taken Rice across the U.S. to learn at the feet of those who have been roasting coffee for decades and earned him a nod from Food & Wine magazine as runner-up of the best coffee in Tennessee.
“I could have figured my own way of doing things, but I wanted to get in front of the best of the best and ask, ‘What are your secrets? How do you do this? How do you do that?’”
As a Specialty Coffee Association certified roaster (Chattanooga’s only one, he says), Rice has also spent countless hours roasting and “cupping” (tasting) batches of coffee. Or, as he puts it, “doing science over and over to figure shit out.”
“I’ve applied so many of the details I learned from those teachers and experiences to our methods of roasting that it makes a better product,” he insists.
Rice says he knows he sounds arrogant, but he doesn’t care. He simply says Mad Priest is a better coffee roaster than many of its local competitors.
“I can’t say why theirs isn’t as good, but I can say why ours is better. It comes down to knowing the ins and outs of how to roast coffee in the most balanced way while bringing out the best of the sugar and acid compounds.
“There’s so much data and science that goes into roasting a batch of coffee that you can do one small thing differently and it won’t taste the same.”
Despite utilizing a high level of craft, Rice says he keeps things simple with his customers. This entails the use of blends he says produce a consistent flavor profile throughout the year.
“I’ve had blends since Day One,” Rice notes. “If the goal of specialty coffee is to convert people to specialty coffee, then we have to do things that are more accessible. You’re not going to do 88-point coffees for someone who’s been drinking a half-assed bag of coffee from Kroger.”
To offer a consistent product, Rice shuns single-origin coffee, a technique one of his heroes, entrepreneur George Howell, is known for perfecting.
“You can’t ensure consistency with a single origin product because it’s different harvest to harvest,” Rice explains. “Maybe they had a drought one year, or maybe they had poor production quality. With blends, we rotate the origin of the harvest but pinpoint a flavor profile that’s consistent.
“At the end of the day, what we look for in every cup is balance. Not super acidic, or oversweet or bitter, but balanced.”
If Rice seems humble about anything, it’s his degree of success. Since he opened Mad Priest in 2015, he’s grown the roaster from a 300-square foot space on Broad Street (next to Koch’s Bakery) to a two-location entity that includes the original site plus the far roomier Wilcox roaster, but he declines to call the business successful.
“We’re only 5 years old. I know that crosses some milestones for food and beverage – one year and three years – but life is a storm right now,” he says. “We’re growing but we’re not making money yet.”
Rice does concede that shrewd decision-making has fueled Mad Priest’s modest growth.
“People look at coffee and see a shining diamond, and I’m not sure why. It’s probably the worst industry to get into if you want to make money. So, they throw money at people and give them generous rental agreements. We’ve only chased after things that seemed to make business sense.”
One of those sensible opportunities came in the form of a generous rental agreement for the Wilcox roaster. Rice describes his landlord, developer Will Smith, as the kind of person who strives to open doors and empower entrepreneurs. As such, one of the casual tenets of Mad Priest’s lease with Smith is that Rice simply continue to do what he’s been doing.
Rice’s discerning business sense has also enabled him to dodge a few bullets. For example, when an opportunity to purchase High Grounds Coffee Company on Signal Mountain Road landed in his lap three months ago, something gave him pause.
“I could see the numbers, I knew there was demand, and I thought it made sense. But something didn’t feel right, so I waited,” he says, suggesting his business sense has an element of Peter Parker’s Spidey sense. “The next day, Starbucks announced it was opening at a better location 50 feet away, and last month, I learned Sunny Side Cup is opening a location there, as well.
“Dunkin’ is already there, and there’s definitely not enough density coming down Signal Mountain Road to support four coffee shops.”
Instead of pushing Mad Priest’s growth through deals he says would be unwise, Rice is allowing his business to grow organically.
“I don’t have investors. I do have liabilities, such as an SBA disaster loan, but for the most part, we try to do things that make sense and base our growth on traffic and demand.”
Rice’s burning desire to make top-quality coffee was not the only thing that motivated him to open Mad Priest; he also wanted to champion the displaced.
This mission remains a fixed part of Mad Priest’s DNA, but it looks different today than it did in 2015. When Rice opened for business, he declared he would hire only refugees, saying he wanted Mad Priest to serve as a solution to one of the most pressing issues in the world.
“There are more displaced people today than ever before. Twenty million of them are refugees, and half of them are under the age of 18. Something has to be done,” he told the Hamilton County Herald at the time.
Today, business decisions take precedence, Rice says, not just because he wants to turn a profit but because he also hopes to create a sustainable business that can keep his original mission alive.
“Back then, we were a little more adamant about the mission. When you first get started, you don’t treat your mission and your business as opposing forces,” Rice recalls. “But then I realized having a mission wouldn’t do shit for the people I’m trying to help if I couldn’t create a sustainable business that’s driven by the quality of the product.”
Whereas people like Norwegian barista Tim Wendelboe and Howell inspired Rice to become a roaster, he says Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya impacted his values as an employer.
“[Ulukaya] does amazing work with the people he hires, but he didn’t do those things until Chobani was selling millions of cups of yogurt every year,” Rice explains. “So, we’ve shifted toward investing in the business to make sure we can keep our mission alive.”
That said, Rice’s first employee, a Sudanese refugee who spoke no English when he arrived in the U.S. three months earlier, is still with the company and is now running the Broad Street roaster on his own.
Mad Priest has also hired other workers who were not from abroad but also lacked opportunities. He says this has required him to take more chances with his staff than a company that’s focused solely on its bottom line might.
“A lot of companies have a three-strike rule. But if I believe in equity, then that rule doesn’t make sense,” Rice suggests. “What if you have two employees in the same position, one of which grew up with a roof over his head and a dad who taught him how to work hard, and the other employee has done nothing his entire life except fight to stay alive?
“The three strikes rule doesn’t make sense in this situation because you know the second guy is going to have more than three strikes, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to improve and become a great employee.
“So, instead of saying, ‘You’re late for the third time, get out,’ I look at how far he’s come and evaluate him on a different scale.”
Even though business decisions now come first at Mad Priest, the company’s mission remains deeply embedded in its spirit. Even the name of the coffee roaster hints to the true nature of the business.
“It’s a reference to [Alexandre Dumas’ novel] ‘The Count of Monte Cristo,’” Rice explains. “The mad priest is the old man in the prison who embodies hope and opportunity. He’s the one who helps Edmond find hope and eventually escape. The prison guards refer to him as the mad priest because he’s so brilliant, he’s kind of crazy.
“We wanted our brand to represent what we were attempting to do.”
This branding effort included a bit of the old priest’s lunacy when it comes to promoting the business. A current example of Mad Priest’s singular approach to marketing include a 90-second “Pulp Fiction” parody in which Rice issues an R-rated rejoinder to a man who made an ill-advised comment about freeze-dried coffee.
“I don’t need you to tell me how good my coffee is, OK? I’m the one who buys it,” Rice says with all the attitude of a bad guy in a Tarantino flick. A small sign hung on the wall of the kitchen in which the scene is set reads, “Your opinion is not in the recipe.”
The video is available for viewing at madpriestcoffee.com, while a screen shot of the parody can be seen on a billboard that faces north on Chattanooga’s Riverside Drive.
“We want to be known as the quirky brand that does weird stuff,” Rice says.
At the end of the day, Rice also wants Mad Priest to be known as a roaster that makes a superior cup of coffee. To that end, he’s looking forward to possibly selling a new varietal of Yemeni coffee he says might be even better than the Gesha product he’s offered in the past.
Rice is on the list for a private auction of the coffee. If all goes well, he says he believes Mad Priest could be selling it by Christmas.
To test the roasts, he plans to use his new hand-built San Franciscan, a one-pound roaster he says will allow him to experiment and produce a stellar coffee. “I can take six samples of the same green bean and do six variable roasts,” he says. “That’s hard to do with a 24-pound machine; you don’t want to waste 20 pounds of coffee to see if you can roast better. So, it will open the door to a lot of fun stuff.”
Whatever the future holds for Mad Priest, three things will hold true, Rice says.
“First and foremost will be the coffee. It has to be good, it has to sell and it has to be sustainable. We’ll also continue to educate the public about the coffees we carry – about why they should pay more for them and why coffee is a crucial commodity in our world.
“And we’ll continue to help people and hopefully inspire other businesses to help solve problems in our community. There’s a lot of displacement that involves more than refugees from other countries, it involves the people in our backyard.”
It sounds like a plan that would make Ulukaya – and maybe even Walter White – proud.