Shane Buerster started college with hopes of playing professional baseball, but he’s finishing it following new-found dreams of coffee.
The Pooler resident graduates from Mercer University on Saturday, but he’s already putting his economics, marketing and Spanish degrees to use as he grows his Z Beans Coffee business.
Baseball had been Buerster’s life, until he was cut from the Mercer team in November 2015. Frustrated and uncertain about his future, he increased his course load, so he could finish college as soon as possible, he said. He decided to sign up for a three-week study abroad experience in Ecuador, which would earn him course credits in economics and Spanish.
The purpose of the Mercer on Mission trip was to see if coffee could be a good economic alternative to gold mining in the city of Zaruma, and the team concluded there wasn’t enough product. Buerster immersed himself in the Ecuadorian culture and befriended Arturo Penaretta Romero, the guide for the Mercer group and manager of a local greenhouse.
Buerster and Romero talked on the phone regularly after the trip and still do to this day. One day, Romero suggested that his Macon friend start a business selling Ecuadorian coffee to help the Zaruma farmers. Buerster said he had never drank coffee and didn't know anything about the import/export business, but he wanted to give it a shot.
With guidance from Romero, Buerster received a 65-pound and 300-pound shipment of coffee beans, which were well-received by those in the states who tried them. With a family investor, he was able to purchase 4,000 more pounds of coffee from 12 farmers in Ecuador in August 2017, and Z Beans Coffee was born.
As a resident in the Mercer Innovation Center this year, Buerster has received office and storage space in the facility, a mentor, access to student interns and entry into the Co.Starters entrepreneurship program, said Stephanie Howard, the center’s deputy director. He has applied to remain in the resident program next year or become a fellow, which could earn him a cash investment for his business.
“His level of focus is something you don’t typically see in someone his age. It’s just very promising,” Howard said. “We as a society sometimes bash our millennial and our young; he is definitely not the stereotype. He’s a better representation of the type of young 20-somethings that we have in Macon. He’s going to be a great business owner. I look forward to seeing what he does in the future.”
Z Beans Coffee is a medium-dark roast, and Buerster roasts and packages it at the MIC. He has transitioned from roasting with a popcorn popper and chicken rotisserie roaster to partnering with local coffee shops, although he can still use the roaster in a bind, he said.
He sells his product on Amazon and the Z Beans website, wholesales roasted beans to local stores, and contracts with businesses for coffee catering services.
“We’re the only company that brings it straight from origin all the way down to these K-cups, making it ourselves all the way along the supply chain,” said Buerster, son of Melissa and Ted Buerster. “We can offer a fair price, a specialty product.”
Buerster hopes to grow from working with 12 farmers to more than 20 after his fourth trip to Ecuador in a few weeks, when he plans to buy 6,000 to 10,000 pounds of coffee. He pays the farmers fair trade prices and supplies them with organic fertilizer for their fields.
He wants to invest in these farmers, so he meets them and their families and has created Facebook pages to help them promote their brand. It’s his goal to teach them the business side of the industry and implement more co-operative practices, such as advanced payments for crops.
“That’s the way to build a business. I want to do it the right way, and I want to do it the right way for them,” he said.
Next year, Buerster will work to build his wholesaler and catering accounts. He hopes to one day have a central roasting facility and Z Beans Coffee shops, and he would eventually like to do large-scale wholesale of unroasted beans.
Stratford Academy senior Tejas Athni contributed to this report.