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Making a big impression in the coffee industry

Owner TJ Semanchin said at Wonderstate, it's more than just a cup of Joe, it’s an ethical cup of Joe

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April 29, 2024

VIROQUA – From its 100% solar-powered roastery to its industry-leading minimum price guarantee to its 5% giving program – the Wonderstate Coffee team strives to carry out its “great coffee has to serve a collective future” mission with each cup of Joe it serves.

Owner TJ Semanchin said Wonderstate’s passion for using high-quality beans is equally matched by its unwavering dedication to the community of farmers and farmer cooperatives.

So much so, he said, that the core of the shop’s business model is centered around farmer welfare – approaching the coffee industry through the lens of sustainable development focusing on the social, economic and ecological components.

Since day one, Semanchin said the Wonderstate team has been committed to using fair trade movement principles when it comes to farmer pay – going as far as setting its own minimum price when they thought the system wasn’t responsive enough.

“We took it upon ourselves to set a minimum price to pay the farmers, and as far as we know, it’s the highest minimum price paid in the country,” he said.

Wonderstate is currently at $3.10 per pound – which reflects an increase of 5 cents a year, every year since the team initiated the minimum pay in 2017.

It is quite a difference from the Fair Trade Certified price for a pound of coffee, Semanchin said, which was $1.80 as of March 2023.

Wonderstate’s minimum price guarantee, he said, ensures its farmers can continue farming and have a sustainable practice for years to come.

Semanchin said it creates positive long-term business practices in and of itself.

From a supply chain standpoint, he said it’s not just about the price Wonderstate pays – it’s also about cultivating relationships.

“Some of the farmer groups we buy from, I initiated these relationships 20 years ago,” he said. “That’s a generational changeover in some cases. I’ve seen farmers’ kids become the leaders in their cooperatives.”

Semanchin said this does equate to making Wonderstate the vendor of choice for farmers.

He said it also puts the shop first in line for obtaining the best quality and having the most stable supply.

The commitment and relationship with the farmers, Semanchin said, is non-negotiable for Wonderstate.

“That’s how we set out from day one, and that’s at the core of who we are and how we do business,” he said. 

Balancing social impact, business success

Finding a balance between business success and social responsibility, Semanchin said, isn’t always easy, and sometimes, they find themselves on either side of the pendulum.

On one side, Semanchin said, there is an overfocus on doing good – which could mean losing focus on the core work: importing and distributing coffee.

And other times, he said, they could spend too much time on the day-to-day and lose the capacity or focus for doing good.

“We’re a small-ish company,” he said. “Having the resources to do everything we want is not always realistic.”

Semanchin said Wonderstate recognizes there are a lot of easier ways to get coffee in the country, “we don’t do it the easy way.”

“The amount of effort and focus we put into our relationships with the farmers, and with finding farmers that are like-minded, is exceptional,” he said. “For the size we are, that sets us apart in terms of how we do business.”

Semanchin said Wonderstate also has to take into consideration aspects that may be out of their direct control.

Everchanging factors, he said, could include: farmers need changes – sometimes caused by politics or environmental issues.

Semanchin said it could also include the needs of the business – such as labor shortage or inflation.

Solar power

One of the ways Wonderstate has been able to save on costs, Semanchin said, is by producing its own solar energy.

Though the initial up-front costs were steep, he said, when they looked at their triple bottom line – profit, people and the planet – it made sense.

Semanchin said they worked with local solar installers, Ethos Green Power Cooperative, who walked them through the math – which included incentives from the utility company and federal grants.

“Once we did the math and economics of it all, it became a no-brainer because the payback on this was seven years,” he said.

Semanchin said Wonderstate became one of the first coffee roasters in the world to generate all its power from an on-site solar array.

Except for its vintage Probat gas-powered roasters and winter heating, Wonderstate’s entire roastery, offices and production floor are powered by an on-site 96-panel, 30-kilowatt solar array.

Given that the solar panels were installed in 2015, Semanchin said Wonderstate hit its payback threshold in 2022 and is now running on free electricity.

He said he encourages other businesses to look into solar panels – especially with the current incentives and tax savings.

Solar energy, Semanchin said, is yet another element of Wonderstate’s brand identity.

Including a cicada in its logo, he said, initially represents that though Wonderstate may be in a small Midwestern town, like a cicada, it can make a lot of noise and have a big impact locally and globally.

“We try to compensate by being a pioneer and making a bigger splash on what we do and how we approach business,” he said.

Paying it forward

Wonderstate, Semanchin said, also makes a conscious effort to pay it forward.

Every year, the company donates 5% of profits to community-based initiatives that support a more equitable and resilient future in the coffee industry and beyond.

The Wonderstate team is also involved with On the Ground – a nonprofit focused on encouraging empowerment and equal pay for women in the coffee industry through educational initiatives that help families see that when women prosper, communities prosper.

Semanchin said they also make annual donations to the Valley Stewardship Network, which protects the land and water of the Driftless region of Wisconsin through water quality research, public engagement and educational outreach programs.

In addition, he said they support the work of the Vernon Trails – a community organization based in Viroqua that has built miles of mixed-use trails open year-round to hikers, bikers and skiers.

Semanchin said Wonderstate has also contributed to a variety of other organizations, including the Barista Guild of America, Kickapoo Valley Reserve, Viroqua Pride Fest and the Wisconsin Local Food Network.

“We are truly a values-based organization,” he said.

Quality a high priority

The quality of Wonderstate’s coffee, Semanchin said, is equally important.

Success in this area, he said, is often measured by comments, such as, “Oh, this doesn’t even need cream – it’s so good.”

Semanchin said Wonderstate’s “outstanding coffee” doesn’t happen by accident.

“It’s the result of terroir and painstaking attention to detail – from farm to roastery,” he said.

The shop is a six-time Good Food Award winner, Roast Magazine’s 2010 Roaster of the Year and has more than 40 coffees scoring 90-plus points on Coffee Review.

Destined for the industry

Semanchin said his interest in the coffee industry was sparked 25 years ago while working in Latin America during college.

He studied Latin American Studies, botany and economics.

“This whole swirl of issues around coffee in America, around globalization and sustainable agriculture were always interests of mine,” he said. “They happened to intersect perfectly with coffee.”

It was during this time that Semanchin said it was made clear to him he was destined to work in the coffee industry – getting his start in the late 1990s in Minneapolis.

“Knowing (I could contribute) to this global industry that was made up of amazing people from around the world – it felt like I found my home,” he said.

Looking back, Semanchin said, he’s proud of the part he’s played in the coffee industry. 

Viroqua cafe

Located at 302 South Main St., Semanchin said the café is housed in a renovated 1940’s Mobil gas station.

The transformation, he said, was a true labor of love – drawing upon many local talents to create a modern, bright space that is at the same time warm and welcoming.

The location is open every day from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the kitchen closing at 2 p.m.

Wonderstate also has locations in Madison and Bayfield.

In addition to its freshly made coffee drinks, Wonderstate offers a handful of food items (such as house-made bagels, seasonal salads, scones, cakes and breakfast sandwiches), bagged whole bean or ground coffee and accessories (such as cold brew brewers, French presses, micro filters and matcha sifters).

To help educate its patrons about the coffee roasting process, Semanchin said Wonderstate hosts a free, public coffee tasting and tour at the roastery on the last Saturday of each month.

For more on Wonderstate, visit wonderstate.square.site.

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