Fresh energy: After 10 years, Upper Cup Coffee is expanding

Micael Habte started Upper Cup in 2010, originally roasting beans out of a warehouse on the East Side before opening his retail shops.

Virginia Brown
For Columbus CEO
Mike Habte of Upper Cup Coffee photographed with his new coffee roaster in Columbus, OH on Friday, July 2, 2020.

Outside of his warehouse, in an industrial pocket of South Linden, Micael Habte heaves a bulky burlap sack into his blue Subaru Outback. The bag of beans is on its way to Habte’s Olde Towne East coffee shop. Inside, the owner of Upper Cup Coffee has something else brewing.

Now 10 years into his business and with two locations, Habte recently upgraded to a Diedrich roaster, a spotless, chrome-and-black machine, fresh from the Idaho-based manufacturer.

His original fire-engine red roaster, a Toper brand from Turkey, draws interest in the Parsons Avenue shop. “That old roaster is like a 1992 Toyota Corolla,” Habte says, laughing. “But it’s loyal, and it will always turn on. But this guy,” he says, referencing the new machine, “is like a Tesla.”

It’s a big change, and one Habte hopes will pay off. The Toper roasts up to 40 pounds of raw coffee beans per hour. The new Diedrich can turn out 200.

“The business has been bottle-necked for about three years,” Habte says, due to limited roasting capacity. “With this new roaster, we are going to try to get more of the wholesale (business) that’s out there.”

Today he can roast five times what he could before, and he can pack everything from 5-pound bags to 2-ounce instant coffee packs, depending on what the client needs. And since safety precautions have expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic, new technology also eliminates the number of people handling the coffee.

Habte started Upper Cup in 2010, originally roasting beans out of a warehouse on the East Side before opening his retail shops. “It’s kind of funny that it’s coming full circle now,” he says.

His connection with coffee is two-fold. His family is from the northeast African country of Eritrea, where a daily coffee ceremony is a core cultural custom, and he also had a college roommate whose family owned a chain of coffee shops in Dayton. Habte worked in one of the shops during school.

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In 2008, during the height of the Great Recession, he graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in economics. After graduation, he worked briefly as an intern for an investment firm. “I was like, this can’t be life,” he says.

On a trip to visit family in Eritrea, he found inspiration. “Just being there, and watching people hustle and bustle; how people move over there, and how resourceful they are with what they have,” he says, “People are making it. And that’s what I took from it: Don’t expect a lane, just make a lane.”

In 2010, with $17,000 in his bank account and a few credit cards, he rented a space on the East Side, bought the original roaster and slowly started selling coffee wholesale.

Soon he longed for a more direct connection with the customer, so in September 2011 he opened Upper Cup Coffee in Olde Towne East.

“In Olde Towne, it was the perfect time to grow my business with the community,” he says. “That meant a lot to me: to be a part of the community.”

Born in Sudan, where his family had fled the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Habte moved to Columbus with his family when he was 4 months old. “I’m an Olde Towner,” he says. “I love Columbus; I’ve never lived anywhere else.”

With that love of his own community, it’s not just the caffeine that keeps locals flocking to the shops.

Habte hangs local art along the exposed brick walls in the Parsons location, including works from William H. Thomas Art Gallery, a Black-owned independent art gallery.

He employs roughly 17 people and supports other local businesses, too, including Auddino’s, a longstanding Italian bakery located next to his warehouse—he stocks his shops with their breads and pastries.

Once he has a foothold in the wholesale business, he says, long term he would like to focus on direct trade with global coffee farmers.

“I think that’s where we can see the biggest impact, to work directly with farmers,” Habte says. “That’s going to be the eventual goal.”

Virginia Brown is a freelance writer.

Upper Cup Coffee

79 Parsons Ave., Columbus;

121 Mill St., Gahanna