Safai Coffee is relocating its headquarters from La Grange to a 25,000-square-foot space in a building that straddles the Smoketown and Shelby Park neighborhoods.
The building, which once housed the Axton Candy and Tobacco Company, is a total of 61,000 square feet. Owners Mike and Medora Safai say that a brewery and a bakery and perhaps a restaurant are expected to rent the rest of the space and that the businesses will collaborate on events and a weekly farmers’ market.
The brewery, which is not ready to share details, has already moved in some equipment.
Safai’s packaging and shipping department is up and running in the space. Machines that cost upwards of $250,000 each, which are mostly imported from Europe, the owners say, simultaneously portion the ground coffee into filter packs and then foil seal those packs for use in hotel and resort rooms. The majority of Safai’s business comes from the hospitality industry. The company roasts one million pounds of coffee a year, the equivalent of 67 million cups of coffee.
But Safai’s equipment is capable of roasting 16 million pounds of coffee a year, so relocating to a larger space became necessary to facilitate growth, the owners said. Their location in La Grange was just 11,000 square feet.
Safai will try to take advantage of a tax incentive from the Kentucky Business Investment for a total project cost estimated to be $1.6 million in 2015, according to state records. “We were approved by KBI for a $100,000 tax incentive in 2015. That was for equipment and relocation to Louisville. The project is ongoing — it was delayed when our original building fell through. We are actually in the process of filing an extension on this.”
The Safais looked for a new building for two years. The new space puts them “in the middle of two up-and-coming neighborhoods — Germantown and Old Louisville,” Mike Safai said
“Currently, we have 26 employees, but we’re looking to grow to 40 within the next five years,” he said. He figured that between the coffee company, the brewery and the bakery, the location would have around 80 employees.
Charles Rogalinski, past president of the Shelby Park Neighborhood Association, told IL in an email: “I’m so passionate that it’s in Shelby Park! We are our own unique neighborhood with amazing progress being made and addressing our issues at the grassroots level.”
Smoketown Neighborhood Association President R.C. Webber said: “The rail corridor is a magnet for development not only in Smoketown but also in Shelby Park and Paristown. We plan to use all tools at our disposal to promote responsible infill development and redevelopment on the Smoketown side of the corridor. We hope to improve some of our problem properties without encouraging a full-scale gentrification effort that would make our neighborhood unaffordable for its traditional residents.”
In addition to the two other businesses, the Safais plan to create a coffee training center at which they will teach people how to roast their own coffee and make high-quality coffee drinks. Mike Safai said it was like “Moonshine University for coffee.” Moonshine University is the local distilling school that attracts students from all over the world.
Also planned for the Smoketown space are tours. Mike Safai cited the mayor’s note that Louisville should be a destination for “beverage tourism,” focusing on “bourbon, beer and coffee.” A small event space will be shared by the businesses and will include a chef demonstration kitchen, where chefs can come and shop at the farmers’ market and then demonstrate easy recipes to an audience. There is also room in the building for a restaurant with a roof patio.
Mike Safai noted that the Smoketown neighborhood is a “food desert,” which was the impetus for him to want to start a farmers’ market. According to the “Vision Louisville” report conducted by Kentuckians For the Commonwealth, 69 percent of residents wanted to see a new grocery in the neighborhood, and this was before the Kroger on Second Street closed. This was seen as the greatest need. The second greatest was a coffee shop and restaurant at 60 percent.
Safai started in 1998 in a former Photomat drive-thru in the Stonefield Square Shopping Center on Shelbyville Road. In 1999, Safai opened a retail location on Frankfort Avenue and began roasting its own coffee. In 2003, Safai Hospitality was created and the focus of the company shifted to the hospitality industry and the company relocated again to Barret Avenue, a space that it outgrew within a year.
Since 2004, the company has been operating out of La Grange, acquiring neighboring property as it grew.
Safai has grown to be one of the top five coffees served in the hospitality industry, the owners say, and has doubled its business in the past five years.
Mike Safai said that he hoped that the building would become an “anchor in the community” and that bringing these businesses into the space would attract more businesses to the neighborhood. “I want to give back to the local community,” he said.
The Safais also give back to the countries where their coffee is grown through the Safai Arabica Farm Assistance Initiative. Last fall, they partnered with Supplies Overseas to send over 19,104 pounds of life-saving medical devices, supplies and beds to a community clinic in Honduras.
The couple and some employees and friends went to Honduras over Thanksgiving to help unpack the shipping container at the clinic. Mike Safai said that the doctors at the clinic were so used to getting second-hand and broken equipment that they were genuinely surprised that the medical supplies were all in working order. They had been using a lawn chair on wheels as a wheelchair.
The company roasts and packs its coffee within 24 hours. Currently, it sends out two trucks to distribution centers around the country each day and has one inbound truck with raw materials. “We call it ‘roast by order,'” said Medora Safai.
Medora is designing the space herself. The company will be hosting some important clients during Derby Week, so they expect the renovations will be done by the first Saturday in May.