Ex-Mercer University Baseball Player-Turned Entrepreneur Hits It Out of the Park
Tuesday, April 17th, 2018
“A cup of coffee” is a baseball idiom used to describe a brief opportunity of time spent by a minor league player in the major leagues before being summarily sent down again.
On a college level, Mercer University student, Shane Buerster, experienced that expression when cut from the school baseball team in his sophomore season, even though he had been a very good player throughout high school. Shane went one step further, however, and took the time to actually smell the coffee. A short time thereafter, as a result of a mission trip to South America, he subsequently undertook raising the efforts of that mission to another level: he organized a major league supply chain that successfully pioneered the trade of coffee from a tiny, impoverished area in Ecuador to the United States under the brand name: “Z Beans.”
Buerster’s home run proved to be miraculous for the residents of the El Oro region, where the gold mining industry that dated back to the Spanish Conquistadors had become depleted. For six years prior to his participation and arrival, the “Mercer on Mission” program focused primarily on helping the cities of Zaruma and Portovelo, located in the small-scale artisanal gold mining sector in the area, to find safe ways to discard of mercury waste. Foreseeing the downfall of the mining industry, the local government reached out to Mercer, asking them to research the viability of a new industry: the coffee trade.
Buerster recalls the moment of his epiphany in the spring of 2016 following his being cut from the baseball team and wondering what to do and how to cope. “I saw a poster on the wall of the Stetson School of Business: ‘Economics Trip to Ecuador’– as part of Mercer on Mission. I had never heard of this program, but it piqued my interest. I’d not only go with an economics group, but I’d be able to improve my Spanish, as well. It seemed like a match made in heaven.”
Once he interviewed and qualified for the opportunity, little did Buerster realize the impact his first trip in an airplane would have on the livelihoods of hundreds of people thousands of miles away. Nor, did he ever expect that he would become an enterprising, creative businessman.
Whereas Ecuador lays claim to being the world’s largest exporter of bananas, as well as its standing as an oil producing country, neither of those economic drivers, however, was appropriate for the El Oro region. During the course of the marketing research undertaken with local coffee farmers for new sources of employment, Buerster befriended the group’s guide, Arturo, a former Ecuadoran government official whose job has been recently eliminated due to the deteriorating economy. Ironically, a picture on the Z Beans company website features the diminutive Arturo as the one sporting a baseball cap, while the lanky Buerster dons a wide-brimmed, straw hat, giving him the appearance of a prototypical coffee magnate.
After climbing the Andes together and conducting interviews with farmers over a period of three weeks, a pleasant relationship and understanding evolved between the young man and the 65-year old mentor and his family. While the locally grown-coffee was considered very good tasting, the Mercer On Mission group only saw 2,000 pounds of coffee. Any feasibility of expanding production and sales within the country seemed bleak.
Upon the time for departure of the Mercer On Mission group, Buerster, however, promised Arturo he’d keep in touch, and he did so by phone several times a week, which provided him a chance to improve his Spanish. The calls also opened the door for Arturo to boldly ask if Buerster could somehow import coffee to the U.S.
Buerster admits that he had no idea where to begin, and that much of his current enterprise developed through a simple game of trial and error. Fortunately, Arturo had convinced 53 farmers he knew who would cooperate if a supply chain could be built. Thanks to an angel investor—Shane’s uncle, whose main concern was could the Ecuadorian people be trusted—Buerster was able to proceed. First, he had to establish connections with freight forwarding companies in both countries, the AGROCALIDAD (Ecuador’s FDA equivalent), and then find a processing facility to peel and sort the beans. The entire chain was put in place eventually within eight months.
It took a few fits and starts before Z (as in Zaruma) Beans coffee landed in Georgia. Buerster learned the hard way the ins and outs of international shipping, in particular, when a bill of lading reads “certified received,” he is the only one who can receive it. After learning the valuable lessons, Buerster returned to Ecuador where he and Arturo visited multiple farmers, collecting 4,000 pounds of coffee. The coffee arrived in the U.S. on August 17, 2017: Z Beans Coffee was now open for business. The university administration gave Shane space in the Mercer Innovation Center for storage, as well as an area for him to roast, grind, and package the coffee. The packaging—printed in Ecuador— pays tribute to the history of this gold mining region: the inside 'sealed-for-freshness' bag is gold colored.
Buerster states that the Z Beans mission is “empowering impoverished Ecuadoran coffee farmers through fair-trade importation methods.” The farmers are paid fair trade prices and also receive 40 pounds of organic fertilizer for every 100 pounds of coffee beans they sell. Buerster states that this is a way to create a sustainable solution.
“I have lofty goals for the future, but I am most excited for the opportunities Z Beans will bring to the people of Ecuador. Mercer On Mission led me to my true calling. It restored the sense of purpose in my life that I lost after baseball was taken away. The friendship that I made with Arturo Penarretta Romero will be one that I will always cherish. I will never forsake him, as I trust that he will never forsake me. He unconditionally confided in a young 22 year old, and for that, I’m grateful. While it may have been destiny for Arturo and me to meet, Mercer On Mission offered a platform for fate to run its course. A platform to change the world.”
Buerster continues to work to find sales channels for Z Beans coffee, and he has already found favorable reaction to his brand in the Southeast. He has made connections with hundreds of coffee shops throughout the region. He describes Z Beans Coffee as “a smooth, dark roast, processed organic coffee thoroughly cleaned and treated twice before roasting. It’s grown at 4,300 feet above sea level. Our coffee beans are dense and flavorful, with just the right amount of acidity to give it a fresh crisp taste and keep a smooth, zero-bitterness flavor.”
In addition, he utilizes social media and, in particular, Amazon, to market his line of coffee products. Buerster believes his best business model lies with company owners to offer Z Beans coffee in their break rooms. Such opportunities might be likened to a ball player hitting doubles: not only is the direct sale a hit—but the satisfied employees and guests are then in scoring position for personal consumption whenever they arrive safe at home.