Refuge for All: A Coffee Company with a Vision

It’s known as the most diverse square mile in the country or the “Ellis Island of the South.” It’s no wonder then that the connections between the Clarkston, Georgia community are as strong as the coffee that is brewed there. With a population of roughly 8,000, half of the population is foreign-born, and most come to Clarkston (about 10 miles east of downtown Atlanta) as refugees fleeing war, persecution, or a natural disaster. Clarkston for many refugees will serve as their new home as they navigate a new life in a country where they are initially unfamiliar with the language, culture, and customs.

Enter Refuge Coffee Company. What began as an idea for Kitti Murray, the founder of Refuge Coffee Co., in early 2014, has since manifested into a bright red coffee truck that employs three full-time baristas and trainees from Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, provides on-the-job training and mentorship, and ultimately serves as a safe place of refuge and opportunity for all. Since June 2015 when Refuge first opened on the streets of Clarkson, the goal has been the same: provide quality coffee, job-training, and a place the community can call their own.


Murray explains that a series of experiences and conversations inspired her as she knew the need for jobs, job training, and a community gathering place was needed to serve members of the community. Many refugees to Clarkston arrive without job skills that are applicable to the U.S. market and end up in dead-end employment. The local chicken plant is a large employer of refugees in Clarkston. Help arrived in many forms to make the Refuge coffee truck come alive, donations came in as Murray spread the idea for Refuge, and anticipation was quickly built.

In the Photo: Kitti Murray (far left) and Caleb Goodrum (far right). Photo Credit: Refuge Coffee Co.

Many of the obstacles in creating Refuge Coffee were internal ones, as Murray’s work in the nonprofit sector had been accomplished solely in her role as wife of a pastor for 30 years. Not shying away from the aspects of the business she was unfamiliar with, Murray sought counsel from those she trusted and credits the Director of Operations for Refuge, Caleb Goodrum, with being an incredible part of the process. “The rest of our staff, board, and advisers, have brought so much wisdom and energy and character to the process. This is collaboration in every sense of the word,” Murray said.


As Director of Operations, Goodrum is in charge of planning, scheduling, accounts, and on-the-job training to name a few things. He originally connected with Refuge as he was transitioning out of the U.S. Air Force where he served as an officer and was in the process of planning his own mobile coffee business. He had previously “spent about five years growing as a coffee super-hobbyist and was looking to plug into the specialty coffee industry” when he connected with Murray through mutual friends and found Refuge to be a good fit. “Being able to help lay the groundwork for the company and watch it take shape has been really fun, rewarding and an excellent learning experience,” Goodrum said.

coffeetruck 2 = photo Joe Gonzales

In the Photo: A trainee high-fives a local Clarkston, Ga customer. Photo Credit: Joe Gonzales

Goodrum is responsible for the on-the-job training along with Rozina Gilani, the Director of Job Training to help refugees adapt to the U.S. market. The returns, notes Goodrum, are plentiful for the refugees and Refuge as he watches the trainees learn and grow:

“The program is divided into two parts — classroom based training and on-the-job training. On the job, we start with basic barista competency and customer service and gradually add more responsibilities. As the trainees are able, we start to delegate more complex tasks and managerial duties to them. During their yearlong tenure with Refuge, we want to maximize their potential as baristas and leaders. Not only is this great for their future employment prospects, it’s great for the business side of Refuge.”

With a focus on soft skills, identifying strengths and interests, long-term goal setting. and practical applications to achieve their goals, classroom-based job training is at the heart of Refuge according to Goodrum: “The classroom component takes 2-4hrs each week and provides an invaluable chance to slow down, work on cultural competencies, invest in human capital outside the coffee truck realm, and hone the trainees’ plans as they prepare to exit Refuge.” So far, Refuge has graduated two trainees to date and is currently operating with three full-time baristas and trainees. The goal, states Goodrum, is to “add two trainees as soon as the second truck is complete and probably an additional one to two within the first few months of dual-truck operations.”

America is the land of the free… But you are not completely free until you learn to speak English. Now I am free.

-Leon Shombana


In the Photo: Leon Shombana. Photo Credit: Refuge Coffee Company

In addition to job training and mentorship, Refuge maintains relationships with a large and growing list of service providers that connect immigrants and refugees with jobs: “Those are the people we reach out to when we need to hire at Refuge Coffee. These individuals are in a very good position to leverage the skills and experience gained at Refuge to find better, more rewarding work for our alumni,” notes Goodrum. Additionally, since Refuge is still a relatively small nonprofit, they have the ability to personally network their trainees with potential employers in a field they are interested in. Knowing a trainee’s vision for the future, Refuge is able to scour their network of “fans of Refuge” to hopefully locate an employer that will be a match.

For a full mindmap containing additional related articles and photos, visit #createrefuge

In a little over a year of business, Refuge has accomplished more than Murray thought was possible in such a short period. During this time, Refuge has served over 10,000 customers from over 52 countries, has provided over 350 hours of job training and English classes, and has been hired by celebrities such as Robert Downey Jr., Kerry Washington, Jennifer Garner, and Owen Wilson. To top off some of this past year’s accomplishments, Refuge is currently in the process of matching a $50,000 grant that will provide another Refuge coffee truck to provide more job opportunities to Refugees in need.


The plans don’t stop here. Murray has two more big ideas (Big Plan # 1 and #2 ) that will take Refuge to the next level: Clarkston’s first very own coffee shop and the second Refuge Roasters where they will be able to roast their own coffee beans! Murray excitedly writes, “A shop is the prize — and we’re really almost there, because we have an indoor space where we park the truck regularly. We’ll soon have it open six days a week. Having our own shop takes us to another level in sustainability and stability.”

When asked about Refuge’s commitment to sustainability with a traceable supply chain using a local roaster, Safehouse Coffee Roasters, Goodrum remarks on the importance of sustainability in business as the wise way to do business. The commitment Refuge Coffee Co. makes by investing in products that are economically and environmentally sustainable is “the best way to make sure that those products continue to exist — particularly if you demand a certain level of quality.” Sustainability is more than a label for Refuge as Goodrum notes: “It’s a process that requires attention and incremental gains, and it doesn’t happen quickly. Few actors in the coffee industry are 100 percent sustainable, but there is a lot to gain from engaging in that dialogue. At Refuge Coffee, we’re a few steps removed from the discussion, but we are voting with our dollars as best we can.” In the future, Refuge would like to increase their attention to sustainability by expanding their composting program with local gardens, reducing their energy consumption, and developing a heightened awareness on their disposable products used with possible alternatives.
Ultimately, Refuge is a nonprofit dedicated to community building and raising awareness to the diverse cultures present in Clarkston by providing a positive and safe place for the community to convene for hosted events, small-talk, and a local brew made by members of their own community.

 Featured Image: Refuge Coffee Company




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