March 29 2017 05:48 PM

517 Coffee Co. / Potter's Mill

James Defrees, owner/operator of Lansing-based 517 Coffee Co., will soon expand his operation into the John Bean Building. The move will allow him to increase his roasting capabilities.
Allan I. Ross/City Pulse

There was a clever Easter egg hidden in this year’s Capital City Film Festival schedule announcement, which was released last week. Among the eight Lansing venues that will host the weeklong series of film screenings, workshops, band performances and special events, there was an unfamiliar name thrown into the mix: Potter’s Mill. What and where was this new venue?

“I’ve been playing it close to my chest,” said John Sears, who owns the property. “We’re still a little way off from being open, but I thought it would be neat to be part of (the film festival). And it was a great way to introduce it to the public.”

Set for completion later this spring, Potter’s Mill will be a collection of 18 small business studio spaces, with a focus on artists and makers. The space is a former warehouse at 701 E. South St., just east of Cedar Street near the Red Cedar River. The namesake for the building is early Lansing lumber baron James W. Potter, of Potter Park Zoo fame, who originally used the property as a sawmill. The building later served as a furniture factory and a storage facility for Knapp’s department store but had sat empty for a quarter of a century before Sears bought it five years ago. He operates his demolition company, SC Environmental Services, out of the space, but Sears said he thought the building could be put to further use.

“There are a lot of small local businesses that don’t need much room to operate and actually benefit from (being in close proximity) to each other,” Sears said. “It’ll be a great use of space.”

The John Bean Building just south of downtown is an approximate counterpart. In recent years, that building has been home to photography studios, fashion design firms and mini-manufacturing operations, and it will soon become the headquarters of a coffee roaster (more on that in a little bit). The first business to move into Potter’s Mill will be the Mill Room, an “architectural salvage” retail store run by Sears himself.

“We’re always coming across interesting items (on demolition sites),” Sears said. “I recently took apart a building that was built in 1880 in Gaines (Mich.), and I found the exact same columns (in one of the buildings I own) in Old Town. You never know what you’ll find.”

The store’s initial batch of merchandise — currently viewable at the business’ website, — will include antique leaded wood frame windows, cast iron heat duct grates, hundreds of valve handles and the awning that used to hang outside Emil’s Restaurant, faded from a bright crimson into a dull terra cotta after years of exposure to the elements. Fittingly, the first use of the space will be for a showing on April 6 of “Dave Made a Maze,” an offbeat film about a man who unintentionally constructs a labyrinth in his living room out of the found objects.

“I’m friends with (festival co-founder) Camron Gnass, and when he suggested this as a venue, I wasn’t quite sure,” Sears admits. “But I think it’s going to work out well. And it’s a good motivation for me to get the place in shape.”

A bigger brew

For the last three years, James Defrees has roasted coffee beans for his fledgling business, 517 Coffee Co., using a 1-pound roaster and a simple philosophy: Brew, love, share.

“This is a family business, and my daughter actually came up with that motto while she was listening to me talking about how coffee is meant to be enjoyed in community,” Defrees said. “(It’s) not just something we grab at a drive-thru window and consume to get by. It’s supposed to be something that brings people together.”

Defrees started 517 Coffee Co. in his basement, but moved into Hannah’s Koney Island in East Lansing to be able to use a commercial kitchen. Next month, Defrees will begin work on a new production facility inside the John Bean Building, 1305 S. Cedar St., just south of downtown. It will accommodate a new 7-pound roaster he recently purchased from Minnesota that will allow him to roast up to 26 pounds an hour, up from the pound and a half he’s currently capable of making.

“It will also allow me to continuously roast, so I’ll be able to build up (an inventory), which I’m not really able to do right now,” Defrees said. “They don’t have room for me to store 600 pounds of coffee beans at Hannah’s Koney.”

Defrees hopes to eventually build the operation up to the point where he can supplant his current full-time job as a school bus driver for the Lansing School District. But working with children, particularly at-risk youth, is something dear to him, and the northern Michigan native intends to use 517 Coffee Co. to further his pet cause.

“When I was in high school, I was given a lot of opportunities to work and make money by the businesses in town,” Defrees said. “I don’t know if those owners knew what they were doing, but that experience gave me a work ethic that’s stayed with me, and that’s something I’d like to create for the youth here in Lansing. I think that’s missing here.”

Defrees wants to use his company to provide paid internships for teens, giving them soft and hard employment skills, including how to interview and proper workplace etiquette. He wants to keep coffee brewed on-site all day for fellow building residents and for any visitors who want to see how a micro-roastery works. Defrees will roast three or four different beans in any given stretch of time; he purchases his product from a direct trade company dedicated to creating a positive impact on Central American, Asian and African coffee plantations.

517 Coffee Co. joins other local microroasters Bloom Coffee Co., Rust Belt Roastery, Craft & Mason and Lucky Duck Coffee. Defrees’ coffee will remain available at Hannah’s during construction as well as at several local farmers markets, including year-round at Holt Farmers Market. Defrees said he hasn’t ruled out a café, a direction Old Town roaster Bloom recently moved in.

“I think the Lansing coffee shop scene is in good shape, so my role will be more as a support business,” Defrees said. “But (craft coffee) is changing so fast, similar to the explosion of craft beer. I’d definitely like to have my own building eventually with a coffee bar inside, and that gets back to that community angle. Coffee is best when it’s shared. Brew, love, share.”

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