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The Sepia Coffee Project Offers a Guiding Light in Metro Detroit

Sepia Coffee Project Martell

Sepia Coffee Project Founder Martell Mason in Highland Park, Detroit. All images courtesy of The Sepia Coffee Project.

When Martell Mason returned to metro Detroit in 2020, he found a more hopeful place than the one he’d left 20 years earlier.

Yet when he zoomed in on his home city — the two-mile-radius enclave of Highland Park, which is surrounded by Detroit on all sides — he didn’t see the same positive changes, or even the same level of access to community development resources.

Thus, Mason decided to lead the change, using his deep experience with coffee as the vehicle. In 2021, he launched The Sepia Coffee Project, a small-batch roasting company in metro Detroit focused on urban renewal and building a more inclusive coffee culture.

Last year, the company fired up a Stronghold S7 roaster on Detroit’s north end with high-quality coffees coming from suppliers such as BD Imports, Osito Coffee, Anthem Coffee Imports, Opal Coffee and Addis Exporter.

Earlier this month, The Sepia Coffee Project closed on a Highland Park commercial space, with plans to build out a new roastery and tasting room for 2024. By 2026, The Sepia Coffee Project hopes to open a full brick-and-mortar cafe.

Sepia Coffee Highland Park MI

The future home of the Sepia Coffee Project roastery and cafe in Highland Park.

“It’s not just coffee; it’s getting minorities and these urban communities to see that you can do it, too, no matter what area you want to be in,” Mason recently told DCN. “Hopefully, we can be that model for other businesses here. ‘If Sepia was able to do that in Highland Park with all of its challenges, we can totally do this.’”

SCP is currently raising capital on Wefunder and was also the recent recipient of a $10,000 grant from the Torani Cafe Opportunity Fund.

While these and other funding opportunities have helped pave the way for The Sepia Coffee Project’s modest growth, it’s been a long road getting to this point.

The Global Origins of SCP

Martell Mason grew up in Detroit in the 198os and 1990s, a time when unemployment, poverty and crime rates were all high following decades of middle-class job losses — particularly those associated with the “Big Three” U.S. automakers (GM, Ford and Chrysler).

“Detroit was not the best place to be. As a youngster, I had no interest in coming back,” Mason said. “What opportunities are here for me? All my aunts and uncles had these amazing lives and, thankfully, were part of an era where they had solid packages with the ‘Big Three,’ but my cousins who followed their lead were struggling. So why would I stay?”

After graduating high school in 2001, Mason packed his bags and moved to the East Coast in search of more opportunities. He attended Northeastern University in Boston, twice traveling to Cairo, Egypt, to research the country’s cotton industry as part of an undergraduate program. 

After earning a degree in international affairs, Mason landed in New York in the fashion industry, but was later laid off during the 2008 financial crisis. He then decided to move back to Egypt where his severance package might last longer. 

“I would not be where I am today if it was not for making that move,” Mason said. “It opened so many doors and allowed me to have a different perspective and know what’s important.”

Sepia Coffee Project M Mason

From Cairo, Mason eventually moved to Daegu, South Korea, for a job teaching English. It was during this time that he read Islam’s Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora, a book that profoundly affected him while also sparking an interest in coffee through its exploration of trade dynamics. 

“It was like a light for me,” Mason said. “I decided to focus on coffee and learn more about the trade.”  

Around this time, Mason joined the online sustainability program at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University while also taking a teaching position in Saudi Arabia that guaranteed summers off. 

‘Trade is Where I Need to Be’

During those summers, beginning in 2014, Mason started doing coffee-related field work in East Africa. He traveled to Dar Salam in Tanzania, a major port city for the nearby landlocked coffee-producing countries. In Moshi, the capital of Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro region, Mason had an experience with coffee producers that reinforced his desire to work in coffee.

“They had never seen Black traders before,” Mason said. “I was so surprised by this. Africa has centuries of history and coffee, and yet there are no Black traders coming in and buying your product. It just didn’t make any sense, so I said, ‘Okay, trade is where I need to be.’”

Mason soon after traveled to Scandinavia to better understand the market, eventually parlaying an internship with Collaborative Coffee Source (CCS) in Norway into a full-time job. 

“I had this Middle East experience, and the market was booming in the Gulf at that time,” Mason said. “A lot of European importers wanted to get a piece of the action. I was very excited to have a position where I could help facilitate that.”

Sepia Coffee Detroit

Mason eventually followed the coffee market to Turkey, where he perceived a growing demand among roasters for high-quality coffees. He pooled some money together with former colleagues in Saudi Arabia and launched a small importing business in Istanbul.

“We were small,” said Mason. “It was definitely [just] making ends meet, but we were able to move really great products into this market, and roasters were just on board.”

Mason continued to work as an importer in Istanbul until the pandemic hit in 2020, at which point he returned home to Detroit, unsure of his next move. Ultimately, he chose to apply his depth of global coffee and cultural experience to a new venture close to home.

“I saw an opportunity. We want to give back to the community,” Mason said of The Sepia Coffee Project. “I want to ensure there’s equity, representation and diversity in specialty coffee… Specialty coffee should not be an elitist drink. We should all be able to enjoy a proper cup of coffee.” 

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