Blessing the World by Brewing Coffee: Tracy McKenzie on Back Alley Coffee Roasters

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How does faith inform your work? What impact does being a Christian have upon running a business? To help answer these questions, we turned to Tracy McKenzie.

Dr. McKenzie is Professor of Biblical Studies at Southeastern Seminary. In addition, he and his wife started Back Alley Coffee Roasters in Wake Forest, NC. Here’s our conversation:

You’re a seminary professor. Why start a small business?

“First, I love coffee. I think it is a wonderful product that God has given us. I jokingly call it the only legal, performance-enhancing drug there is. So naturally, I want to make the highest quality coffee and try to create some value.

“Second, my wife and I wanted to bless and encourage people with our work. We wanted to highlight the work of the farmer. We wanted to be a blessing to our employees. We wanted to provide a product and place that blesses the community. That is also why we started the Net 50 Campaign, which is a program where we give back 50% of our net profit to a non-profit who participates with us. We wanted Back Alley to be a blessing.

“Also, we believe that business can be done with Kingdom values and in a way that contributes to the Kingdom of God. Quite literally, capitalism can be used in a Kingdom way. Beth and I were looking for a way to build something that creates value for our family and beyond.”

How does faith shape how you run Back Alley Coffee?

“First and foremost, we want to treat this product in a way that honors the Creator. We said from the beginning we didn’t want to produce mediocre coffee. We didn’t want to make average coffee. We want to treat this particular piece of God’s creation in a way that honors the creator.

“We sometimes say with a smile that at the breakfast feast — when all things are consummated under the headship of Christ — we want Back Alley to be good enough to be served there.

“Of course, there are many other avenues in which faith impacts our business. We’re not in this to get rich or create a dynasty. We’re not out to extort as much from customers as we can. Rather, we’re trying to pay the coffee farmers as much as we can. So, we’re trying to develop direct trade relationships with farmers—not even fair-trade, but direct trade so that we’ll know exactly how much the farmer is getting paid. We’re trying to make sure our farmers get a fair wage.

“We’re also trying to make sure our employees get a fair wage and have an environment that develops them. We try to treat them in way that fosters maturity. I tell our employees that we are for them in a Colossians 1:28 sort of way; each of them growing to maturity in Christ.

“Finally, we want to provide an encouraging environment in our shop. We want people to walk in and the barista engage them in a way that’s encouraging to them. Our baristas work very hard at interacting with customers because Back Alley is in business for people as well.”

Have you learned anything in the workplace that’s impacted what you do in the classroom?

I think I’ve learned again that the normal Christian does not necessarily have the luxury or the discretionary time to contemplate the many, complex issues that we discuss in class. So we need to ensure that ideas and actions flow out of the classroom through our students into the world. Don’t get me wrong, however. We need to consider carefully these complex issues in the classroom. If not in the classroom then when and where? But we should make sure there are ideas and action steps that make their way to a Christian who is not in a seminary environment and helps them.

“So, when it does come up in conversation in the shop at Back Alley that I teach Old Testament, people ask, ‘What is the Old Testament? What is that?’ They may not even know the difference between the Old and New Testaments. Most people are not worried about ‘JEDP.’ Most people aren’t worried about the precise date of the Exodus.

“I think we have to make sure there’s some thought from the classroom that helps the students work this out at the street level. But it can’t all be about the street level, because then the classroom would diminish its ability to speak accurately about these issues.”

It is rewarding to treat a product in a way that honors God.

How would you encourage someone who doesn’t see how their job matters to God?

We just discussed this at our leader’s retreat this weekend. Several of our employees originally came to school at Southeastern and then decided that full-time vocational ministry is not what God is asking them to do right now. So, at one point, they considered full-time or vocational ministry, but for whatever reason, they’ve decided against that and are now working in the coffee industry.

“To be quite honest, I have had to think about this too. I put in hours roasting. That’s my main role at Back Alley, besides giving leadership to the organization. If you think about it, I’m not talking to people while I roast. I’m not discipling anyone while I roast. I’m not teaching the Scriptures while I roast. So I’ve wondered: Is roasting this coffee, and doing it in a way that honors God, a worthy task? Is it honorable and pleasing to God?

“I don’t think we can answer in any other way but a resounding yes. It has to be honorable for many reasons. First, God created it and gave us stewardship over it. Whatever product, process, system or institution that stems from creation — from God’s universe that he has given us — he has skilled, tasked and even called individuals to do these things in a way that honors him. Someone must manage and steward these products and processes in a manner that honors God.

“So, as someone who’s called to vocational ministry, this has been a real tension for me. I love teaching in the classroom and want to give attention to writing and thinking in my discipline, but God also has my wife and me here in this moment.”

What tips would you give to other Christian business owners?

“I would say someone should almost have a sense of calling to start or own a business. Consider carefully whether it is right for your situation to do this, because quite honestly, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

“Think about it: If you are in the retail business, then day in and day out, you have to be open. You can’t decide you want to sleep in that day. Whenever the doors are open, you have to be on — and your people have to be on. Ultimately, of course, the buck stops with you.

“But it is rewarding to treat a product in a way that honors God and have people recognize that beauty or that taste. That’s one of the most rewarding parts of business. And it is rewarding to build something that has value, that can endure, and that can contribute to society.

“But I think I’d re-emphasize this issue: You have to love your product or your service for which you’re going into business. You have to see it coming from God’s hand. I would say that you should not go into business unless you really enjoy your product or service. You can’t go into business only for money or for ministry — that’s not going to work, that’s not going to honor God.”

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The L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture seeks to engage culture as salt and light, presenting the Christian faith and demonstrating its implications for all areas of human existence.

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