Will travel for coffee

By Audrey Davis, News Editor

Robert Thurston never dreamt of running a coffee shop. He dreamt various things growing up, but running a coffee shop was not one of them.

Robert taught history at Miami University for 25 years, but these days he can often be found at the Oxford Coffee Company, the business he opened in 2012.        

Outside, a group of regulars sit around a table, welcoming customers as they walk into the shop.

The aroma of strong coffee fills the inside. The walls are warm shades of yellow and red. The whole place feels cozy.

“Good morning and welcome!” Katie, the barista, says cheerfully each time a new customer walks through the door.

Katie comes from behind the counter to set a cup of hot coffee down in front of Robert.

“Oh, thanks, Katie. Is this Sidamo?”

She nods, yes.

“Okay, this is from Ethiopia.”

Robert has been to coffee farms all over the world. Nicaragua, Kenya, Panama, Ethiopia, you name it. Memorabilia from these places decorate the walls and the shelves.

His trips around the world have lead him on some interesting adventures.

In 2008, he went to Costa Rica, knowing only one person there — a contact he had never met before. That person passed him on to another person. Can you meet with him tomorrow? Oh, sure of course. And on into Panama he went, trusting people he barely knew. All for coffee.

“I think it happened once where someone said, ‘Oh, it’s not convenient for you to visit our farm.’”

So Robert just moved on to the next place.

“Gee, there was the time I had to shoot a crocodile that had my leg…”

He pauses. 

“No,” he laughs, “I’m just kidding.”

And while he may not have faced any deadly crocodiles, he’s familiar with danger.

2004 was the first time Robert went to origin — the term for going to the coffee farms. He went to Ethiopia.

He and his driver headed west from Addis Ababa to Jimma.

“The man I was supposed to meet there, wasn’t there. So, the driver and I decided to go see a coffee farm on our own.”

He raises his voice over the buzz of the coffee grinder.

“There was a guard out in front with an AK-47 on a string around his neck. They don’t even have straps! Just a cruddy string. And they say, ‘No. You can’t look at anything. You have to go back to Addis Ababa and get specific permission to visit this farm.’”

They came all that way and wouldn’t even get to see a coffee farm, but they weren’t about to argue with the men and their guns. So Robert and his driver headed back to their hotel in Jimma. What do we do now? Addis Ababa is an eight-hour drive away.

But the guy they were supposed to meet showed up.

“And he was wonderful! And then the doors and the gates opened for us everywhere.”

All it took was for that man to say, “They’re with me.”

He pauses to sip his coffee, black.

Robert gets up and heads to the front of the store. He sticks his hand into a burlap sack and pulls out green coffee beans, running them through his fingers.

He talks about all of the machines in the shop that they use to roast and make the coffee. It’s clear that he’s proud of the place that he put so much work into.

He takes a seat at one of the wooden tables in the store which, like all of the others, he put together himself.

He looks at the decorations on the walls, thinking about where in the world he got each item.

Robert could go on for hours talking about coffee. He’s happy that way.