An Akron attorney’s foray into the coffee business began with an injury.
When Adam VanHo finally got the roaster he ordered from Singapore that took four months to get shipped in December, the first thing he did was drop the 170-pound appliance on his foot.
VanHo, though, didn’t let minor this trauma dissuade him. He forged ahead with his plan to become both a prominent defense attorney and an organic coffee roaster. Or, as fellow defense attorney Eddie Sipplen deemed him, a “Hipster Coffee Lawyer.”
“In theory, if crime falls, I’ve got to find another job or, if people stop getting divorced, which I don’t think is happening any time soon,” said VanHo, a former assistant Summit County prosecutor and an assistant Ohio Attorney General who now mainly does criminal defense.
“I don’t feel bad if people drink coffee and drive somewhere,” he added, chuckling.
VanHo is currently operating Raging River Coffee Co. out of his basement in Munroe Falls, roasting beans and selling them at the local farmer’s market. He’s in the process of looking for a space in Munroe Falls, Cuyahoga Falls or Kent to house both his law practice and roasting business. He also plans to keep a small law office in Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood.
VanHo, 45, has already enjoyed support for his fledgling effort, including from Lisa Hawes, the economic development coordinator in Munroe Falls who has been searching for a place that would suit his unique needs. She’s pleased that VanHo is already peddling his product at the Munroe Falls Farmer’s Market on Wednesday evenings.
“You’ve got to think outside of the box,” said Hawes, who stopped to talk to VanHo during a recent farmer’s market. “Attorneys do other things too.”
Unlike judges in Ohio, attorneys are permitted to have other businesses besides their law practices. Attorney Joy Chicatelli, with whom VanHo shares a law office in Akron, has a dog breeding business. Late Summit County Executive Russ Pry, who was an attorney, at one point met with law clients inside his bowling alley.
VanHo sums up the start of his new vocation with two words: pandemic boredom.
VanHo, like many attorneys, has always been a big coffee fan, regularly drinking a pot to a pot and a half of coffee a day.
“I’d probably be LeBron’s height if I hadn’t drank so much coffee,” he joked.
His interest in roasting was piqued with an article he read in January 2020. He ordered a small bag of beans from Mississippi and roasted them on his stove. He only did this once.
“It smelled like I burned a lot of toast,” he recalled.
VanHo next got a home roaster and put it on the porch so it wouldn’t stink up the house. He started reading about how to mix beans and create blends. One blend, which he dubbed Dockside, includes a mixture of four types of beans.
VanHo began sharing his coffee with friends and family, who told him: “This is good. You should think about selling it.”
Tom Teodosio, a 9th District Court of Appeals judge, was one of the taste testers. Tom and his wife, Linda, who is also a judge, enjoyed VanHo’s brew.
“I’m telling you, the guy is creative,” said Tom Teodosio, who is VanHo’s neighbor. “I hope it works out for him. If it really hits, he can have a nice side business to pass on to his kids. They can be the roasters of Munroe Falls.”
VanHo’s only help with his coffee venture has come from his family.
Tina Merlitti, his wife and the executive assistant for Summit County Engineer Alan Brubaker, said she’s been her husband’s “quality control,” happily helping him to dial in the best blends. She tried a cup of one experimental mix that gave her a caffeine buzz that lasted from the morning until early afternoon. She said they’ve since used this type of bean in other blends to give them “a little more kick.”
“The recipes have been fun,” she said.
They’ve tried lots of beans from lots of places, including Africa, Asia, South America, Central America and Hawaii. They stick to beans that are organic and fair-trade.
Merlitti has taken time off work to help VanHo set up at the Munroe Falls Farmer’s Market, which started in mid-June and runs through October at Brust Park. It features other vendors from around Northeast Ohio who sell everything from skin care products to jams and baked goods.
Mikey, 9, and Lizzy, 7, the couple’s kids, have also pitched in, earning an allowance that fluctuates based on how much time they devote. The kids have helped roast the beans, bag coffee, put stickers and prices on products and set up and tear down at the farmer’s market.
VanHo hopes this will teach his children about the value of a work ethic and how to track finances. He also plans to add a geography lesson when he gets a map of the world that they can use to show all the places where they’ve purchased coffee beans.
VanHo said the name of the company was inspired by the Cuyahoga River that runs through Munroe Falls.
“We thought that would be a cool name to give a local connection,” he said.
VanHo also wanted the business to be as green as possible and to donate a portion of the proceeds to local environmental and conservation efforts. He recently made the company’s first contribution to the Conservancy for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
VanHo has been sharing the challenges of starting his business on a blog, hipstercoffeelawyer.com. The blog features an image of a cup of coffee with the river behind it and bills itself as “The journey of a coffeeman lawyer.”
In his first post, VanHo admitted that the business was born out of extra free time during the pandemic.
“I wish I could give you a better story, like angels descending from heaven to tell me to roast coffee – or growing up in an underground, black market roasting family,” he wrote. “But it was really me being bored as courtrooms closed around Ohio.”
VanHo recently began searching for a place to house his two businesses but not everyone has been supportive.
“A lot of people don’t get the concept,” VanHo said. “They thought I would be selling there. I don’t want a coffee house”
VanHo thought he had a space nailed down in Kent but that recently fell through. He’s still on the hunt. If he finds a place to roast, this will count as a manufacturing facility and he’ll be able to start selling his coffee online.
In the meantime, VanHo at least has a venue for a few months to sell his beans at the Munroe Falls Farmer’s Market and hopes to expand to more markets next year.
On a recent afternoon at the Munroe Falls market, VanHo and his family manned a table that featured bags of six different coffees ranging in price from $10 to $20. The only hint of VanHo’s other vocation were “VanHo Law” pins scattered on the table.
A sign in front of the table featured a quote by American singer and author Henry Rollins: “What goes best with a cup of coffee? Another cup.”
When customers visited the table, VanHo or Merlitti told them about their company and different coffees.
“We do not like the harsh, harsh stuff,” VanHo told Melanie Neal, who shopped while holding Emberlyn, her 7-month-old daughter.
Neal said she’d take a bag of Dockside and asked if they took credit cards. VanHo told her they do.
“We do not take small children,” he added, laughing.
Neal, who lives in Munroe Falls, said this was her first trip to this farmer’s market but she may return. She was excited about the macaroons and the coffee she bought.
“I like organic stuff,” she said. “Local coffee would be great.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at email@example.com, 330-996-3705 and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.
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