Editor note: The Spy is pleased to announce the launch of a new video interview series called Home Grown Entrepreneurs: Spy Profiles. Small business start-ups are a key driver for any local economy. Our series will focus on the entrepreneurs who start new businesses and begin a journey with an uncertain future. We will talk to a diverse group of entrepreneurs from different sectors.
We begin our journey focusing on the food sector. Our hope is these interviews will shed light on the journeys these entrepreneurs have taken and even inspire others to set off on their own. It’s never a straight line to business success but rather a series of zigs and zags as the entrepreneur navigates the challenges that inevitably present themselves. Our entrepreneurs will tell you about them as well.
It is only fitting that we begin our interview series talking to Tim Cureton, the founder of Rise Up. He appeared at our door with his nine-year-old son Koa in tow. He was sporting a blue baseball cap with lettering that said: “Rude Burger” (more about that later). He sat down to talk with us on camera in the Spy studios.
Cureton is from the eastern shore and graduated from Salisbury University. After school, he joined the Peace Corps serving on a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean. It was here that he first began thinking about starting a coffee business. Cureton was a self-described “reluctant business man” but once back home was looking for a way to make a living. While running an outdoor educational summer camp, he visited the west coast and noticed lots of small drive-thru coffee trailers and thought, “why wouldn’t that work back east?” Thus began his business journey.
He eventually met a bank manager whose kids attended Camp Wright on Kent Island, where Cureton had worked and, after describing his business idea, loaned him $16,000. He used the loan to buy a small trailer but now had to find a place to park it. Cureton decided to tap into another Camp Wright connection. Glenn Higgins, a local businessman who owned property on St. Michaels Road, who also sent his kids to the camp. Who needed LinkedIn when you went to a camp that could produce such great business connections? Cureton wrote Higgins a letter asking if he could use his parking lot.
Higgins eventually agreed but warned Cureton that the county wouldn’t approve – and it didn’t at first. Cureton’s first zig came when he received a cease and desist letter from the county. Luckily, he got a temporary permit to open and over the next year worked to develop legislation for roadside vendors. It came down to a County Council 3-2 vote in Rise Up’s favor. Cureton’s zag worked.
Cureton says he will always remember Tuesday, March 15, 2005, the day he opened Rise Up for business and met his first customer. According to Cureton, “his name was Bob, and it was a big order. He ordered a large cup of coffee and a bagel with cream cheese. And off we went.”
On camera, Cureton discussed the companies’ outsized growth from 2005 to 2019. It has been 15 years since he sold that first cup of coffee to Bob at that little shack in the parking lot. Now, he has nine retail locations, a national wholesale business, and a new planned headquarters and much more on the horizon. Many of his early customers have shared with him their thoughts about those early days, which Cureton summed up as “wow, what nice people but too bad they are never going to make it.”
Cureton knew he had something special looking out at his customers. “Of course, we connected with our teachers, lawyers, and local representatives. But it was when I saw the heavy water-carriers of our society, the contractors, laborers, the crabbers, and they felt a connection to Rise Up too, that the word had gotten out that this was a safe place. And that’s really what we are all about.”
Well, Rise Up has made it. It has become a hip, regional specialty coffee brand with a youthful millennial vibe that wakes you up as much as the coffee. The company’s’ mantra is “grown by friends, roasted by friends, enjoyed by friends,” which is proudly displayed on signs and murals in their stores.
Cureton is now a seasoned businessman but still talks like a Peace Corps volunteer when describing the company, which is dedicated to roasting only sustainable coffees Certified Organic + Certified Fair Trade. According to the website, “Coffee has always been the crop of the poor. Through Fair Trade practices, we help to provide our farmers with a dignified existence. In simple terms, the extra money spent on the coffee can be invested back into the farm, family, and community.”
As for Easton, he says, “Easton will be our home for the rest of our time in business”. He adds, “the level of support that we have gotten in Easton is mind-blowing on a per moment basis.” The company has grown from 2 to 172 employees with nine locations. In 2005, Rise Up used 5-10 lbs of roasted coffee per week and now roasts 4000-6000 lbs per week to supply its growing retail and wholesale business.
He credits much of his success to his employees and especially his partner, Noah Kegley, who joined the company ten years ago. He also credits the Rise of Rise Up on his ability to listen and stay humble. Cureton said someone once told him that when your self-employed, you wake up unemployed every day and have to earn your paycheck. He said, “that’s the approach of Rise Up.”
Cureton is now dedicated to going beyond just coffee and modest food choices and envisions a full day of offerings to satisfy his customers. This concept includes a kitchen, café, and bar (called Bar 502). To that end, he will expand his Mad Egg food menu, introduce a new line of tea products as well as offering alcoholic beverages. Alcoholic beverages were first introduced in their Rehoboth, DE store, which Tim describes as “a gigantic smash.”
In our video interview, hear Rise Up’s Tim Cureton discuss other big 2020 Rise Up news:
A New Rise Up tea product line called Water and Leaf
The dramatic growth of Rise Up’s wholesale business, which now includes distribution in Giants, Whole Food, and Mom’s Organic Market stores.
The early Spring launch of a new, hip, burger joint called Rude Burger, in partnership with his older brother Brett Cureton, featuring craft burgers and beer, among other healthy food and beverage options.
The creation of the Rude Food Company, an entirely new business.
The March groundbreaking for the Rise Up headquarters at 217 Dover will feature a café, kitchen, and the 502 bar concept.
Hear about his expansion plans, including a new store in Arnold, MD, and potentially more Rise Up locations across the Bay Bridge and around the Delaware beaches.
The video and this article were written and produced by Hugh Panero and his wife Mary Beth Durkin. Both are good friends of the Spy. Hugh is the founder and former CEO of XM Radio and no stranger to entrepreneurship and Mary Beth is a documentary filmmaker and award-winning journalist who focuses on food reporting for the PBS NewsHour.
This video is approximately fourteen minutes in length. Music provided by Mela from their album “Mela two”