Maliesha Pullano felt like she was at the end of her rope.
It was almost three years ago, and the 41-year-old single mother of two was having a hard time finding work, nearly broke, and no idea where the next challenge was going to come from.
“We were down and out,” she says. “We were almost homeless.”
But just as her star was fading out, a spark emerged.
Pullano met a woman from Uganda at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market. The woman asked Pullano what was wrong, and offered her a job, making samosas. Pullano jumped at the chance and went door-to-door selling the fried pastries with her young daughter, Lulu, on her back.
She needed a change, and inspired by the kindness of that Ugandan woman, as well as her passion for food, Pullano went about devising a plan to start her own business. She thought about spaghetti sauce, then tea, but saw the burgeoning niche market of cold brew coffee as a winner. Now she’s calling the shots at her own business, Mamaleelu Cold Brew Coffee, a name derived from her role as a mother, the name of her son, Lee, and her daughter.
“Sometimes I wake up in a sweat, thinking about the business. It’s not easy doing this,” she says. “But I have a passion for it. I’m my own boss and it lets me be flexible with my kids. Family is everything to me.”
On a recent afternoon, in a quiet corner of a sun-drenched kitchen on the second floor of a downtown Kalamazoo building off Water Street, Pullano’s hard work is slowly being released. Drops of rich, dark, fair trade coffee make their way through filters and out of spigots on two large urns, filling up 5-gallon plastic buckets. The coffee has been soaking overnight. With a long tube, Pullano fills just-labeled glass bottles with the cold brew, being careful not to spill any, which, she will tell you, happens from time to time. Today, one bottle overflows and a pool of cold brew gathers on the work table.
“As you can see, I’m a one-woman operation,” she says, laughing. “But I think there is a big growth opportunity for me, and I didn’t get here by myself.”
In 2014, Pullano approached the Can-Do Kitchen — a local nonprofit that serves as an incubator for area small business food startups — seeking advice and start-up capital from the organization, now in its eighth year of operation. All she had was an idea, but Can-Do Kitchen Executive Director Lucy Dilley saw potential right away.
“She was smart and had done her research,” Dilley says. “Maliesha knew that cold brew coffee was up and coming and saw a need for her product. She has a knack for figuring it out, which for a small startup can be really challenging.”
With seed money from a small scholarship and assistance from Can-Do Kitchen staff, Pullano first utilized the organization’s commercial kitchen facilities to make her cold brew before finding her way to her current location, which she shares with local kale chip business Kaleamazoo Chips. It seems her intuition about cold brew’s potential was spot-on.
The nation’s coffee connoisseurs seem to be warming to cold brew. According to global marketing research firm Mintel, cold brew coffee saw retail sales rise of 115 percent from 2014 to 2015, reaching an estimated $7.9 million in sales. And although cold brew represented only 0.4 percent of sales in the ready-to-drink coffee market in 2015, the rise in its popularity is undeniable, with sales soaring 339 percent from 2010 to 2015, the firm’s research showed.
Pullano says the reason for this recent surge in cold brew consumption is due to the unique characteristics of the brew — it’s less acidic than traditional coffee and the cold brewing process yields a smoother, sweeter taste.
Her product comes in a concentrate, with six to eight servings in one 16.9 oz bottle. Her cold brew retails for $10.49 a bottle, making the price per serving less than most cups of coffee sold in cafes. It’s versatile, too. Add hot water to a serving for a hot cup of coffee or pour the concentrate over ice and add milk for a kind of cold cappuccino.
“You don’t want to drink the whole thing in one sitting,” she says. “You’d be up for days.”
You can find Pullano selling her coffee at the Kalamazoo Farmers Market and at several local retailers, like the People’s Food Co-Op, Irving’s Market and other health and grocery food stores. Whole Foods in East Lansing also carries her product and she is now looking to sell out of state, engaging in talks with a food co-op in South Bend, Ind. On average, she’s selling eight, 12-bottle cases of cold brew per week, she says.
In many ways, she is a model Can-Do Kitchen graduate, Dilley says. “She’s been so good to work with. She engages with us, asks for help when she needs it. If people don’t engage, we can’t help them,” she says.
Now, it’s Pullano who wants to help others. She wants to see her business grow to the point she can hire more staff, especially single mothers, those in poverty and people who need encouragement. When she’s ready to hire help, she wants to offer a living wage to her employees. It’s a way, she says, of manifesting economic justice in the community. She’s already considering hiring a part-time employee.
“When I started, I didn’t think I had any talent or any shot,” she says. “This has been a life-changer for me. I want to inspire others now.
“When I am most inspired is when I think about how I started, and what I overcame. I want to create a company that helps those who work for it answer the questions I had before I first started, a company that invests in its workers, that is like a family.”
Pullano takes a break from bottling, fills a cup with a small amount of cold brew and takes a small sip.
“Yep,” she says. “This is exactly where I need to be.”
Chris Killian has been a writer and journalist in the Kalamazoo area for over 10 years. You can find more about Killian, his work, and projects he’s working on by visiting chriskillian.net.