Brewing a Business
While getting their new coffee business off the ground, John and Pat Curry took John's cancer treatment one step at a time.
By Jen A. Miller
Photo by Steve Bracci
There’s never a good time to be diagnosed with cancer, and John Curry’s diagnosis is a testament to that. In February 2013, one week before his health insurance ran out—and a week after he closed on a loan to launch a new coffee shop business with his wife, Pat—the photographer-turned-coffee-roaster was diagnosed with colorectal cancer following a routine colonoscopy.
After several years of roasting coffee, first as a hobby and then as an online enterprise, the couple, both 53, had recently signed a lease for the location of their dream business, the Buona Caffe Coffee & Espresso Bar in Augusta, Ga. Then came John’s diagnosis. “All of a sudden, everything blew up,” says Pat.
Even though it seemed like a terrible time to open a business, Pat recalls, the couple never really had a conversation about not going forward. They had finally stepped toward their dream and had no intention of turning back.
“After the surgery, going through the four months of chemo after that—that was just awful,” says John, whose colorectal cancer was diagnosed as stage III. “Working helped me keep my mind off it as much as possible.”
John and Pat Curry never intended to get into the coffee business. They were journalists first, and until a few years ago, they thought they would remain so until they retired.
The couple, who have been married for 33 years, met as seniors in high school in Fort Myers, Fla., and began dating in the 1970s, when they both worked at the News-Press, based in Fort Myers. John was a staff photographer and Pat was a clerk. Eventually, Pat left to become a freelance journalist and editor while John continued in the newspaper world. They moved to Augusta in 2009 when he accepted a job as the visuals editor at the Augusta Chronicle.
Roasting coffee was simply a hobby—a project they started at home with a tiny roaster. “I was spending Saturday afternoon on the porch roasting enough coffee for us for the week,” says John. “It was much better than the coffee you could buy at the store.”
The Currys’ friends who tasted it agreed—and they asked to buy some. To meet the demand, the couple purchased a bigger roaster, and then an even bigger one. By 2010, they had set up an online shop, Buona Caffe Artisan Roasted Coffee, to sell their beans. The name was inspired by their 25th wedding anniversary trip to Italy, where “Buon Caffe” means “good coffee.” (The Currys found out later that they had misspelled part of the name.)
Soon, the couple began talking about turning their side business into a full-time career—including a cafe—when they retired. That moment came much earlier than expected when John was laid off in August 2011.
“With the way the newspaper business has been going, my possibilities weren’t great” after the layoff, he says, pointing to widespread job losses in journalism. He decided to use the layoff as a launching pad for a new career direction, and in November 2012, the Currys signed the lease for a storefront on Central Avenue in Augusta—an area known as the Hill since it’s uphill from the main downtown area—and then applied for a U.S. Small Business Administration–guaranteed loan to renovate the space into the Buona Caffe Coffee & Espresso Bar. “I’ve pretty much gone feetfirst into the coffee roasting and shop ownership,” says John.
The couple’s COBRA health insurance was scheduled to run out in February 2013, and John’s doctor urged him to have a routine colonoscopy because he had not yet had his first colorectal cancer screening, which is recommended at age 50 for men and women of average risk. (The doctor encouraged Pat to get a routine mammogram.) During the colonoscopy that February, John’s doctors found a tumor, and he was subsequently diagnosed with colorectal cancer. It was a week after the couple had closed on their loan.
The Currys were already well into renovations of the cafe space that they had begun before the loan came through. And John had already taken two courses on running a small business through the Georgia Small Business Development Center. So despite John’s diagnosis, they pushed ahead with their dream.
“What else were we going to do?” says John.