KARL FISHER: ‘A vehicle for legitimate change’

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Karl Fisher, owner of Alabaster Coffee, has turned his passion for a good cup of coffee into his own business including reaching out to the community high schools and colleges.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today the Sun-Gazette continues its seventh annual Person of the Year series. Each day will shine a spotlight on each of the finalists. On Sunday, the Sun-Gazette will name its 2017 Person of the Year.)

“We had to support our coffee habit somehow.”

That’s what Karl Fisher, owner of Alabaster Coffee Roaster and Tea Co. at 400 Pine St., said his wife tells people when they ask how the couple got into the coffee business.

While many would be satisfied simply to run a coffee shop downtown, Fisher wanted to take things to another level in the community.

“I love the Williamsport community … I felt like this is where we wanted to be and where we wanted to raise a family. We wanted to invest in the community,” he said. “We said, ‘If we’re going to commit to being here, we want to see it continue to get better and be a place we’re proud of and that our family is proud of.’ “

He said he was just a coffee hobbyist when Alabaster was established in 2010, but he wanted to invest in the downtown business culture.

The business took on a motto that hangs on the wall: “Cultivating community through the elevation of coffee culture.”

“I didn’t want to be a place that was just good enough for Williamsport. I wanted our business to be excellent enough and recognized enough that we would be known in the larger coffee industry,” he said. “Our whole mission statement is elevating our community. It’s pursuing excellence and using that as a vehicle for legitimate and positive change for the community.”

One of the major projects he took on this year was starting a franchise development program at Williamsport Area High School. It basically opened a fully run student coffee shop at the school, where students were the force behind it from the start of constructing it to manning it as baristas. In the process, students learn about running a business.

“Karl has been an incredible asset throughout the process to get the franchise development program launched at WAHS,” said Greg Hayes, executive director of the Williamsport Area School District Education Foundation. “He’s given so much of his time and served as an excellent mentor for one of our students who took on the leadership role in the program’s inaugural year last school year.”

Fisher, who is a Williamsport graduate, said he got involved after he and Hayes got together to figure out how to make it work in the district.

“I wanted to see if there was something more we could do to really illustrate a partnership between a downtown business and the school,” Fisher said. “We talked about what it could look like, how to teach students how small business works. Through this conversation, we came up with the franchise development program we have now. Students involved in the program get a taste of entrepreneurship and small business creation and management.”

Hayes said that Fisher was vital to the program.

“He immediately shared the vision of this program along with those of us on the planning team. He has a genuine passion for WASD,” he said. “Because of that, he’s been able to help provide students with access to hands-on learning in small business ownership through his partnership.”

Alabaster has also teamed up with the Lycoming College for its Warrior Coffee program, in which students travel to the Dominican Republic to help native farmers have a voice in the global coffee market.

They were able to learn about coffee here in Williamsport from Fisher.

“Karl has been very helpful with the formation of our programs. The very first class I taught, he allowed students to come into the coffee shop each week,” said Caroline Payne, associate professor of political science at Lycoming College. “Students and faculty pestered him constantly about the coffee process. None of us knew anything … For an entire semester, he would welcome us and allow us to understand the coffee process long before it was a business for him.”

As of this fall, Alabaster is the official roaster of Warrior Coffee.

“He has been very helpful in working with the college to make sure we can roast a coffee from the farmers in the Dominican Republic. That means we can sell it at market price,” Payne said. “He has been very helpful in accommodating and helping us make sure that we can make enough money to give back.”

She said beyond that, he’s an asset to the entire community.

“He is one of the most legitimately kind, caring people that I know. He wants to provide a space for the community to come together, and I think he’s done that with Alabaster,” she said. “He’s dedicated to providing a good environment for the workers and down the supply chain, all the way down to the coffee farmers. I think he’s a man of integrity.”

Ronald A. Frick, president of the Lycoming County United Way, said that Fisher often donates cups, creamers and supplies discounted coffee at events for the United Way. He said he appreciates Fisher’s efforts to support the community.

“He’s just a good soul. He’s trying to develop culture around coffee and people gathering in his store,” Frick said. “It’s very simple things that in some way help to promote his organization and helps us … and it helps our program partners. It’s two simple things that go a long way.”

Spencer Sweeting, pastor of City Alliance Church, said that Alabaster used to host the church’s congregation.

“We met for worship in Alabaster for a year until we were given the opportunity to make our home in the First Baptist Church. It was a really formative time for our church, and Alabaster was the perfect place for us to meet and grow together,” he said. “Karl has always been really generous with the use of his space and resources, and we’ve tried to reciprocate with being good partners and customers.”

Spencer said that Fisher often touches the community in many unseen ways.

“Karl roasts great coffee and runs a foundational business in our city, but he’s also a good neighbor. He’s used Alabaster to serve the community in ways that are unseen, too: taking coffee to hard-working teachers during long days of parent-teacher conferences, or the Christmas Eve coffee runs his family makes to serve local emergency workers,” he said.

“That’s the mark of someone who loves their community.”