Kym Jolstad has always been a doer.
When she was 12, her father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The preteen immediately participated in her first Walk MS to raise money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. She did the walk on more than a dozen occasions, raising thousands of dollars.
Last year, when Jolstad's mother, Kathie Kemi of Cloquet, Minn., was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Jolstad once again sprang into action.
"But this time, I wanted to do something more ongoing, and raise attention and awareness throughout the year," she said.
She began to brainstorm. In January, as she was walking her dog and drinking coffee, Jolstad had a "eureka" moment. "Mom loves coffee," she thought.
That the idea had potential was reinforced after Jolstad enlisted her colleagues as a focus group.
"Raise your hand if you drink coffee," she told them. Every arm in the room went skyward.
As she started to research the coffee business, Jolstad, a personal trainer, relied on her abundant network of connections and the generosity of many community members, some she'd never met.
One fortuitous moment came when Jolstad tapped the expertise of a former client, restaurateur Anne Spaeth, owner of the Lynhall in Minneapolis.
"Anne said, 'I don't know much about coffee, but I know someone who does,' " Jolstad recalled.
That was Greg Hoyt, owner of Rustica Bakery. "After [Greg] listened to my story," Jolstad said, "he immediately said, 'Oh, you have to meet my roaster, Brett Struwe.' "
They connected, and Struwe got busy in his St. Louis Park roasting facility. Turns out, Struwe was an ideal partner for Jolstad. During his 24-year tenure at Caribou Coffee, he had been deeply involved in that chain's charitable coffee effort, Amy's Blend, which honors the memory of his friend and the company's original coffee roaster, Amy Erickson, who died of breast cancer in 1995.
For Kathie's Coffee, which is a medium blend of Costa Rican and Ethiopian beans, Struwe set out to target a wide range of coffee drinkers, ensuring that the results would equally work as cold press or when served hot with plenty of cream.
"It has broad appeal, and not just hipster appeal," he said. "And Kym wanted her mom to really like it, too."
The first bag of Kathie's Coffee was purchased on April 8. Sales were brisk from the start (12-ounce bags are $15, and each bag generates a $3 donation; the rest covers Jolstad's expenses). The initial marketing effort targeted friends and family. But word of mouth quickly spread, and on May 4, Jolstad wrote a $1,000 check to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, which works to advance scientific research and advocate for patients.
"I had my mom on the phone," said Jolstad. "I told her, 'OK, Mom, I'm at the mailbox, dropping off the check.' It was so unbelievable. I was so proud, I felt we had made a difference in a short time."
To date, sales of Kathie's Coffee have generated $3,000 in donations to the organization.
Everywhere she's turned, Jolstad has encountered people — often serendipitously — who want to help, donating their expertise with graphic design, photography and legal issues.
"The whole process has been so overwhelming because there has been such support," she said. "I was getting ready in the locker room at Life Time [Fitness], and a woman told me that her husband, a lawyer, could help me with filing the nonprofit papers. Two years ago, he had lost his father to pancreatic cancer."
Businesses have embraced the product. Over the summer, Kathie's Coffee cold brew was available at Unmapped Brewing Co. in Minnetonka. Rustica featured the coffee in November, and it's always on the menu at Bearaboo Coffee Escape in Cloquet.
Twin Cities shoppers can pick up bags of whole beans and ground coffee at Minnesota Makers stores in Excelsior and Robbinsdale, and online purchases can be made at kathiescoffee.com. Jolstad has now shipped coffee to 21 states.
Following her mother's diagnosis, Jolstad wondered why pancreatic cancer had not been on her radar, noting that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek both recently died of complications from the disease.
"Now that it's affecting me, I'm noticing it," she said. "Mom's oncologist said, 'Where we once were with breast cancer awareness and funding is where we are right now with pancreatic cancer. That will change; it's a matter of research and funding and awareness.' "
Jolstad is determined that Kathie's Coffee will help bridge that gap, and she reports, "My mom is doing great. We are so fortunate.
"I have been completely blown away by the great response," Jolstad said. "This has been such a light in my life, such a strong, positive experience. I've learned that people want to do good things. Doing good things helps us to feel good."
Rick Nelson • @RickNelsonStrib