If Mike and Medora Safai have their way, Shelby Park will become the city’s newest vibrant neighborhood. They’ve already moved their massive coffee roasting operation, Safai Coffee, to the old Axton Candy and Tobacco Company building at the corner of Shelby and Logan.

Mike and Medora Safai. Photo by Bill Brymer
Mike and Medora Safai. Photo by Bill Brymer

But for Mike Safai, a Type A personality with a visionary attitude, the 61,000 square feet he and Medora purchased is a playground for entrepreneurial businesses, many of which he plans to play a major role in helping to create.

“I like any kind of beverage,” he said during a tour of the new space. “The reason I got into the coffee business was that I loved coffee. I paint. I wanted to open a coffee shop and paint, so it was a hobby.”

packaging has been created for Safai’s bourbon

Well, it turns out that Safai also likes beer, and bourbon. And now that he’s got the space, Safai has sectioned off the area where his brewery will go, and he has a bourbon brand that’s already aging. Mike Safai said the brewery, Wild Hops, is scheduled to open in May. He showed me the shell, a giant corner of the warehouse, where brewing equipment is already installed.

The coffee roasting operation, and their coffee shop in the Highlands, together employ 29 people, a number they expect to grow to 40 in the near future. Safai said the roasting operation does about a million pounds of coffee annually for national and international customers, all packaged into single servings that are placed in hotel rooms. He estimates it adds up to 70 million cups a year, and he said he’s close to closing a deal that could nearly double the output.

While the Safais aren’t ready to announce who it is, a bakery operation has made a commitment to move into another part of the building. During our tour, the Safais showed me space for a Farmer’s Market that could operate year-round. And there’s a 5,700-square foot space Mike is saving for a restaurant operator, with a rooftop view.

“There’s big potential in this part of town,” he says. “We have a brewery, in three years we’ll have bourbon that’s aging right now. Then the coffee, the Farmers’ Market. Our goal is to become an anchor here, like the Mall, so other businesses will move down here and build the neighborhood up.”

For Medora, a native Californian who met her husband on the West Coast, the move to Shelby Park from LaGrange represented a big change in lifestyle, reducing their commute to 1.7 miles. She said part of her inspiration for Shelby Park comes from many trips to the Pike Place Market in Seattle.

A brewery will take this spot. Some equipment is already in place.
A brewery will take this spot. Some equipment is already in place.

“The space is a lot bigger than what we needed,” she said. “So we were looking for ideas for some synergy. We love the idea of people coming in and tasting our coffee, and coming in and experimenting, delving into wonderful things that can happen. We want to create a community within the building. We also want to do tours, so people can see what we do, how we roast and package it. The fun thing is a Farmer’s Market, bringing in fresh produce, prepared foods. We have the space to do it.”

Medora said her husband has never been one to remain idle. Until 1996, he was an aeronautics engineer at UPS, a prestigious and well-paying position, but was always working on other business plans during his days off. They started the coffee business known as Java Express in a former Fotomat store in 1998. They kept outgrowing locations before finding Shelby Park.

“He had four days off AND A.D.D.,” Medora jokes.

“I had a full-time job at UPS but 3-4 days off. We got into coffee.  I brew beer at home, I started making bourbon and I have a bourbon now,” said Mike.

Mike Safai’s drive for success is common in his family. Mike grew up in Iran, and decided in his teens that he wanted to come to America. It wasn’t easy, he said, and loves telling the story of getting help from a young journalist to obtain his VISA. He said he happened upon the young woman, who volunteered to help. She turned out to be Christiane Amanpour, now the famous CNN broadcaster.

He has four siblings in the U.S., all of whom, he says, are successful. One is a nuclear physicist, and another is a physician.

“The reason we succeeded is the way people treat immigrants here,” he said. “They gave us the opportunity to become what we are. I couldn’t do this anyplace else.”