Milgard Alum's Grounds for Change

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Milgard School of Business Alumnus Jason Atherton developed a new retail concept for a 1,100-year-old product.

Jason Atherton greets me with a warm smile.  The Milgard School of Business alumnus (BABA ’12, MBA ’15) wears a thick beard and glasses.  We make small talk about the weather (it’s raining) while he makes us coffee.  Atherton is the owner of Pop Up Coffee. 

A few things are noticeably missing from Pop Up Coffee.  At the Broadway Center location where I meet Atherton there are no plush chairs or shelves stocked with mugs and CDs.  The same minimalist approach is true behind the counter.  There are no syrup pumps fighting for space with the espresso machine because there is no espresso machine. 

Pop Up Coffee specializes in brewed coffee served one of two ways: free pour or AeroPress. The free pour method involves pouring hot water over filtered coffee grounds into a cup.  With an AeroPress the grounds are placed into a tube-like device and steeped until ready.

Milgard School alumnus Jason Atherton, '12, '15, free-pours a cup of coffee for a customer. All images by Cody Char.Atherton got the idea for Pop Up Coffee while completing his MBA.  “New businesses invest a lot of money without knowing if it’s going to work,” said Atherton.  Among other expenses, starting a coffee shop involves buying equipment, renting space, and paying employees.  In this scenario a company needs to turn a profit quickly or risk shutting down.

“Everybody has the same model for what a coffee shop is,” said Dr. Jill Purdy, associate professor of management at UW Tacoma's Milgard School. Atherton is one of her former students.  Purdy said coffee shops may offer different products but rely on a similar formula.  “What would happen if we blew up those assumptions and came up with something different?”

There are currently three Pop Up Coffee locations in the Tacoma area.  Atherton hopes to open 10 new stores in the coming months.  “Store” is a misnomer; the shops are more like mobile coffee stations.  The counter where Atherton makes our coffee resembles a wooden shipping crate on wheels.  This crate houses the entire operation. 

This particular Pop Up Coffee is located in the lobby of the Broadway Center.  Part of Atherton’s approach is to use space in existing facilities that would otherwise go unoccupied.  Each Pop Up Coffee is run by a minimal number of employees and is open only a few hours a day.  “Four to six people come by in an hour and we’re super profitable,” said Atherton.  “[In a traditional coffee shop] you need to sell $2,000 to $3,000 a day to pay the bills.”

Dr. Purdy has a saying:  “the answer to any question in business is – it depends.”  This idea is part of a broader philosophy within the Milgard School.  Purdy and her colleagues want students to ask questions and to explore instead of memorizing a bunch of facts. 

This approach resonated with Atherton who had postponed college and went to work right after high school.  When he met his future wife – also a UW Tacoma alumnus – her pursuit of higher education inspired Atherton to attend college. He worked while going to school and also helped raise a growing family.  Atherton finished his MBA last spring and launched Pop Up Coffee in September. 

Dr. Purdy said Atherton has an entrepreneurial mindset that allows him to see new opportunity.  Said Purdy, “a lot of students come to UW Tacoma with a mindset that a college degree will enable them to do anything they dream and so they dream big.” Pop Up Coffee is an interpretation of Purdy's ethos.  The big idea is something small – and good.  The coffee is warm and steaming and surprisingly tasty absent cream or sugar.

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / January 22, 2016
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or