As Library Director Crosby Kemper III pointed out early this morning at the Plaza Branch, Danny O’Neill is “the man who wakes Kansas City up.” For local coffee drinkers, this assessment is quite literally, elementally true.
Known to many by his superhero alias “the Bean Baron," O'Neill is the founder of The Roasterie, an 18-year-old Kansas City-based purveyor of air-roasted coffee that has built a national reputation for quality, sustainability, and, to a great degree, style.
O’Neill shared his invigorating entrepreneurial success story this morning at the Plaza Branch as part of the Library’s Cradle of Entrepreneurs series. The ongoing series, which features public discussions with Kansas City business leaders, has ramped up this week in conjunction with the Kauffman Foundation’s Global Entrepreneurship Week.
As guests sipped complimentary Roasterie coffee, O’Neill outlined the invigorating story of raising a coffee empire from, as it were, a handful of magic beans. It all began in O’Neill’s Brookside basement in the early ‘90s – back before coffee connoisseurship was a thing, before anyone knew what a “barista” was.
Brought up a tea drinker in a hardworking Iowa farming family of 10, O’Neill was unaware of the joys of java until he volunteered on a coffee plantation during a high school trip to Costa Rica. Even then, he admitted, it was more the feel of being among farmers that he appreciated, not the actual beverage. He didn’t actually begin drinking coffee until he was a student at Iowa State.
From there, however, an obsession grew. He experimented with the air-roasting method, first with a converted popcorn air-popper, then with a $12,000 air roaster from Oregon. Considering he had only about $17,000 capital, the machine was a heavy investment.
So with only $5,000 in the bank, in the fall of 1993, O’Neill began peddling his home-roasted beans, which, in the Folgers-dominated market, were a tough sell. His first customer, the owner of a coffee kiosk at KU Medical Center, told O’Neill she had never before considered where her coffee had come from.
Now, of course, it’s commonplace to encounter a multitude of imported, fair-trade, organic coffee in your neighborhood grocery store. But as he built his customer base (early buyers included the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Andre’s, Café Allegro, JJ’s, and Houston’s on the Plaza), O’Neill was at the buzzing edge of the movement away from mass-produced brew toward higher-quality, sustainable coffee.
“We started with a clear notion of quality – simple, unadorned quality,” O’Neill told the Library audience. “We wanted the best coffee we could find in the world, but we didn’t have any resources.”
How to build those resources? The Roasterie couldn’t possibly compete on volume, O’Neill explained – the rival Folgers was producing 650,000 pounds of coffee a day. However, O’Neill believed his company’s air-roasting method produced a finer product, and that people would pay extra for better beans.
“Looking back, it was a great strategy, but honestly it was the only strategy,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill was right, and as his company grew, he found himself part of a team rather than a solo entrepreneur. Further, his Midwestern work ethic would be put to the test: “The notion of working 18-20-hour days rolls off the tongue a lot easier than it is actually doing it,” he said.
He also found quite quickly that maintaining good relationships with the farmers producing the coffee, as well as the communities they lived in, was just as important as maintaining good customer relations. And this, in turn, led to the opportunity to give back to those communities.
O’Neill bought his first fair trade beans from a farmer in Brazil who wanted less than a dollar a pound. O’Neill felt that was too low, but the farmer insisted it was a good price in the Brazilian economy and wouldn’t charge more just to ease the conscience of an American client. O’Neill finally talked the farmer up by 15 cents a pound, but those 15 cents would go back into the community.
Before long, a preschool was built, then equipped with showers and a kitchen, and stay-at-home mothers of the children who had not been able to attend school were free to work during the day. The community flourished – all because of The Roasterie’s 15 cents a pound.
“What’s good for everybody is always going to serve us well,” O’Neill said.
Meanwhile, back home, O’Neill saw the need to expand to retail. He opened the Roasterie Café in 2005, and it, too, has flourished as a place that blends the great coffee the company’s known for with an emphasis on expedient customer service.
For the future, O’Neill envisions possibly moving into the single-cup method popularized by Keurig. But whatever The Roasterie decides to do, it will always be about moving full speed ahead.
“Velocity is your friend,” O’Neill said.