Mr. Coffee

Dan Cox is on solid grounds at Coffee Enterprises of Burlington

by Mark Pendergrast

Photos: Jeff Clarke

You’d think that Dan Cox, owner of Coffee Enterprises, would sit at a high-tech espresso console, directing his business as if he were on a caffeinated “Star Trek” episode. Cox works in a veritable Victorian coffee mansion at 286 College St. in Burlington. Everything inside the imposing edifice, built for a Lake Champlain sea captain in 1892, now speaks eloquently if tastefully of coffee. There are pictures of Costa Rican harvest scenes, a foot-tall coffee mug, a Byzantine-style tile mural with a coffee motif, a coffee map of the world, coffee beans etched into the windows, real coffee beans buried in the latte-colored wall, and coffee mugs built into the sides of the fireplace mantel in Cox’s office. And, of course, the entire building smells like fresh-roasted coffee. If anyone in the United States could claim the title of Mr. Coffee, it is Dan Cox.

Dan Cox, et al.

Dan Cox (center) uses high-tech equipment to identify and catalog varieties of coffee. His Coffee Enterprises in Burlington develops extracts and offers analysis for clients like Dunkin’ Donuts and Eight O’Clock Coffee. This taste test includes Paul Songer (left) and Taylor Carmer.”

The upstate New York native did not discover the joys of java until he was in his 30s. Born in 1949, Cox was a classic baby boomer. His mother, a good ’50s housewife, perked her Maxwell House and drank it black. “I loved the smell,” Cox recalls, “but I couldn’t stand the taste, so I dumped sugar in it.” When he attended Norwich University, he drank a lot of coffee to stay awake, cramming for exams. “To me,” he says, “coffee was just something you drank to wake up. It was black and hot and awful.”

After a brief stint in the military, during which he narrowly missed serving in Vietnam, Cox joined the Reserves and went back to Norwich to work in the admissions department, then as director of career counseling and placements. He liked his job, but his passion was racquetball, at which sport he became a semi-pro. After nine years at Norwich, he felt it was time for a change of career. “Either I had to get an advanced degree, or I was going nowhere in college administration.” Doug Balne, his racquetball doubles partner, and his wife, Jamie, owned Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, a little micro-roaster in Waitsfield, and the Balnes offered Cox a job. In the spring of 1980, he worked for a week as a volunteer, to see what it was like. He found customers would gladly pay $6 a pound for coffee when they could buy it for $3 in the supermarket. He thought, “Something is going on here.”

Cox discovered what high-quality, fresh-ground, all-arabica coffee was all about. Until then, he had drunk pre-staled canned supermarket blends that included a goodly proportion of inferior robusta beans. “I stopped using milk and sugar and started smelling the stuff. The aromatics were incredible. I also learned a lot about geography because of where the different beans came from — exotic places like Tanzania, Sumatra, Celebes, Papua New Guinea.”

The next year, he went to work as the Balnes’ first full-time employee. “I opened, closed, vacuumed, did the toilets.” When they opened a second store in Winooski, they decided to expand into wholesale, and Cox became a salesman. “I loaded up with samples and hit the restaurants with what I thought was the best coffee in the world.” His car and his clothes reeked of coffee, and he loved it. “I loved to bring coffee samples to my friends. I still do.” Cox had inadvertently joined the specialty coffee revolution, which had its roots in the 1960s and 1970s, but which was now becoming a perceptible movement. During his time with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, he became a driving force to turn the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) into a thriving organization, serving as its president for three years. Cox got to know other coffee leaders throughout the world, and he began to take trips to coffee-producing countries.

Eventually, entrepreneur Bob Stiller, the owner of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, bought out the Balnes and another partner. For 11 years, Cox was the public face of the roaster, selling the coffee and building a sales force. “Dan’s friendly, out-going personality won many friends for GMCR over the years,” says Rick Peyser, public relations director at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. Cox remembers his time there fondly as well. “Unlike other coffee suppliers, we didn’t offer any bells and whistles — no loaner equipment, no credit, no delivery or service, no point- of-purchase advertising, just good coffee.”

Amazingly, Vermont was ready for his product. His salesmen would bring in competitors’ fracpacks (fractional packaging, the small bags of premeasured coffee used by most restaurants) and nail them to the wall, proclaiming, “Another scalp!” Cox helped build annual gross sales from $120,000 in 1981 to $13 million by the time he left GMCR in 1992. “Bob (Stiller) and I had a fundamental disagreement over the direction the business should take. He wanted to go more into retail operations, and I saw no future there. We didn’t have the necessary resources.”

For a brief period, he worked for Fairwinds/Elkin in New Hampshire as its coffee expert. An investment banker named Michael Chu had a vision of combining small, regional, wholesale roasters around the country into a kind of Starbucks of whole-bean coffee. Cox simultaneously started DC Enterprises back in Vermont to sell coffee extracts. His biggest customer was Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc.; he also began to provide whole-bean coffee to Bruegger’s Bagels. He hired Dan Feeney, with whom he had worked at Green Mountain, to run the business full-time, and he commuted home from New Hampshire on weekends.

Due to poor management, Chu’s operation, finally called Brothers Coffee, went bankrupt, but a disillusioned Cox had left long before that happened. He left with enough capital to jump-start his Burlington business, which he renamed Coffee Enterprises. At that point, in 1993, Cox began to look for bigger quarters. He had married real estate agent Casey Blanchard in 1987, and she told him to look at 286 College St., the home of Retrovest, a real estate development company owned by Dave Scheuer, who occupied only two rooms and planned to move. The week Cox looked at it, two law firms made a bid. Cox jumped on his Harley and vroomed up the street for a conversation. “Dave, who would you rather have for a neighbor?” he said. “With me, it will smell great all day, and I promise you an unlimited supply of free coffee.” Cox got the building.

Slowly, working with Fresco Studio of Burlington (see last month’s issue), Cox renovated and decorated his new abode until it reached its classy status as a coffee emporium. He built the business, adding more extract and private-label customers. In 1993, he hired Mané Alves, a Portuguese native with a background in the wine industry. Talented in chemistry and with a fine palate, Alves quickly learned the art of “cupping” coffee, joining Cox in the cupping room. There, clad in royal purple robes that said “Team Caffeine, Coffee Enterprises,” they sat at round marbles tables and sniffed, slurped, swirled, and spit coffee, taking careful notes on the aroma, body, acidity, and flavor of each brew.

Alves convinced Cox there was a need for a third party to test coffee. “We began to offer analysis services to importers, roasters, and retailers,” Cox says. “I’ve been to about 85 coffee companies now, and I’m tired of what I call the Golden Tongue Syndrome. There’s usually one guy there who makes coffee purchasing decisions, and he guards his information jealously. What happens if he’s sick or dies?”

Cox and Alves decided to demystify coffee as much as they could, codifying the tastes and smells, scientifically tracking different crops. Coffee Enterprises keeps past years’ green bean samples (unroasted, processed coffee) in plexiglass containers that make for an interesting decorating motif. Now, the business has more than $150,000 worth of testing equipment, from fluorometers to a high-pressure liquid chromatograph. Cox and crew are attempting to “fingerprint” coffee so they can identify its origin instantly.

Cox has developed a series of vials with chemicals that resemble taste components of coffee, and he recently purchased “Le Nez,” a series of chemical aromas developed by a French specialist, to help educate the nose. “We have the technology,” Cox says, “with physical, irrefutable data, backed by sensory perceptions. It’s easy to figure out why coffee is bad, but where are the crumbs, the footprints, leading back to good coffee?” At the end of the day, however, he admits it all comes down to human perception. “Someone still must taste.”

Izzo, Lowe & Mammorella

Every other summer, Dan Cox sponsors Camp Coffee in South Hero, a chance for invited coffee experts to exchange information. From left: Ed Izzo, Liz Lowe and Judy Mammorella mix ice cream.

Cox is proud that Coffee Enterprises has served as a training ground for other professionals. Alves has split off to form Coffee Lab International in Waterbury, where the multi-lingual coffee expert wants to teach cupping to foreigners. For a time, Russ Kramer, who worked with Cox at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, joined him at Coffee Enterprises, but then he received an offer to be the U. S. representative for Costa Rica’s La Minita, one of the world’s finest coffees. With Cox’s blessing, he took it.

“Dan is a very generous person,” Kramer says. “He told me that this was a great opportunity for me and that I should take it. I’ve known Dan for 20 years now, and his commitment to people in the industry is astonishing. He’s donated more of his time to the specialty coffee industry than anyone I can think of.”

Others speak highly of Cox, too. “He’s the best person I’ve worked for,” says office manager Judy Mammorella. “He’s genuine, open, and has a real passion for coffee. He makes it possible for everyone who works here to visit a coffee producing country to see how it’s grown first hand.” All of them have gone to La Minita in Costa Rica. “Dan is a perfectionist,” Mammorella admits. “He wants everything to be neat, perfect. But he is also aware that people are people, and he just wants you to own up to your mistakes, talk about it, and go on from there.”

Paul Songer, who came from Colorado’s Allegro Coffee as the new head of coffee analysis, certainly knows that perfectionist side and respects it. “Dan is very skilled at distilling the truth, not snake oil, and presenting it in a way that can be generally understood by anyone,” Songer says. “He likes to be in the forefront of coffee trends and writes for a number of trade publications.” In addition to Songer and Mammorella, Coffee Enterprises employees are Liz Lowe, a former chef in charge of extract formulation and testing; Ed Izzo, vice president of operations; Taylor Carmer, a coffee apprentice; and receptionist Denise Richard.

Major clients include Dunkin’ Donuts, Ben & Jerry’s, Eight O’Clock Coffee, and the Colombian Coffee Federation. Coffee Enterprises has also done work for IHOP, TGIF, TCBY, Friendly’s, and other chains. Cox created Cappuchillo, a cold concentrate, that serves as the basis for Ben & Jerry’s Cappuchillo cooler, a kind of coffee frappe. About 60 percent of the business is extracts, 30 percent analysis, and 10 percent consulting and strategic management. As part of that latter category, Cox serves as an expert witness in coffee lawsuits. Gross annual income for Coffee Enterprises has been as high as $5 million.

Cox is interested in giving back to the coffee-producing world. He is supremely conscious of the disparity between the lifestyles of coffee growers and the American consumers who drink their product. Years ago, when he was at Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Cox helped Ben & Jerry’s source coffee from Aztec Harvest, a group of Mexican coffee co-ops that ensured a decent return to the growers. Today, Coffee Enterprises, Ben & Jerry’s, and GMCR jointly sponsor a twice-a-year health clinic in the Mexican Oaxaca region. Led by Dr. Matt Zarka, head of pathology at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington, a health team conducts a women’s health clinic in the villages of Potchula and Pluma Hidalgo.

In the course of his coffee career, Cox has traveled extensively to coffee-growing countries, including Jamaica, Mexico, Belize, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Hawaii, Kenya, Tanzania, Bali, Java, and Lumbock. He has yet to go to Ethiopia, coffee’s original home, but he plans to take a trip with fellow coffee adventurers. He has appeared as a guest on “Good Morning America,” Fox News, and National Public Radio. He has been quoted in USA Today, Business Week, Chicago Tribune, and many other publications. He is particularly proud to be one of seven trustees of the SCAA-sponsored Specialty Coffee Institute.

Every other August, Cox hosts Camp Coffee in South Hero. There, for four days, invited coffee experts cup coffee and talk. This year, they will test the effect of aging on roasted coffee, with a particular focus on chlorogenic acids. Traditionally, the coffee world has been predominately male. Mary Petitt, the head cupper for the Colombian Coffee Federation, will be the first female guest at Camp Coffee this year.

“I’ve met an incredibly interesting group of people in the coffee world,” Cox says. “We all share information, and I’ve made life-long friends. I’m turning 50 in July, and I can truthfully say that I like what I do and where I do it. I’m not driven to make huge amounts of money, I’m not driven to be the biggest — just the best.” And just to show that coffee is not the only liquid he appreciates, Cox leads his visitor down to an impressive wine cellar in the basement of Coffee Enterprises.

Mark Pendergrast is the author of “Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World” (Basic Books, 1999). Dan Cox is one of many characters in the book.