A Robust Blend

A couple of landscapers woke up when they smelled the coffee business

Out of their South Burlington headquarters, brothers-in-law Jay Michaud (left) and Glenn Gale run two companies that cover the seasons for them: Brown & Jenkins Trading Co., an organic coffee business, and Witness Tree Landscaping.

by Rosalyn Graham

At first glance, landscaping and coffee roasting might seem like strangely mis-matched halves of a whole business. A step back, though, shows that one endeavor is summer-focused; the other, busier in winter. One is equipment-heavy with trucks, tractors and mowers; the other needs only a roaster. One serves a local market; the other is nationwide.

Jay Michaud and Glenn Gale stepped back and observed those fine balances when Ken Brown of Brown & Jenkins Trading Co., their next-door-neighbor in the industrial building near the end of Ethan Allen Drive in South Burlington, dropped in to visit them at their landscaping office. He said he was thinking of liquidating his 11-year-old coffee roasting and retailing business. "Wait!" they said. "We could do that."

Michaud and Gale knew something about the coffee business. On occasion Brown had asked them for a hand during the holiday rush, so they had been involved in roasting and bagging and tagging the high quality coffees for shipment to e-customers. More to the point, the partners in Witness Tree Landscaping, a business they had owned and operated for six years, were ready for a new challenge.

It wasn't the first daring step for the brothers-in-law. In 1996 both left the security of working for others to become full-time entrepreneurs and bought Witness Tree from Greg Yandow. Michaud had been general manager of Reprographics for 10 years, and Gale had been with the Air Guard for 21 years. They had always been what Michaud describes as "hustlers" in the best sense of the word filling their evenings and weekends with painting houses, plowing snow and doing odd jobs. "It was our therapy," Michaud says.

On March 1, 1996, they became co-owners of Witness Tree, with Gale's talents with machinery, honed in his years as a maintenance supervisor working on F-16s, complementing Michaud's expertise in customer service, accounting and business management.

"We jumped right in," Michaud says. Early on, they did all the work themselves, and in the first couple of years, saw rapid growth with lots of clients, lots of equipment, lots of employees and lots of problems.

"We said, 'We're going to downsize this so we can manage it better,'" says Michaud. They focused on their preferred customers made sure those customers were satisfied and have reached the point where they can schedule service, do the work to the degree of perfection they both say is essential, and go home and sleep at night.

Jay Michaud and Glenn Gale bought the coffee business next door three years ago. Gale (pictured) does all the roasting, 40 pounds at a time, in their small, artesian roaster. Michaud says Gale is "an intuitive roaster" who uses sight and smell as his guides.

Of course in the winter, plowing is always a surprise/rush job, which they prefer to begin at 12:30 a.m. and plan to be finished by 7 a.m. before their clients arrive at work. "We love it when they say they never see us," Michaud says.

General maintenance projects throughout the year for commercial customers tie in well with the winter plowing, and the summer is spent outdoors, with homeowners and developers keeping the partners and their three-person landscaping crew busy. "We do lawn installation with hydro seeding, and work with a couple of developers, doing their houses and their new developments, the foundation plantings and the flower beds."

Bart Frisbie, owner and president of Sterling Construction, has worked with Michaud and Gale for about six years. He appreciates their advice on the right shrubs and trees for the new homes he is building. "They are the landscape experts and we're not." He also likes the fact that "when they come in to work on a yard, they put the resources to it, finish all the details and move on. They do a good job."

This spring, for the fourth of the last six years, Witness Tree has had the contract to plant trees for the city of Burlington. "That's our legacy," Michaud says. He and Gale share the pride of having planted hundreds of trees on the University of Vermont campus and along Main and College streets and North Avenue. "As we drive down Main Street, we look at the trees we've put in. Some of them are huge. It gets us excited."

For last three years there has been an added flavor to their excitement. From the moment the partners knocked a new door-way through the wall to link their landscaping office with the Brown & Jenkins office, they admit they have "fallen in love" with the coffee business.

"It goes back to the same quality thing," says Michaud. "When we leave a property we've been landscaping, especially a brand-new house, we want to know the trees are straight with a nice canopy, and the bushes and beds and lawn are perfect." They bring that same perfectionist artistry to the roasting and marketing of coffee.

Michaud describes Gale as "an intuitive roaster" who uses sight and smell as his guides to the blending, time and temperature needed to turn green coffee beans into fragrant, flavorful brown coffees in dozens of blends. "Glen has roasted every bean since we bought Brown and Jenkins. If he doesn't like it, we dump it into the Dumpster."

The partners faced a steep learning curve when they entered Coffeeland (as they call the Brown & Jenkins half of their office.) Besides the art and science of roasting the arabica beans that they use exclusively, they had to become knowledgeable about the world's second most widely traded commodity. They had to learn how to deal with green brokers and what questions to ask coffee estate managers as far away as Jamaica and Hawaii. Then, of course, there was the marketing.

Ken Brown had been an early enthusiast of e-retailing and built himself a website in 1990. Michaud and Gale invested in the expert assistance of a Web designer to ensure that their website, www.brownjenkins.com, would continue to function well as a key element in their marketing. Many orders come online, from customers large and small, and from faithful members of their self-directed coffee club. The orders are packed, either as beans or in a variety of grinds, and shipped out by UPS.

Jay Michaud digs into 280 yards of hemlock bark mulch delivered for spring.

Michaud and Gale also weighed the diversity of the Brown & Jenkins product offerings, which at one time included a full catalog with ancillary items such as coffee makers, coffeepots, teas, and Vermont specialties such as maple syrup. They opted to focus on the gourmet coffee business, working with coffee producers and brokers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a line of organic coffees. They are going through the hoops that will also let them market under the Fair Trade banner to ensure that the farmer who grows the beans is fairly compensated for his work.

The Brown & Jenkins Cafe near Essex Outlet Fair is an 11-month-old expansion of their marketing endeavor. It's a place where people can learn about the company, savor a coffee or latte or espresso, have an interesting lunch, enjoy a coffee geography lesson from the colorful burlap sacks and maps on the wall, and go home with a pound or two of freshly roasted coffee.

In other cafes, restaurants and bistros in the area, owners and chefs are learning that a small local coffee roasting business can offer them the luxury of having their own private blend to serve their customers.

Richard Spar of Vermont Gourmet Coffee has brought his clients to discuss special blends with Michaud and Gale. The partners have created samples, gathered around the Brown & Jenkins tasting table for "cuppings," tweaked the blends, and now supply house blends to the likes of Leunig's, Mirabelle's and Penny Cluse.

According to Spar, "It's a nice selling point" that the private blends and the other Brown & Jenkins coffees he distributes are from one of the few certified organic roasters in the state, and are roasted fresh every week in small batches. "Vermont clients don't use thousands of pounds of coffee every week," he says.

This year, both Witness Tree and Brown & Jenkins Trading celebrate their 20th anniversaries. Michaud and Gale have not decided whether to celebrate by creating a "Happy Birthday to Us" coffee blend or planting a tree.

Originally published in May 2004 Business People-Vermont