By Susan E. Campbell
The Capital District’s fastest-growing premium coffee roaster, Death Wish Coffee, has reached another milestone. This month, Death Wish Keurig Cups hit the shelves at 1,600 Walmart stores, bringing to more than 2,300 the number of retail locations where consumers can buy what is billed as “the world’s strongest coffee.”
“At the beginning of 2017, our coffee was in roughly 350 stores and our focus in 2018 is on increasing our retail partners,” said Mike Brown, owner and founder of the company.
Brown started Death Wish about four years into his coffee shop venture, Saratoga Coffee Traders, when he found himself “up to the neck in debt.”
“I thought I could throw myself into the fire and not lose money,“ Brown said. “It amazes me how complicated selling coffee can get.“
His customers gave him the idea to start his own brand. They would ask for the strongest kind of coffee he had, and he knew what the strongest beans were.
“Initially I was going to buy coffee and resell it to make some extra money and keep the coffee shop open,” he said. “Building a brand was really about making the product for myself—what I would buy if I were on the other side of the counter.”
The online business flourished, following some very good reviews, he said. But some consumers prefer to buy their favorite roasts at their local grocery store.
Brown got Death Wish Coffee beans and Death Cups into Price Chopper and Hannaford stores first. The brand is now found at retailers up and down the eastern corridor, as far west as Hawaii and California, and in a sprinkling of mom-and-pop retailers among the states in between.
Brown said projections show that the production facility in Round Lake, which was recently expanded by 3,000 square feet, can fulfill the increased demand.
“We will not miss a beat,” he said. “The facility handles 95 percent of all production now. When demand is high enough, we use third-party facilities.”
Death Wish Coffee has 30 employees and continues to hire. Brown said he is looking to bring in a few staff, including human resources, marketing, and customer service.
But Brown said “the best hire I’ve ever had” is chief financial officer Tim O’Connor, who came on board recently as the company’s first CFO.
O’Connor is making a positive impact on the company’s bottom line and “making everyone better,” Brown said.
Brown, who has an accounting background, said much of his time was spent going over numbers, running analyses and paying bills. But as the business has grown, his time is needed doing other things.
“A business owner needs to focus on external matters, not the day-to-day. Now that I have found Tim, I realize how much he was needed.”
O’Connor is a CPA and a former chief operating officer who has insights on operation and production that are welcomed at Death Wish, said Brown. “The systems have to be tight and perform efficiently, so one of Tim’s first goals is to look at productivity He will help create the analytics to judge performance.“
Brown said O’Connor’s analytics have already revealed ways to save $1 million.
Brown said his entire team is “passionate” and makes community involvement a priority. The company supports Special Olympics of Upstate New York, St. Jude’s, and Toys for Toga.
A company coffee truck was purchased, to take to local charitable events and give away fresh coffee. The company is also working to expand into the grab-and-go market with a new cold brew system that will be sold primarily in convenience stores.