Last summer, Mike Theuer and his wife, Linda Brown, sold their coffee shop in Bellefonte, Pa. It's not that the Cool Beans Coffee and Tea shop flopped. This town of 7,000 is home to the county courthouse, and there were any number of caffeine-seeking lawyers around.
But the more customers Cool Beans attracted, the more the coffee grounds piled up, and the more Theuer worried about how to dispose of them. He began to see the coffee he served his customers less as a drink and more as a fertilizer in waiting.
The vision emerged gradually. Theuer's no gardener. He's not sure how he grew a patch of ornamental gourds one year. Maybe it was from the gourd he threw out in his backyard the year before. But what he didn't know about coffee and plants, the former child counselor with a master's degree in psychology would soon find out.
He learned that coffee grounds have long gone into compost, where the acid grains are neutralized to a benign and nutritious state by busy microbes. But he had only heard of applying straight coffee grounds to acid-loving plants, such as azaleas, and then only in modest amounts.
"A friend said, 'Why don't you use the grounds for growing earthworms? Coffee grounds, earthworms, they go together, man.'" Theuer considered it. He wasn't sure that he was ready for expansion from caterer to wormery foreman.
After a little more research, he decided to make a garden product that didn't wriggle. He dried the grounds, mixed them with limestone to cut the acidity, then added potash and bone meal to balance the feed. Presto, fertilizer. He put 1.8 pounds in coffee bags and sold them at his cafe for $4.99. "I just called it Gourmet Coffee Plant Food at first," he says. "Then I thought of the name Grow Joe." He liked it so well, he says, "I went and had labels made instead of hand drawing it on the bag."
Customers took to it. So did the press. The local paper, the Centre Daily Times, reported it, followed by the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. A mention in Horticulture magazine caught the attention of a vice president in the instant-coffee division at Folgers coffee. Theuer was sitting at his kitchen table when the executive called. Did Theuer need grounds? he asked, because Folgers had plenty.
Instant coffee, Theuer learned, is made in what he likens to a "million-gallon Mr. Coffee maker." Coffee is brewed and freeze-dried, and the grounds are carted off to landfill by the truckload. Folgers faced huge coffee disposal bills. A person willing to remove it for them would be welcomed as a beneficial scavenger.
But Folgers' New Orleans freeze-drying plant produced more coffee grounds than could be accommodated in little sacks on the home-made shelves of Cool Beans. In a quick series of developments, Theuer raised $48,000 from local investors. Don Bierly--a retired dairy farmer and a Cool Beans customer--offered the use of his barn for a plant. Grow Joe became Grow Joe Inc.
Theuer and Bierly customized old grain equipment to dry and store 20 tons of grounds from Folgers. Marketing-wise, Theuer was riding high. He sent 775 samples to members of the National Gardening Club, based in Minnetonka, Minn. They tested the product.
"His product did really well," says Bonnie Lofthus, the club's product test coordinator. "I remember, though, that people didn't like his packaging." But Theuer stuck with the old Cool Beans coffee bags.
Grow Joe did well in a Penn State University experimental trial against a commercial fertilizer used on cauliflower, string beans and beets. But for all the local enthusiasm, Theuer suddenly found he was overwhelmed. He was about to turn 40. He and his wife had two young sons. He was running a coffee shop, caring for the children while Brown taught seventh-grade social studies, and making coffee fertilizer in a friend's barn by night. He and Brown decided to sell Cool Beans.
There remained the 20 tons of grounds in the dairy farmer's barn. Theuer had barely made a dent in it. He decided to diversify the Grow Joe line. He invented liquid Grow Joe, along with stakes for trees and training sticks for potted plants made of Grow Joe and, the newest invention, Grow Joe seedling pots.
These would be like peat pots, starter containers that would dissolve into the earth on planting. But his version would deliver a shot of Grow Joe to maturing plants.
By last Thanksgiving, Theuer and Bierly had managed to rig a contraption capable of making from four to six 4-inch pots per hour. Theuer sent a sample to the garden chain Smith & Hawken. He was not prepared for the response. The chain immediately ordered 6,000 Grow Joe pots.
Without calculating production time, Theuer promised delivery by January. "I was frantic," he says. He called in Jay Schenck, a plastics technology extension specialist from Penn State, who recalls finding Theuer in the barn cooking up liquid Grow Joe on an electric stove and then feeding the stuff into the home-rigged press.
Quirky, yes, but Schenck was impressed with this seat-of-the-pants inventor. "He had basically put together a reasonable process," says Schenck, "until he took on that enormous order for 6,000 pots. He said, 'I can do one pot every 13 minutes.' I said, 'Six thousand of these multiplied by 13 minutes--with your deadline, you ain't going to make it.'"
The search was on for a proper, and fast, plastics press. Plant after plant rejected Theuer. "They said no way could I put my glucky plastic-coffee-bone meal mix in their machines," he says. Finally a plastics company in Akley, Pa., accepted the job. The engineer-owner, Rick Caufman, liked the challenge. "It's quite a diversion from MRI machine components and airplane phones," he says.
He and Theuer can make about 60 Grow Joe pots per hour. The first thousand or so pots of the "January" shipment of 6,000 went out to Smith & Hawken the last week in February.
Theuer sugared the delays by giving the chain a discount and charming the staff. "Even trying to explain the delays, he made me laugh," says Tres Fontaine, Smith & Hawken's merchandise manager for tools and clothing. She took it in good humor. "He's an entrepreneur. It's all part of launching a new product," she says.
The pots, she says, are only just arriving in California stores. A stack of six will cost $15.
So far, Theuer has made a 12-ton dent in the 20 tons of Folgers grounds. When and if it comes to needing a refill, as grateful as he is to Folgers, Theuer says that next round, he'll probably switch suppliers. "Now I could go to Taster's Choice," he says. "They're closer. Their plant's in Freehold, N.J."
Sets of three 4-inch pots for $2.99 plus shipping; 1.8-pound bag of Grow Joe, $3.95 plus shipping. Or, soon, from Smith & Hawken stores.