Packed With Purpose


Fresh Cup Magazine

A number of small roasters

have found that using jars, boxes and even milk bottles to hold
roasted beans can help them grab the attention of consumers
(especially those looking for bean-based gifts) as well as promote
And in an industry where thousands of cafés and roasters are
trying to carve their own niche, any innovative technique to
express a brand should be given its due deference. Just ask Elias
Ruhl, whose North Carolina-based Merry Oaks Coffee Roasters
sells beans in one-quart Mason jars. He says the packaging
strategy has become a central component of his company’s
image: “It separates us from everyone else selling coffee.”
Getting the goods
There’s a reason, of course, why the vast majority of coffee companies
continue to use only tall, slender bags for packing whole
bean: That packaging is recognized by customers and is widely
available from a number of distributors. So if you are interested in
moving into alternative vessels, get ready to put in some legwork
hunting down a product that suits your need.
At Springfield, Mo.-based Heroes Coffee Company, for instance,
owner Tim Ferguson two years ago began pursuing the idea
of packaging one of his
blends in glass milk bottles.
The idea behind the
company’s Milk Bottle
Project was that the distinctive
packaging would
draw attention to products
that benefit two local
charities (proceeds from
sales are donated to the
groups), and Ferguson
wanted to be able to print
the missions of the nonprofits
on the bottles. He
soon found out that the
closest manufacturer of
suitable containers was
based in Canada. “It was
tricky,” Ferguson says.
“We even talked to a local
dairy to find out where
they got their bottles, and
it was the same source we
had found. Getting them
locally was just something
we couldn’t do.”
The sourcing problem
was even more complex
for Sterling’s McGovern and his business partner, Aric Miller.
Do-it-yourselfers to the extreme, they designed the parcel concept
themselves and then contracted with a company in China to
manufacture the boxes. They then ran into the interesting challenge
of trying to import the product. “We got it over the water
and into the U.S. and then couldn’t get it out of customs without
going through loads of paperwork and requirements,” McGovern
explains. Eventually they had to hire FedEx, a recognized importer,
to handle the customs logistics. “That added an extra month to
the whole thing,” says McGovern.
It’s also worth noting that even when a roaster gets through all
the headaches of finding and receiving novel packaging products,
continued on page 34

coffee, not cows: Missouri-based Heroes Coffee Company uses glass
milk bottles to hold its Heroes Blend, which benefits two local nonprofits.
34 Fresh Cup Magazine
more struggles await. Customers, for one
thing, are accustomed to coffee coming in
bags, so while a brand with alternative packaging
may stand out, it can also confuse. “People
didn’t understand our refill policy,” McGovern
says of Sterling’s glass jar program, which was
phased out to make room for the parcel. “A lot
of things required explaining.”
There’s also the issue that jars and bottles
will add weight and fragility to your offerings.
Neither of those attributes is particularly
positive if a roaster needs to mail
orders across the country or even across
town. “They can be prohibitively expensive,”
Deborah Di Bernardo says of the glass jars
her company, Roast House, uses to package
its Nutcracker Suite holiday blend. “They’re
just ridiculous to ship.”
So with all the logistical elements working
against the idea, why use alternative packaging
at all? Starbucks, Peet’s and the other big
boys all stick to bags, and they do all right.
One answer is that by using containers
consumers aren’t used to seeing coffee in,
a brand immediately sets itself apart from
national chains, sometimes overcoming the
huge advantages in brand familiarity that
bigger companies typically hold. In fact, most
roasters that employ jars and bottles find
ways to tie their packaging to the local community
they depend on for support. When
Roast House, based in Spokane, Wash., was
ready to package its Nutcracker product for
the first time last fall, the company got local
fans and friends involved, opening the roastery
for a one-night party during which people
ate, drank … and stuck Nutcracker labels on
jars. “We really try to create community,” says
Di Bernardo. However, she does offer a word
of caution based on her labeling fest from last
year: “Don’t encourage your friends to drink
when you want labels put on straight.”
Also, the fact that more rigid packaging
doesn’t work well for shipping can actually
help a brand boost its local cred. Because it’s
unlikely a roaster will be able to distribute its
specially jarred or boxed-up product too far
beyond the company headquarters, availability
remains limited, and local customers and outof-
town visitors often view the products as
emblems of a place and time. “For us, the
word ‘souvenir’ is really important,” says
McGovern. “There will always be people who
want something to represent their trip to
Portland or to Sterling.”
That concept reflects what may be the
biggest advantage of nontraditional packaging:
its powerful attraction to gift-givers.
While roasters and baristas may themselves
be dedicated to the intricacies of taste, the
undeniable fact remains that many consumers,
especially come December, will be buying
coffee based more on looks and branding
than anything palate-related. A product
that’s distinct, has some heft and represents
a local company is often just what holiday
shoppers want. “If it’s visually attractive and
can sit on a cabinet or shelf as a conversation
piece, it’s going to be given as a gift,” says
Heroes’ Ferguson. “Around the holidays, our
sales of these products pick up.”
Sustained presence
Nontraditional packaging also can help
a roaster achieve the sustainability goals
many independents hold close to their coffee
hearts. Di Bernardo says Roast House
came up with the glass jar idea as the company
began investigating ways to move away
from bags that are thrown out once the
beans are used up. On the back of the Roast
House jars there’s even a label encouraging
customers to re-use the container to store
bolts, screws or other household items. It’s a
crafty play that helps keep the Roast House
name on customers’ cabinets and minds for
years to come, but it also helps the company
achieve one of its core values. “The purpose
of starting our company beside supporting
ourselves was to use it as a vehicle to share
sustainability and raise consciousness,” says
Di Bernardo. “It’s coming to be.”
Ruhl of Merry Oaks in North Carolina says
he started using Mason jars to cut costs by
using fewer bags (the family had scores of
jars on hand because of his wife’s penchant
for canning foods), but he soon found that
the vessels struck a chord with individuals
who had the environment on their minds.
“Some people are really into that aspect of it,”
Ruhl says. “We’ve had lots of conversations
packed with purpose continued from page 33
continued on page 36
roast house, a roaster in Spokane,
Wash., uses glass jars to help its
holiday blend stand out.
36 Fresh Cup Magazine
packed with purpose continued from page 34
that started out with the jar
and then turned into a big
sustainability conversation.”
But can a company get so
focused on sustainability
and non-bag packaging that
it starts to lose focus on
the bottom line? Ferguson
of Heroes, a company built
on the goal of supporting
charity organizations,
says that losing touch with
financial viability is a very
real threat to any company
looking to do good—
or just looking to pursue
unique ideas. He recommends
keeping sustainability
in mind, not just when
considering environmental
impact, but also when it
comes to accounting. “You
can get tied up in the emotion
around your idea and
lose sight of the fact that
if you’re really going to
help somebody and make a
difference in your community,
you need to run
an effective business that
turns a profit and is successful,”
he says. “Make
sure you stay true to all
aspects of sustainability.”
That’s key advice for anyone
exploring alternative
packaging. Dealing with the
logistics requires creativity
and shrewd business decisions.
But the payoff—if
planning and execution are
handled properly—can be
huge, even brand-defining.
“The idea is to emphasize
that your product is
not a commodity product
but an artisanal one,” says
McGovern. “If your packaging
does that, I think you’ve
achieved a very important
goal of setting yourself