How Danny O'Neill Is Changing The Culture Of Coffee In Kansas City

Jan 7, 2016

Danny O’Neill has come a long way from his basement—where he first began filling orders for freshly roasted coffee in the early 1990s.

“The walls were covered with corrugated tin, because I have this old house—built in 1920 or ’22, limestone foundation—so to pass agricultural regulations, everything had to be cleanable, washable,” O’Neill says.

He used corrugated tin because it was cheap, just $5 a piece, and covered the floor joists overhead with a blue tarp. “Then I stuck up on top of those these horrid fluorescent lights, so there was this weird blue hue on top of everything down there.”

But these days, the Roasterie ships thousands of pounds of coffee a year from its fully modern factory on Southwest Boulevard, supplying stores, restaurants and three of its own cafes, including one that adjoins the factory.

Hundreds of 150-pound bags of green coffee line the walls and various machines roast, grind and package the finished product. Outside of the building, O’Neill’s whimsical side is on display—a vintage DC-3 airplane appears to be taking off from the building. That image decorates the bags of Roasterie coffee and has become a Kansas City icon.

 

Danny O'Neill samples one of the previous day's roasts
Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3

So, too, has O’Neill, who was honored in November as Kansas City Entrepreneur of the Year by the Henry W. Bloch School of Management at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“I still really don’t feel like I know much about business itself,” O’Neill says. “But that spring of ’93, I’m trying to think of something else to do, I’m really burnt out on what I’m doing, and coffee’s the only idea I have.”

It was a good idea. O’Neill’s first order was for a coffee cart at the University of Kansas Medical Center. O’Neill shocked the cart operator by filling her order in a matter of hours—rather than the weeks she was accustomed to waiting.

Soon he was spending his days selling the coffee, his nights roasting it and his weekends offering samples in local stores. Still, he says, his early decisions were about more than increasing volume.

“We really just focused on quality, and had great mentors,” O’Neill says. “We were stubborn enough, and lucky enough and fortunate enough to really just stick to our game and stick to quality.”

Still people wanted him to lower the price.

“One of them was a huge order. We would have made $300,000 in a month back in the late ’90s,” says O’Neill. “It was easy for us because we were only going to buy the best coffee we could find in the world.”

O’Neill says the Roasterie has plans for expansion, but the Roasterie’s factory won’t be growing any larger. In fact, the actual production space will decrease as machinery becomes more efficient, even as it becomes more visible to customers. Meanwhile, O'Neill hopes to add new shops and spaces to nearby property that will—as he envisions it—transform the whole neighborhood.

“The vision I have is kind of like the wharf in San Francisco or Union Station in Washington, D.C., with lots of open spaces,” O’Neill says. “So it might be chocolate, and cheese, and a bakery and that sort of thing. The idea is to create a destination down here in this area, where it’s not Roasterie-driven or Roasterie-specific, but we’re just part of the neighborhood.”

This interview was part of Innovation KC, a series of conversations about innovation and innovators in Kansas City. To suggest Kansas City innovators for future interviews, send us an emailtweet us, or find us on Facebook.

Brian Ellison is a host/contributor at KCUR. You can reach him at brian@kcur.org or on Twitter @ptsbrian.