International Educator - May/June 2012 - 78
Founder and President, the roasterie
For most people, the path to a career is a bit circuitous, with detours and a series of experiences that finally lead in one direction. For Danny O’Neill, the road to launching his own business was more like a single green light. He’s among the rare people who can trace his entire career choice to a single memorable moment. “I grew up one of a family of 10 in Iowa,” he says. “It was my senior year of high school, and I was riding motorcycles, playing football, and dating this exchange student from Australia, and I heard about this study abroad program. I thought that would be fun and on a weird whim, I signed up.” He’d never been overseas—he’d never even been on a jet before—but the chance to study in the home country of the girl who’d smitten him was too much to pass up. So he signed up, waited a few months, and eagerly ripped
“Three weeks into school, I got recruited to play basketball,” he says. “Soon after that, my new friends told me they were going into the mountains to go coffee picking. I didn’t drink coffee—I drank tea—but I went, and I loved it, and my life changed right there.” He finished his year in Costa Rica, returned to the United States, enrolled in undergraduate college courses, and started drinking coffee. “I really got into it. People now would say, ‘He’s got such a passion for coffee!’ Back then, they just thought I was weird,” he laughs. He graduated from college, went to work in Kansas City, and realized on a trip to Russia a few years later that his zest for life had been sucked out of him. “They had this enthusiasm and spirit that I used to have,” he remembers of the Russians he met. So he returned home and started traveling around the country, studying the coffee market. “The only thing I knew that I wanted to do with my life was coffee,” O’Neill says. “I pursued it. I had no idea where it would take me, but I ultimately found this new type of roasting called air roasting, and that was that.”
Danny O’Neill is the “Bean Baron” of The Roasterie, inc., a specialty coﬀee roaster that services espresso bars and coﬀee houses, ﬁne restaurants, high-end grocers, and coﬀee-lovers all around the world. Danny was born and raised in Denison, Iowa. He received his BA from Iowa State University with a double major in International Studies and Political Science, and a structured minor in Economics. He later received his MBA from the Rockhurst University Executive Fellows Program in Kansas City. After holding various sales and marketing positions for 10 years, inspired by his study abroad experience, he decided to take the leap and start roasting coﬀee in the basement of his home in Brookside. He is also a past president of the Specialty Coﬀee Association of America.
open the letter when it arrived in his mailbox. “I got the letter at the end of January 1978,” he says. “It said, ‘In three weeks, you’re going to Costa Rica to live. Here’s your family.’” And that was it. [He thought he would go to Australia, but the study abroad program sent him to Costa Rica instead.] He was, in a word, terrified, and says his family and friends were sure he’d lost his mind. But he packed his bags, flew to Costa Rica (without being able to speak a word of Spanish) spent three weeks hiding in his host family’s home with a stack of books, and was finally tossed into school and activities by the family’s matriarch, who feared her new American stead planned to spend his entire year in a bedroom. In 1993, O’Neill founded The Roasterie in his basement, hoping to bring air-roasted coffee to a small audience. “My goal was to find maybe 50 people who would buy my coffee so I wouldn’t have to go back to a corporate job,” he says. That happened, and then his air-roasted coffee really took off. Today, The Roasterie is a thriving Kansas City business and cafe where employees and patrons alike are encouraged to “live life on the rim,” and where O’Neill tells everyone that his year in Costa Rica changed everything. And to this day, when he makes coffee buying trips to that country, he stays with his host mother from high school. “She tells all these embarrassing stories about me,” he says. “‘Oh, he was so homesick! All he did was read all day long!’ But we didn’t grow up with money. I went from having no money to having a lot less money than that, and it was hot and dusty and windy, and I couldn’t say ‘bathroom’ or ‘hungry.’ It changed everything.
courtesy of danny o'neill