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Gourmet coffee roasting business perks up for packer

Pat Patera

Mark Berry, an outdoorsman who’d long made a living from all things horses, realized he was going blind and fast.

“I knew I had to change my lifestyle,” he says. “But I wanted to keep working. Blind people just disappear.”

But the challenge for a 50-year-old man who had for years lived in the mountains, run pack outfits and trained riders: “What could a blind guy do away from people?”

Berry now runs a family-owned business from home a 40-acre spread in Palomino Valley, north of Spanish Springs. Of the homestead nearly 30 miles north of downtown Sparks, he says, “We’ve always lived out in the brush, but going blind, I needed to live near town.”

Blind Dog coffee is now sold in 40 major grocery stores such as Raley’s, Scolari’s and Whole Foods and

Berry has agreements pending with more chains. A 12-ounce bag sells for $8.99 and the roasts carry names such as Grand Canyon and Death Valley, places the owners had visited during their earlier career.

In addition to teaching at horseback riding camps throughout the West, for years Berry and his wife, Robin, held the horse concession at Death Valley, run from September to May, and worked summers in the high

Sierra at pack outfits such as one at 9,300 feet west of Bishop.

Now Berry works close to home very close, in a three-car garage converted to shipping office and roasting room. There, in a drum roaster from Diedrich Manufacturing,

he processes beans in 15-pound batches. The small size, he says, allows the air to circulate properly, as it cannot in large batch roasts. Using a specially modified panel, he controls roasting profiles including heat, air and time, to roast up to 50 pounds an hour.

While Berry has had some breaks, starting up the specialty coffee business wasn’t an easy trail. On the plus side, he says, he tapped into a strong 20-year trend for specialty products, and landed a spot on the shelves at family owned grocery chains by simply asking, “How do I get my coffee into your stores?”

“All our coffees now are in the top 20 percent of specialty coffee sales at those stores,”

he says.

But he hasn’t had to go it alone. His wife, Robin, delivers product to stores. Daughter Samantha Moya runs the office. Son Ian and daughter-in-law Yolia do in-store demos five days a week. Another daughter-in-law designs package labels, distinctive with a blind dog in dark glasses hiking the high trail or kicking back in a fresh mountain meadow.

While Berry’s passion for perfect coffee is evident, the grocery business wasn’t his first choice. Attempts to open a coffee house failed.

“I felt like a man on a short rope, waiting to get something going before I totally lost my sight,” he recalls.

“But two years ago, developers would not entertain any name but Starbucks. Plus, rent was running $2.50 to $3.00 per square foot, plus the 50 cent common area fees.”

“Everything’s been hard,” he adds. Finding capital was tough, and a series of five surgeries had depleted the couple’s savings. So he turned to family members who invested in the startup.

In hindsight, however, Berry says limited capital proved to be a blessing. “Some start-ups can suffer from having too much money on hand. But limited capital makes you think before making a move.”

And although he likes the higher retail profit margin inherent in selling online at blinddogcoffee.com, he adds, “I’m sure we could do a lot better on the Internet.” Shipping time is a problem there, because he’s such a stickler for freshness.

While Blind Dog coffee now sells from the Truckee Meadows to Sacramento and the California coast, Berry aims to quadruple his business at local grocery stores and by 2010 would like to be regional with one of the major chains.

However, he adds, “I’m still shocked at how hard it has been to get the brand into area coffee houses.”

And his thoughts return to the initial goal that has, so far, eluded him.

“I would love to hook up with somebody local who wants to have the best coffee house in town. Someday, I would like to have a little chain of coffee houses that have the art house atmosphere.”

As a child in 1958, Mark Berry suffered cancerous tumors on both his retinas that caused blindness in the

left eye, but he says, “Radiation treatment destroyed the cancer in the right eye and gave me 50 years of great eyesight.” Then in late 2005, he noticed the sight in his remaining eye fading. That radiation damage from decades earlier was catching up and he lost the last of his sight a year ago, at age 51.

After going fully blind, he gave up his horses and took on a guide dog.