The Daily Grind

In an industry of high-visibility brand names, they don't have one. So how does this family's coffee company stay in business?

Take one post-grad challenging the theory of Father Knows Best paired with a sister who can sell anything to anyone. Throw that familial fire into a ring with the champs of not only the instant coffee domain but the grocery world, and what do you get? A ferocious battle from underdogs full of determination. They might not win the match--in fact, they accept that's nearly impossible. But they know how to survive. And until they're actually pinned, defeat will not be in their vocabulary.

Meet the team members of Ryan Coffee Co., the San Leandro, California, maker of Victorian House Concentrated Coffee: Greg Ryan Jr., 36, president and CEO; sister Heather Ryan-Dubé, 35, head of sales and marketing; and their father Greg Ryan Sr., 64, head of institutional sales and licensing. Sounds ultra-professional for your average family-owned business--but then again, typical family-owned ventures tend to steer clear of markets dominated by Kraft Foods Inc., Procter & Gamble and Nestlé, the largest food company in the world.

A new variation on the age-old mom-and-pop story: In this one, the MBA-awarded son sees potential in the stagnant idea Mom and Pop are sitting on and has to convince them there's a better way. Who knew concentrated coffee could cause such controversy?

The idea had been around since the late 1930s, and even large companies like Coca-Cola had unsuccessfully attempted to market frozen concentrate at the retail level in the 1970s. All Greg Sr. and his wife were trying to do when they invented their own liquid concentrated coffee for personal use was eliminate coffee-maker conflict ignited by "regular or decaf?" and get rid of coffee grounds and filter waste. But after friends began raving about the Ryans' homemade brew, they decided to sell it to local restaurants and hired a sales and plant manager to run the operation from their Northern California ranch.

Fresh out of Southern Methodist University in Dallas and hot on the interview trail, Greg Jr. returned home in 1989 to help run the coffee business. But with a product that perished almost as quickly as it hit the shelves, Greg Jr. didn't see much of a future for Ryan Coffee Co. He expressed his concern to Greg Sr., usually getting a response along the lines of "Oh, don't worry about it--just sell it." Frustrated, he stopped working for the company and decided to get a new job. "I said, `Listen, I think you and Mom are going to lose a lot of money because there's no product here,' " Greg Jr. recalls. About six weeks after he severed business ties with his parents, they announced the inevitable shut-down of the company--the product was still spoiling, and they couldn't figure out how to fix the problem.

Re-enter Greg Jr., who agreed to six months of salary-free experimentation to try to unravel the mysterious spoiling of the concentrated coffee. But this time, there was an amendment to the deal. "I made my parents admit and write down that the coffee company was dead in its present form," says Greg Jr. "[And I also made them agree] that if I got lucky and figured out how to make the product shelf-stable, I would get to control the company." Not too proud to realize their son's way was the only way, they agreed.

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This article was originally published in the February 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Daily Grind.

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