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The Daily Grind

Staking Their Claim

After nearly six months of failed trials, Greg Jr.'s final-hour solution to save Victorian House Concentrated Coffee came in the form of a biotech firm recommended by a family friend. The company's "off-the-wall" test using one of its bio-applications would ensure the bottled product stayed out of the refrigerated section of grocery stores, where Kraft General Foods' version had died a quick death, and instead sit atop shelves containing popular freeze-dried instant coffees. For that, the $500 testing fee was a small price to pay.

Patenting the perfectly sterile,additive- and preservative-free liquid concentrate, however, proved to be an exhaustive effort. But without patent protection, any member of the $1 billion U.S. instant coffee industry could make nonrefrigerated concentrated coffee its game.

The Patent Era lasted from 1990 to 1996 and cost the family nearly $40,000. The first four years, says Greg Jr., were not unlike "beating your head against a wall." But Greg Jr., occasionally tagged a pig-headed know-it-all by family members, reminded himself, "Just because the government says no doesn't mean they're right." After a second and third try, the Patent Office finally understood the novelty of their product and approved their patent. Greg Jr.'s fearlessness, whether in asking the most obvious business questions or taking the initiative to switch patent attorneys early on, helped prove naysayers wrong. Ryan Coffee Co. would change an industry that hadn't evolved in 25 years by means even industry giants had failed to discover.

Today, Victorian House is reinvigorating the shelves of more than 800 retailers in California and Western Nevada. "It's like Sesame Street--one of these things does not belong," jokes Greg Jr. about the product's place among Starbucks' whole-bean coffees and other traditional instant coffee products.

Long gone are the days when so-called experts tried to persuade the inexperienced family business proprietors they'd never be able to sell anyone on the product. Early on, a marketing expert even went so far as to proclaim Ryan Coffee's chances of raising money (which it did via private-placement financing in the spring of 1998) as being slim to none. "I was so depressed as I drove back to the office," recalls Greg Jr. of his meeting with the marketing expert. "But I knew deep in my heart this was a great product and a great idea."

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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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