Innovators

Vincent Marotta Sr., Who Helped Revolutionize How the World Brews Coffee, Dies at 91

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The next time you raise a steaming hot cup of coffee to your lips, raise a toast in memory of Vincent Marotta Sr., the gentleman who co-dreamed up the idea for the revolutionary Mr. Coffee machine.  

The inventive athletic entrepreneur helped forever transform the way the world brews coffee. He died in his Pepper Pike, Ohio, home last Saturday. He was 91.

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Marotta wasn’t always a coffee man. Before he bootstrapped one of the first-ever automatic drip coffee makers, he was a real estate developer with 5,000 homes and seven shopping malls under his belt. In 1968, amid an industry-wide credit crunch, he brewed an unlikely exit strategy with his business partner and high school friend Samuel Glazer, reports The New York Times. Together, they hatched a plan to disrupt how coffee was commonly brewed at the time -- slowly and inefficiently using an old-fashioned percolator.

“Well, prior to Mr. Coffee, you know, the favorite way of drinking coffee was through the percolator,” Marotta told NPR in an interview that aired in 2005. “Perk up the stem, you know, and it would recycle the coffee and then over the grounds again and again and again. It was really an outmoded way of making coffee.”

The way he and Glazer reimagined it is relatively simple. It involves an automatic drip-based system that routes water over a heating coil and then sprays it over coffee grounds in a paper filter. The coffee-infused liquid then drips neatly (and, unlike the old boiling percolator, coffee ground-free) into a trim glass carafe, where it is steadily kept piping hot on a heated base plate. The clever approach yields a mellower brew. It also enables people to prepare however many cups they want, instead of a full pot.  

Related: Americans Are Drinking Less Coffee Than Ever. Here's Why.

To make the coffee pot of their dreams a reality, Marotta and Glazer put two former Westinghouse engineers up to the task. Originally priced at a then-steep $39.99, the first Mr. Coffee appliances debuted in 1972. The machines were an overnight sensation and soon dominated half of the market. By 1979, they racked up a reported $150 million in annual sales.

Born on Feb. 22, 1924, in Cleveland, Marotta was a standout high school athlete. After graduating in 1942, he came close to suiting up for the St. Louis Cardinals as a signed centerfielder. With the nation in the grips of World War II, he served stateside in the Army instead. Following his military career, Marotta earned his bachelor’s degree at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, where he rose to be the university’s star football running back.

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In 1973, Marotta famously cajoled another centerfielder, “Joltin’ Joe” DiMaggio, into stumping for Mr. Coffee. It was quite a feat, considering that the reclusive New York Yankees legend couldn’t even sip the acidic stuff. An ulcer prevented him from indulging, Marotta said. By 1975, North American Systems, which Marotta and his partner created in 1972 to market Mr. Coffee brewers, had sold one million-plus units, the Times also reports.

Marotta brazenly cold-called DiMaggio’s unlisted phone number and asked the retired baseball star outright if he’d be Mr. Coffee’s spokesperson. DiMaggio was a sport, but politely declined. Not one to easily give up, Marotta hopped on a plane to San Francisco two days later with his wife, Ann. His mission: To convince DiMaggio in person. The second time was a charm. Marotta and DiMaggio sealed the deal with a handshake, as was often the custom in those days. DiMaggio went on to rep Mr. Coffee in TV commercials for 15 years, consistently boosting sales during his tenure.      

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"I talked a roll of cotton from Cleveland to Toledo about my grand and glorious plans," Marotta told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2004. "A thousand things went through my mind, like a drowning guy. At the end of it, [DiMaggio] shook my hand and said, 'Vince, I believe in you. I'll do it.'"

Some 43 years since its inception, Mr. Coffee, now a subsidiary of Boca Raton, Fla.-based Jarden Consumer Solutions, still sells a wide variety of coffee brewers. They range from inexpensive ultra-basic models to pricy “smart” brewing pots. App-controlled coffee machines aren’t the only way the legacy brand has kept up with up the times -- and the competition. It also now offers an official Keurig K-cup-licensed single-serve brewing system.

Related: The Keurig K-Cup's Inventor Says He Feels Bad That He Made It. Here's Why

Edition: December 2016

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