Vt. Coffee Co. sold; downtown cafe planned
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Coffee Company has been sold to Maine-based specialty food producer Stonewall Kitchen in a deal that will keep VCC in Middlebury, retain (and possibly grow) the firm’s local workforce, and expand the market for its popular coffee products.
The transaction will also result in Vermont Coffee absorbing more space within the Carrara complex at 1197 Exchange St., and lead to creation of a new downtown Middlebury café as soon as this fall.
“As a purpose-driven company, finding the right home for our brand and the friends I’ve made was of the utmost importance to me,” said Vermont Coffee founder Paul Ralston, who for the past year has been looking to ease into retirement while turning over the business reins to a company that would, in his words, be a “good legacy owner for the brand.”
“I am extremely happy that Stonewall Kitchen will be the new home of Vermont Coffee Company and will continue roasting with our entire team here in Middlebury,” Ralston added.
It’s a deal that will pay local dividends for years to come. Ralston has promised to use some of the proceeds from the sale to create a nonprofit that will address food insecurity in Addison County (see sidebar story).
Ralston began roasting coffee in 1979 after purchasing an antique Royal No. 4 slotted-drum roaster that he set up in the window of his bakery in Bristol. Two decades later, Vermont Coffee Company was born, and today offers more than 25 blends from its 40,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility in Middlebury’s industrial park. In 2018, the company became the first roaster in the nation to roast coffee using 100% renewable biogas.
Born in 2001, Vermont Coffee has 37 full- and part-time employees, according to Ralston, who himself will stay on through the end of this year to help with the Stonewall Kitchen transition. He’ll then re-evaluate his status for 2022.
Stonewall Kitchen is a leading specialty food and home goods producer headquartered in York, Maine. Jonathan King and Jim Stott founded the company in 1991, establishing the Stonewall Kitchen brand by selling jams and jellies at local farmers markets. Over time, they added sauces, condiments, crackers and baking mixes. Today, Stonewall Kitchen bills itself as the “premier specialty food and home goods platform in North America.”
Stonewall boasts more than 8,500 wholesale accounts nationwide and internationally; a thriving catalog and online division; a cooking school and café in York, Maine; and 11 retail stores throughout New England.
“We’re extremely excited to welcome Vermont Coffee Company to our growing family of specialty brands,” Stonewall CEO John Stiker said through a press release. “Both of our companies are committed to craft manufacturing high-quality products and creating meaningful experiences for people. The Vermont Coffee Company products are sustainably sourced, 100% organic, and — most importantly — make a delicious cup of coffee. We believe these deeply rooted values and commitment to quality make Vermont Coffee Company the perfect addition to our family.”
It was three years ago, at age 65, that Ralston began considering a succession plan for Vermont Coffee. He and his spouse, Deb Gwinn, have no children, and he wanted to play a role in writing the next chapter of his company.
“I pursued a number of different avenues trying to figure out something that would respect the work we’ve done, the brand that we’ve built, the employees we have, and the customers — and most importantly, our commitment to the community,” he said.
Ralston transitioned to what he called “a practice retirement” in November of 2019.
“For the last year, I personally have been stepping back from day-to-day management of the company,” he said. “I’ve put a lot of effort over the years recruiting a really great team of people. In the last year and a half, with two additional senior management hires, I’ve really filled up the team. They’ve had about a full year on their own to get used to running the company. I’ve been letting a succession management team take over.”
LOOKING FOR A BUYER
Ralston began drafting a list of qualifications for new ownership.
“It was very, very important to me that the brand and employees ended up with a company that valued them tremendously and had similar culture and similar commitment to innovation, quality and customer service,” he said.
Vermont Coffee officials compiled a list of around 100 companies and people they admired. Six months ago, Ralston hired an investment banking firm and an accounting firm to help vet and trim the “potential new owners” list.
“That allowed me to stay in the background, have someone get in touch with those folks, find out if they have any interest (in buying the company), the financial capacity, and whether they were interested in following the path we’ve created,” he said.
Ralston found a lot of suitors — “several hundred” initially, and around 40 of them measured up for further scrutiny.
The level of interest shown in Vermont Coffee didn’t come as a huge surprise. It’s currently a leading organic brand of coffee in the Northeast — and the fastest growing. Since Vermont Coffee is available in chain grocery stores, all its sales are scanned through cash registers, and companies can buy that data. So prospects are able to use independent data to verify how the company is performing in the marketplace.
Stonewall Kitchen jumped ahead of other suitors when it quickly sent in a letter of intent outlining how its management planned to handle succession, and under what terms it would do so.
It took only 60 days to negotiate a deal.
“It wasn’t about the money, who was going to pay the most,” Ralston said. “It really came down to the cultural fit and the joint commitment that our company has that Stonewall shares. It was very, very important to me that the brand and employees ended up with a company that valued them tremendously and had similar culture and similar commitment to innovation, quality and customer service.
“This was frankly an easy decision for me.”
Vermont Coffee Company officials are already working with their Stonewall counterparts to ensure a smooth transition. And it’s a transition that portends growth and new jobs.
“By joining Stonewall, Vermont Coffee Company is going to have access to a lot more resources and a much bigger distribution network,” Ralston said. “This is a national company. Stonewall also has a very strong online business, and we expect to see a lot of activity there. We’re going to be busy and growing, there’s no question about it. And we’re going to be hiring.”
Fortunately, there’s room for the company to grow in the Carrara complex. Already, it has moved into a portion of the neighboring space most recently occupied by Stonecutter Spirits. Middlebury College has a short-term lease for some of that Stonecutter space (for storage), but Vermont Coffee will need all of it within a year or so.
“The Carraras are a really important part of the success of the company,” Ralston said. “They kept space available for us as we grew.
“We expect there’ll be some major modifications, maybe an addition to that building as we grow,” he added.
The former Vermont Coffee playhouse space is currently being outfitted with coffee grinding equipment.
“(A grinding room) is a big deal for us, because whole-grain coffee is a small sector — around 7% of the market, whereas ground coffee is almost 40%,” Ralston said. “So we’re going to be playing in a much bigger universe.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stonewall Kitchen’s Portfolio
In addition to its own products, Stonewall sells or will sell:
• Vermont Coffee Company’s non-GMO, certified-organic coffee
• Urban Accents’ globally inspired spice mixes, seasonings and sauces
• Village Candle’s fragranced candles, gifts and accessories
• Tillen Farms pickled vegetables and cocktail cherries
• Napa Valley Naturals olive oils, culinary oils, balsamic and wine vinegars
• Montebello organic pasta from Italy
• Vermont Village organic applesauce and apple cider vinegars
• Legal Sea Foods seafood sauces and condiments.