O'Neill, 43, celebrates the Roasterie's tenth anniversary this week. A decade ago he was roasting beans in his Brookside home until 4 a.m., then getting up three hours later to deliver whole beans and ground coffee that he'd bagged himself.
"I didn't even pay myself a salary until the business was almost two years old. I lived off of my savings," O'Neill recalls. The business didn't move out of O'Neill's home until 1994. Now it's in its third location, and O'Neill has a comfortably furnished office at the Roasterie headquarters at 2601 Madison. He hired his first employee the same year he moved the company out of his house; roaster Norman Killmon worked without salary for nearly a year. Today, the Roasterie has twenty full-time employees who get paid with real money as well as all the coffee they can drink. O'Neill sold 30,000 pounds of coffee his first year; he now sells that much in a month.
O'Neill is one of Kansas City's higher-profile success stories, but building the Roasterie from a tiny start-up hasn't been without its bitter moments. The shock of an early frost in Brazil in 1995, for example, tripled worldwide coffee prices. "We raised our prices a little, pulled our profit margin way down and forged ahead," O'Neill says.
His successful relationship with area restaurants began when he started brewing the Café Allegro blend, which continues to be one of his top sellers in grocery stores, even though the venue closed last year. Ditto for the Fedora Four Bean blend. (Fedora recently closed.) O'Neill's other hot restaurant blends are the ones he created for Yia Yia's, the American and the Classic Cup. But he dropped another brisk seller, named for a Johnson County steakhouse, when he lost that account. "They went to some icky company," he says. Sounds like grounds for divorce.