The Roasterie and founder Danny O'Neill are reaching for new heights.

Roasterie owner Danny O'Neill talks in plane truths 

The Roasterie and founder Danny O'Neill are reaching for new heights.

click to enlarge Danny_O_Neil_Sabrina_Staires_PItch_9.2012_3244.jpg

Sabrina Staires

Underneath a plane," Danny O'Neill says, "I feel closer to God."

The Roasterie owner is gazing through a wall of windows, looking up at the underbelly of a 1943 Douglas DC-3. O'Neill last month installed the refurbished aircraft (minus its heavy engines) at the top of the company's West Side coffee plant. A line of 72 blue string lights trails the plane like a runway.

"It's the spirit of inspired adventure," he says. "Maybe I was a DC-10 pilot in another life."

In this life — the past two decades of it, anyway — O'Neill has been a businessman, the hands-on leader of a homegrown success story. Painted on the plane's tail is 5931, O'Neill's Brookside house number. He and his family still live at 5931, the home where, in 1993, O'Neill started the Roasterie. (The airplane imagery has been a constant from the start, reflecting his lifelong passion for aviation.)

His latest venture is the almost finished café space where he's standing now, inside Roasterie HQ at 1204 West 27th Street. (In a few days, H&R Block is booked here for a corporate gathering.) Steel and dark wood have been trucked in daily to remake this six-year-old space. O'Neill rests one hand on a coffee-bean-shaped counter and, with the other, mimics a plane taking off as he gestures toward the spot where a 767 engine cowling, dragged from the Mojave Desert, is going to gird a manager's desk.

Dressed all in black, he moves toward the adjacent event space. Roasting and packaging equipment and bags of green coffee sit behind a sleek wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. "We wanted to be literally transparent and really open up this space," he says.

A plane sculpture, fashioned by the artist Stretch from the awning of the Roasterie's former Cherry Street location, hangs on the wall over the coffee roasters. The new cupping room is next to the event space, tucked behind garage doors. A bank of shelves the color of milky coffee holds cabinets where beans can be kept away from the light and air that would change their aroma or taste.

It's by the loading docks that O'Neill talks about his public pursuit of the former Folgers manufacturing plant, at 701 Broadway. He met with the plant's managers in the summer of 2010, a few months after J.M. Smucker announced that the plant would be closed and production shifted to a roasting operation in New Orleans.

"Boy, did I love it," O'Neill says of the downtown building, which covers two city blocks.

An initial walk-through excited him, but he began to have doubts about making an offer to buy the space.

"The second time we looked at it, I wondered how come we didn't see the concrete pillars every 12 feet," O'Neill says. "Then I realized: The first time, we were up on the roof and we were seeing the same thing that Lewis and Clark saw, the confluence of Missouri and Kansas."

The spell broken, O'Neill walked away. (The Folgers plant stopped production in March of this year and is in the early stages of being transformed into a mixed-income residential development by the Alexander Co.) Still, he didn't leave empty-handed. He purchased a packaging machine, and he picked up some Folgers metal bin hoppers, which are being fitted with wood tabletops and arranged throughout the new event space. "We'll keep the original tops in case anyone wants to reuse them," he says. "It's the same thing with the plane. If you could get it down and get an engine in it, that plane could fly again."

Each fitting and piece of furniture here seems to come with a story, showcasing O'Neill's startling recall. He gestures to a battered yellow forklift parked next to pallets of Voodoo and Super Tuscan coffee.

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