MORRISVILLE - At the back of a nondescript office park, bags and bags of lime green-colored beans sit at the ready. The rich aroma of coffee permeates the space.
The smell and the space belong to Muddy Dog Roasting Company, a 5-year-old coffee company that recently hit No. 12 on CNN/Money and Fortune magazine's list of the best small U.S. coffee roasters.
Muddy Dog co-owner Jim Pellegrini is the man behind the beans. He travels from Ethiopia to Nicaragua, India to Hawaii to find the best and most unique coffee beans.
Pellegrini's fascination for the bean has led him to Mangalore, India, during monsoon season just to witness the production of Monsoon Malabar coffee beans. The beans are sundried then stored in warehouses with openings in the roof which allow rain to soak the beans.
"It was a bunch of field workers and me," he said. "They were looking at me wondering what the heck I was doing there."
His knowledge of beans is so refined he can usually guess what type of coffee a customer will like based on their favorite wine. He even blogs about his coffee-related travels and trends.
"Every place I go to I have a better understanding of it, and I can educate customers more and they appreciate the coffee more," he said. "Customers are interested. They want to hear about where it came from, who it came from, how it was handled, what its pedigree is, how it's benefitting the people who grow it."
His stock includes 100 percent Kona coffee, Brazil Serra Do Bone and a slew of other single source and blended coffee beans that range from $12 a pound to $60 a pound.Garage beginnings
The idea for the business actually started about 10 years ago, when Jim Pellegrini, his wife and their daughters moved to Cary.
"I couldn't get a decent cup of coffee," he said. "To be fair I probably didn't try very hard.
"I read somewhere on the Internet that you could roast your own. So I thought 'hmm, let me try that.' I bought a little home appliance roaster and my own coffee beans and did my first batch and realized I would always roast my own coffee."
His hobby soon took over the family's garage.
"I knew it was serious the first time he roasted in the garage," said his wife and business partner, Debbie Pellegrini. "It was interesting. We had the garage door open, we had lots of neighbors walking by wondering what we were doing. It was a little embarrassing at first."
By then, Jim Pellegrini had moved to a professional grade roaster. He was also buying beans online - lots of beans. At one point he had about 2,000 pounds of coffee in his garage.
"The only reason it even occurred to me to bring anybody else into my little delusion was because I had so much coffee," he said. "In order to buy more I need to get rid of some."
Jim Pellegrini started giving the beans away to friends and family, who encouraged the couple to start their own business. The real impetus came when the couple's children started middle school and converted to a year-round calendar.
Debbie Pellegrini decided to give up her job as a teacher and run the day-to-day operations. Her husband kept his full-time job doing business development and marketing for a medical products company. In December 2006, Muddy Dog was born.Muddy dog
The company's unique name can be traced to, what else, a cup of coffee. That, and the family's yellow Labrador, Bailey.
"We were wracking our brains for a name for months," said Jim Pellegrini. "I was in California and I ordered a café latte, which I never do, and they slid it across the table and I looked at it and said that kind of looks like my muddy dog. The foam was kind of off-white and had these spots."
Muddy Dog has found its niche in Internet sales and individual retail sales, Jim Pellegrini said. The company roasts and sells about 20,000 pounds of coffee beans a year, including some custom blends, private labels and decaffeinated coffees.
The couple said their young business is faring well due to several factors: fresh coffee beans, customer service and a food artisan movement.
Avid coffee drinker Michael Mendelsohn, of Cary, was first introduced to Muddy Dog at the Western Wake Farmer's Market about three years ago. He comes by every few months to restock his supply of beans.
"It's hard to find good decaf beans," Mendelsohn said. "When I need them I can get them and I don't have to pay the (online) shipping fee."
The other attraction for Mendelsohn is the freshness of the beans.
"By the time ( the grocery store) puts the beans out the shelves, they've been sitting in the back room for who knows how long," he said.
Customer Michael Musolf said he has Jim Pellegrini to thank for his education on coffee.
"I've turned into a coffee snob," Musolf said. "People like wine connoisseurs can talk about the subtleties of wine. These guys can do it with coffee. As a dark coffee drinker, I've learned that the coffee itself matters."
Jim Pellegrini said the Triangle area is ripe for the speciality or artisan-type coffee beans, because residents are well-traveled, well-educated and have more disposable incomes. It's also part of a national trend, he said.
But, it doesn't mean the Pellegrino's business isn't impacted by the economy. Customers are buying more regular coffees and treating themselves to the exotic blends.
"A lot of time we get customers that go away for awhile and they'll come back.," Jim Pellegrini said. "They'll (say) 'I tried to do something less expensive and it wasn't as good. And, I'm back because this is priority for me. I'll skimp somewhere else.'"