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Coffee Talk : To Protect and to Serve

January 28, 1996|Amy Pyle

At Brewhaha, the cunningly named cafe in Pasadena's One Colorado Center, coffee server Matt Barrios wraps a waffled paper cuff around a to-go paper cup of cafe au lait. It is a Java Jacket, the newest accessoire in cafes, which long ago gave up plastic foam and simultaneously began singeing their customers' fingers. And worse.

"People say, 'What a great idea,' " Barrios said. "Especially since the McDonald's scare." He is referring to a litigation legend, a New Mexico woman who successfully sued McDonald's after she toppled a cup of their scalding coffee into her own lap, causing third-degree burns.

What Barrios doesn't realize is how close he is to the truth. A year before the McDonald's incident, Jay Sorensen, pulled away from a Coffee People drive-through in his hometown of Portland, Orge., and out slipped the paper napkin running interference between the house blend and and his tender digits. Sorensen found himself with a hot lapful. His painful lesson in the perils of caffeine addiction ended not in a lawsuit but in an invention: the Java Jacket.

With no more know-how than the average coffee drinker--his only work experience had been in his dad's service station, which had recently closed--Sorensen began noodling around with corrugated paper in his basement. He came up with a model so fine in its simplicity that he figured it would never sell--a mere strip, roughly 2 inches wide and 10 inches long, with opposing slits that hooked together like a child's paper crown.

In an interview from his new workday digs, an office attached to a 4,000-square-foot warehouse, Sorensen, now 37, reflected on that moment four years ago: "I thought, 'There must be something wrong with it. Otherwise, why hasn't anyone done this before?' "

He put the paper scraps aside and dabbled dismally in real estate for a while. But, he eventually contacted a patent attorney and found a paper factory in neighboring Vancouver, Wash., to produce the first 25,000 samples. Sorensen thought big. He started with Starbucks Coffee Co., but couldn't seem to get out of the "we'll call you" loop. So, Sorensen and his wife, Colleen, set out on their own, carting their samples to the annual coffee trade show at ground zero of Pacific Northwest cafe-mania, Seattle. His booth was mobbed by cafe owners.

After the Northwest, Southern California quickly became the fastest-growing market, now accounting for about 10% of his sales--or almost 600,000 jackets a month (1,500 of them to Brewhaha). In the past two years, Sorensen's business has spread to the 50 states and even overseas, to Israel and England. It has expanded to employ his wife, his father and sometimes several others.

At less than four cents apiece, Sorensen markets the Java Jackets as cost-savers for those cafes that double-cup--"Eliminates double-lipped dribble," one trade magazine ad proclaims--and as a nearly effortless customer service item for those that don't: "Split-second assembly."

Entering the big time, though, has its pitfalls, and now Sorensen must decide whether to take on the giant. Starbucks is test-marketing a similar insulator in Chicago. Will Sorensen try to defend his turf? Bien sur.

"If people are trying to imitate us, I suppose that means we've got something good," he says charitably. Then his usually soft voice rises to an anxious pitch, "But it really upsets me more than just about anything else around here."

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