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From the Grounds Up, an Idea Grows

Cafe owner creates a way to turn coffee waste into a new type of plant fertilizer.


Last summer, Mike Theuer and his wife, Linda Brown, sold their coffee shop in Bellefonte, Pa. It's not that the Cool Beans Coffee and Tea shop flopped. This town of 7,000 is home to the county courthouse, and there were any number of caffeine-seeking lawyers around.

But the more customers Cool Beans attracted, the more the coffee grounds piled up, and the more Theuer worried about how to dispose of them. He began to see the coffee he served his customers less as a drink and more as a fertilizer in waiting.

The vision emerged gradually. Theuer's no gardener. He's not sure how he grew a patch of ornamental gourds one year. Maybe it was from the gourd he threw out in his backyard the year before. But what he didn't know about coffee and plants, the former child counselor with a master's degree in psychology would soon find out.

He learned that coffee grounds have long gone into compost, where the acid grains are neutralized to a benign and nutritious state by busy microbes. But he had only heard of applying straight coffee grounds to acid-loving plants, such as azaleas, and then only in modest amounts.

"A friend said, 'Why don't you use the grounds for growing earthworms? Coffee grounds, earthworms, they go together, man.'" Theuer considered it. He wasn't sure that he was ready for expansion from caterer to wormery foreman.

After a little more research, he decided to make a garden product that didn't wriggle. He dried the grounds, mixed them with limestone to cut the acidity, then added potash and bone meal to balance the feed. Presto, fertilizer. He put 1.8 pounds in coffee bags and sold them at his cafe for $4.99. "I just called it Gourmet Coffee Plant Food at first," he says. "Then I thought of the name Grow Joe." He liked it so well, he says, "I went and had labels made instead of hand drawing it on the bag."

Customers took to it. So did the press. The local paper, the Centre Daily Times, reported it, followed by the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. A mention in Horticulture magazine caught the attention of a vice president in the instant-coffee division at Folgers coffee. Theuer was sitting at his kitchen table when the executive called. Did Theuer need grounds? he asked, because Folgers had plenty.

Instant coffee, Theuer learned, is made in what he likens to a "million-gallon Mr. Coffee maker." Coffee is brewed and freeze-dried, and the grounds are carted off to landfill by the truckload. Folgers faced huge coffee disposal bills. A person willing to remove it for them would be welcomed as a beneficial scavenger.

But Folgers' New Orleans freeze-drying plant produced more coffee grounds than could be accommodated in little sacks on the home-made shelves of Cool Beans. In a quick series of developments, Theuer raised $48,000 from local investors. Don Bierly--a retired dairy farmer and a Cool Beans customer--offered the use of his barn for a plant. Grow Joe became Grow Joe Inc.

Theuer and Bierly customized old grain equipment to dry and store 20 tons of grounds from Folgers. Marketing-wise, Theuer was riding high. He sent 775 samples to members of the National Gardening Club, based in Minnetonka, Minn. They tested the product.

"His product did really well," says Bonnie Lofthus, the club's product test coordinator. "I remember, though, that people didn't like his packaging." But Theuer stuck with the old Cool Beans coffee bags.

Grow Joe did well in a Penn State University experimental trial against a commercial fertilizer used on cauliflower, string beans and beets. But for all the local enthusiasm, Theuer suddenly found he was overwhelmed. He was about to turn 40. He and his wife had two young sons. He was running a coffee shop, caring for the children while Brown taught seventh-grade social studies, and making coffee fertilizer in a friend's barn by night. He and Brown decided to sell Cool Beans.

There remained the 20 tons of grounds in the dairy farmer's barn. Theuer had barely made a dent in it. He decided to diversify the Grow Joe line. He invented liquid Grow Joe, along with stakes for trees and training sticks for potted plants made of Grow Joe and, the newest invention, Grow Joe seedling pots.

These would be like peat pots, starter containers that would dissolve into the earth on planting. But his version would deliver a shot of Grow Joe to maturing plants.

By last Thanksgiving, Theuer and Bierly had managed to rig a contraption capable of making from four to six 4-inch pots per hour. Theuer sent a sample to the garden chain Smith & Hawken. He was not prepared for the response. The chain immediately ordered 6,000 Grow Joe pots.

Without calculating production time, Theuer promised delivery by January. "I was frantic," he says. He called in Jay Schenck, a plastics technology extension specialist from Penn State, who recalls finding Theuer in the barn cooking up liquid Grow Joe on an electric stove and then feeding the stuff into the home-rigged press.

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