A coffee entrepreneur's unlikely success story

 

This is not a eulogy, just a slice of life, or in the case of Randy Wirth, 67, a fine cup of coffee with a good man.

I can’t claim to have been a longtime friend, but I was a longtime acquaintance. We were both members of The Old-Guys-in-Speedos-Eeewww Club. We were fast and still doing flip turns in the pool. If you didn’t like the way we looked, that was your problem. We just refused to swim in knee-length cloth bags. We first met at the Utah State University pool in Logan in the early 1980s and talked as recently as a month ago at another local pool. Most of our most meaningful conversations took place either before or after swimming.

The last conversation we had was something along the lines of “Wow, all the stuff we thought would never happen in Cache Valley has happened -- coffee shops all over campus, a thriving gardener’s market, free bus service, beer sales on Sundays and even passable ethnic food.” Staying in one place for 30-plus years can sometimes compost your brain, but it can also compensate with the gift of perspective.

Few people plan to stay anywhere that long; it’s as if time just slowly leaks out of a tire of unknown size. I gathered from some of those early swim talks that Randy had a plan to sell the business that he founded with his wife, Sally Sears, in 1976, say aloha to Logan, Utah, and move to Kauai, Hawaii’s garden island. I probably had plans for something more exotic myself, but neither the Pulitzer Prize folks nor the U.S. Olympic Committee ever called. That said, neither of us were living lives of regret.

I’m not sure why his plans changed, but it was probably coffee-induced. That’s what most people associate with Randy Wirth and the Caffe Ibis now, but 23 years ago it was just a locker-room dream. Mountain grown, mountain roasted, triple-certified; you might have heard of it because his coffee is now sold all over the West. At first, we discussed Peet’s Coffee and the Santa Cruz Roasting Company like they were favorite centerfolds. Later, we gossiped about some sexy upstart coffee shop called Starbucks.

I don’t want to make Randy sound boring. When he wasn’t talking about his passion for roasting coffee, he could regale you with stories about crashing helicopters in Vietnam, but he never seemed to identify himself with the war or with that era. Randy didn’t want to just sell coffee; he wanted to trace each bean back to its literal roots. So why not do that in Logan, Utah, even though 70 percent of the population thought coffee was against their religion? His coffee company had all the makings of a failed pipe dream, but somehow, his vision materialized despite the odds.

There are many shades of leafy-green, granola-crunchy personalities in the Cache Valley, ranging from those with look-at-me solar panels to the more subtle composters and environmental activists. Meanwhile, I feel pretty good about myself if I remember to bring a bag to the grocery store one out of 10 trips. Randy was a more behind-the-scenes sort of greenie. His early certification of organic, fair-trade and bird-friendly coffee really was revolutionary in a now-Starbucks buzzed world. It’s always hard to sell a truly responsible product, because most people just glance at the label and calculate the price, but he made it work.

While the Caffe Ibis itself never grew much larger, the scope of the coffee business Randy started expanded across the region. It seemed like the coolest coffee shops wherever I traveled were serving Ibis coffee. It was one of the things that made me proud of Logan. I would send Ibis coffee as gifts and take it with me to Burning Man in the Nevada desert to give away. The last time I checked, the Ibis coffee locator showed that it was sold in every Western state and is even forging its way eastward into places such as Lubbock, Texas, and Columbia, Missouri.

Randy Wirth, co-founder with wife Sally Sears of the Caffe Ibis Roasting Company, died in a traffic accident April 12. Lift a cup to his memory with me.

Dennis Hinkamp is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a syndicated column service of High Country News. He writes in Logan, Utah.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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