Vermont Coffee Company Sold to Maine-Based Stonewall Kitchen | Food News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont Coffee Company Sold to Maine-Based Stonewall Kitchen


Published March 31, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated August 17, 2021 at 1:56 p.m.

Vermont Coffee Company packaging line - COURTESY VERMONT COFFEE COMPANY
  • Courtesy Vermont Coffee Company
  • Vermont Coffee Company packaging line
Founder/owner Paul Ralston has sold his 20-year-old, Middlebury-based Vermont Coffee Company to specialty foods company Stonewall Kitchen of York, Maine. The private sale for an undisclosed price was finalized on March 31.

Janine Somers, Stonewall Kitchen's vice president of marketing and direct-to-consumer sales, confirmed via email that Vermont Coffee will continue to operate in Middlebury. That is consistent with Vermont Village, which Stonewall Kitchen purchased in 2019; the company still produces its line of apple sauces and apple cider vinegars in Northfield.

Vermont Coffee has 34 employees who work out of a 40,000-square-foot facility in Middlebury's Exchange Street industrial park. The company's line of organic coffees is known for its distinctive brown paper packages, which harken back to Ralston's earliest days of coffee roasting when he owned Bristol Bakery, 1977 to 1983. Today, the coffee is distributed primarily in the Northeast through more than 1,500 stores. Since 2018, the roastery has been powered with 100 percent renewable energy.
  • Courtesy Vermont Coffee Company
  • Paul Ralston

Per terms of the sale, Ralston will stay involved through the end of 2021 on a consulting basis, he said. His role will include developing a Vermont Coffee Company café in downtown Middlebury. The location is still to be determined, but Ralston expects it to open in the fall. The future of the currently shuttered Exchange Street café at the production facility is undecided, he said.

Somers said in an email that the coffee shop plan is part of Stonewall Kitchen's larger branded retail store strategy. "What better way to invite [customers] in to experience the brand and products than to open the coffee shop[?]," she wrote. The company has several Stonewall Kitchen stores as well as Village Candle stores, another brand in its portfolio.

Ralston, 68, said he started thinking about how to transition his way out of the company when he turned 65. "During COVID, with no place to go and nothing to do, it was a good project to take on," he said in a phone interview.

It was a priority for Ralston that the company remain in Vermont. "It makes complete sense to keep it where it is," he said. "It is Vermont Coffee Company."  In addition,  he wanted his business to  be sold to "real people making real things and selling real things," he said.

Stonewall Kitchen was on a list of potential buyers that Ralston and his team put together. "They have a tremendous culture, really similar to ours," he said. He thought that Vermont Coffee fit well into the Maine company's broad portfolio of specialty products, and that his product line would benefit from Stonewall Kitchen's resources and strong national distribution networks.

For Stonewall Kitchen, Vermont Coffee represents the kind of acquisition the company seeks out, Somers wrote. "We saw a high-quality product, created and manufactured by really great, passionate people, and thus a brand that we know will grow exponentially with the support and expertise within our family of brands," she explained.
Vermont Coffee Company employee Rob DiNapoli roasting coffee - COURTESY VERMONT COFFEE COMPANY
  • Courtesy Vermont Coffee Company
  • Vermont Coffee Company employee Rob DiNapoli roasting coffee

Over the 20 years Ralston has built his coffee business, he said that the category has changed significantly. "Now, pretty much, there's good coffee in a lot of places," he said. "The grocery aisle competition is very fierce."

Ownership consolidation is also a factor. "It's that big-fish-eat-smaller-fish-eat-smaller-fish thing," Ralston said, citing local example Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, now part of Keurig Dr Pepper.

In addition to his consulting role, Ralston will now be able to spend more time on other projects, including an L3C social venture he started about a year ago called Little Village Enterprises. He's working with one employee to explore ways to support local farmers and food producers with needed infrastructure and to address food insecurity.

Update 4/7/21: Loyal Vermont Coffee Company customers should rest assured that the company's Frequent Friend program, through which UPC codes from coffee bags can be exchanged for a range of branded and coffee-related items, will continue.

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