Pioneering Anchorage coffee roaster sold to Kaladi Brothers

New owner of Cafe del Mundo says business name, coffee styles won't change

March 31, 2011 

Anchorage's oldest coffee roaster, Cafe del Mundo, is changing hands.

"I'm going to be selling the business," owner Perry Merkel told customers at his Midtown coffee shop Thursday morning.

Merkel is retiring and is transferring his local coffee empire to Kaladi Brothers Coffee.

But the Cafe del Mundo business name and coffee styles will remain as is, said Kaladi's president, Tim Gravel.

"We plan to keep it separate," he said. "It's done real well as a separate brand."

Merkel's was the first Anchorage business to sell coffee roasted locally from green coffee beans. He'd become hooked on fresh-roasted coffee while traveling in Latin America and taught himself how to hand-roast small quantities for his own use while living in California.

He moved to Alaska in 1974, hoping to find a high-paying job on the North Slope. No such job materialized for the liberal arts major, but even more disappointing for him was the lack of specialty coffee with the flavor he'd come to crave. Canned, pre-ground coffee was the rule, as had been the case since Hills Brothers came up with the idea just in time for the Klondike Gold Rush.

Heritage Coffee Co. started roasting coffee in Juneau in 1974. But in Anchorage, as Merkel recalled in a 1991 interview, "I realized no one was roasting and few were even selling coffee beans, stale as they may be."

So, in 1975, he started his business in Spenard, selling to a few restaurants and guests at the Hotel Captain Cook, where he worked as a bellhop.

Word spread and, in 1979, he opened a retail outlet on Fireweed Lane. Customers in the cramped shop ranged from "acid freaks to state troopers," he recalled.

In 1982, he relocated the shop to 341 E. Benson Blvd. Over the years other storefronts have opened and closed, but the Benson Cafe del Mundo has remained something of an Anchorage icon, with a loyal and steady clientele.

Merkel said he's roasting about 3,500 pounds of coffee each week at his warehouse facility on 51st Avenue. The plant produces dozens of blends, roasts and flavored coffees, many of which are available at local grocery stores and restaurants.

None of that will change, Merkel said. Kaladi Brothers will acquire the warehouse property in the transaction, and that includes the roasting plant.

"We want to assure our customers that the same quality and the same style and flavor they had last week will be going out next week and the week after that," he said.

Kaladi Brothers' Gravel affirmed that.

"We thought it was important to keep Cafe del Mundo going in Anchorage," he said. "We plan to keep it separate; it's done real well as a separate brand."

In the wee hours before the announcement was made, the Benson shop was broken into. The thief smashed through the glass of the front door, making himself bleed in the process. He took bills from the cash register, but left the behind the tips jar and a couple of other containers that were bulging with money collected for charities and in plain sight.

"We're looking for a blind, bleeding drunk with ethics," said Merkel, sounding somewhat amused by the theft and its timing. The main door remained boarded on Thursday morning and the jar for collecting change to help the homeless was still on the counter.

The sale is expected to be finalized next week. On Saturday, Cafe del Mundo will serve free coffee from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to express appreciation for customers.

Merkel said he had no intention of leaving Alaska.

"My wife (Martha Henderson) was born here. So we won't be catching the red-eye as soon as the deal's done," he said. "I still look forward to coming in from time to time and getting a cup of coffee right here."


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

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