June 26, 2004: Headlines: COS - Nicaragua: Coffee: Modesto Bee: RPCV Dave Lintner employs 35 workers year-round on coffee plantation in Nicaragua

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Nicaragua: Peace Corps Nicaragua: The Peace Corps in Nicaragua: June 26, 2004: Headlines: COS - Nicaragua: Coffee: Modesto Bee: RPCV Dave Lintner employs 35 workers year-round on coffee plantation in Nicaragua

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RPCV Dave Lintner employs 35 workers year-round on coffee plantation in Nicaragua

RPCV  Dave Lintner employs 35 workers year-round on coffee plantation in Nicaragua

RPCV Dave Lintner employs 35 workers year-round on coffee plantation in Nicaragua

Friends grow, grind a good cup of joe

By TIM MORAN
BEE STAFF WRITER
Last Updated: June 26, 2004, 06:12:35 AM PDT

rowing up together in Stockton, it doesn't seem unusual that Bing Kirk, Mike Atherton and Dave Lintner would become involved in agriculture.

However, what is a bit peculiar is that they would end up working in agriculture in Nicaragua while operating a boutique coffee roasting business in Manteca and a retail coffee shop in Stockton.

Say again?

The three men, along with partner Bill Filios, own a 1,000-acre coffee plantation on the slopes of Jesus Mountain in Nicaragua. In that venture alone, they have invested more than $1 million.

They also own the Jesus Mountain Coffee Company, a coffee-roasting business in Manteca and Jitterz, a Starbucks-style coffee shop in Stockton.

Kirk, Atherton and Lintner went to Stagg High School together in Stockton, and were fraternity brothers at San Jose State University.

After college, Lintner joined the Peace Corps and went to Nicaragua. He fell in love with the country, and after his two years were up, he stayed to administer a farming operation in Jalapa.

Atherton joined him in 1975, and Kirk in 1976. "We were young, adventurous kids in a Wild West setting," Kirk said.

"When Mike and I went down to Nicaragua, we worked for an American that hired adventurous gringos to work for the coffee plantations," Kirk said. "He did timber, cattle and coffee. We were coffee buyers, and we milled it."

But they were forced to leave the country in 1978 when the Sandinistas took over. Lintner, who had married a Nicaraguan woman, remained in Central America, while Atherton and Kirk became successful real estate developers in the Central Valley with Filios. Their AKF Development builds houses and the Spreckels Park commercial project in Manteca.

Spreckels Park is about 90 percent complete, Kirk said. The company plans to build 300 apartments and a few hundred homes in Manteca this year, he said.

Lintner returned to Nicaragua in the early 1990s, after the war ended.

In 1995, he contacted Atherton and Kirk with an idea.

Would they be interested in investing in some abandoned coffee properties in the country?

They would.

The operation now employs 35 workers year-round, and between 200 and 400 during the harvesting season. The coffee is all handpicked.

"We have an old love affair with Nicaragua," Kirk said, stemming from their adventures as young men -- "Riding a mule, packing a gun, playing cowboys in the jungle."

"We had some money to invest. Now we have our own jungle and rain forest, with monkeys and waterfalls," Kirk said.

Price of planting

With Lintner supervising, they planted hundreds of thousands of coffee trees, growing them from seeds on the site. The partners planted 380,000 trees last year, Kirk said.

But they discovered a problem when they began harvesting: the price of coffee had collapsed because of overproduction worldwide.

"Our thought was we could sell it in the commodity market," Kirk said. "But the price of coffee right now is at historic lows. It costs 75 cents for us to produce a pound of green beans. We were offered 64 cents."

With a production of 110,000 pounds this year, Jesus Mountain is a small producer in the coffee industry, but losing money on the crop isn't sustainable for too many years, Kirk said.

Royal Coffee in Emeryville, a specialty coffee roaster, was willing to buy a significant portion of the crop at 80 cents per pound, but there were still a lot of coffee beans left, and more coming as trees matured.

Another market for the coffee had to be found, or the partners were facing a long-term financial loss.

They decided to get into the roasting business, acquiring a roasting machine and other processing equipment, and Jesus Mountain Coffee Company was born.

Kirk took a crash course in coffee roasting, read and talked to whomever he could, and began roasting beans.

The company buys beans from around the world to roast and blend with its own Nicaraguan beans, Kirk explained.

Using beans from Central and South America, Africa, Indonesia, the Caribbean and Hawaii, Kirk makes standards, such as a French Roast and a Mocha Java, and creations with names like Yosemite Blend, Jamaica Blue Mountain, Delta Blend and Pacamara Estate. All contain some of the Nicaraguan beans Jesus Mountain grows.

The partners also opened Jitterz, a retail coffee shop in Stockton, which remains the biggest client for Jesus Mountain Coffee.

Kirk uses his own palate and feedback from Jitterz customers to arrive at his coffee blends.

The partners also hired Art Nunes of Manteca as marketing director, to get the beans in as many retail outlets as possible.

The coffee is now sold at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite; Casa de Fruta, two miles east of the junction of Highway 152 and Highway 156; the Blue Diamond Growers store in Modesto; and at the Hershey Visitor's Center in Oakdale, among other places.

Kirk adds flavors to the Blue Diamond and Hershey blends -- almond and hazelnut to the Blue Diamond coffees and a dark chocolate to Hershey blends.

Investing in the future

The roasting business, which employs just Kirk and Nunes, grossed $80,000 last year. Jitterz did about $200,000, and has nine employees, Kirk said. The sale of green coffee beans has brought in an additional $52,000.

In the meantime, the partners built a church and a school in Nicaragua for the workers at the plantation.

The partners are proud of the fact that they are preserving the rain forest in Nicaragua by providing jobs and preventing people from cutting the forest for wood.

"When we took over, we said, 'you can't cut one tree,'" Atherton said.

"Nicaragua was the first draw It's just a beautiful country," Kirk said. "It's very Third World, a lot of poverty. Kids, as soon as they are tall enough to swing a machete, the family sends them to work.

"We made a deal with the government, if we built a school, the government would supply books and a teacher. We have 50 students in the grammar school, and they get out at 2 p.m., then their parents send them to work," Kirk said.

With the land, buildings, roads and a hydroelectric plant to power the operation, the partners have well over $1 million invested in the Nicaraguan venture.

They aren't worried about losing it in another government takeover, however, Kirk said.

"It's fine there now. There's a lot of U.S. money pouring in, and it wouldn't be if people were worried about it," Kirk said.

To keep the operation going, the partners hope to help people set up coffee shops in order to create new outlets for Jesus Mountain coffee.

"We are still having fun, and we will continue as long as it's fun," Kirk said.

Kirk has abandoned his real estate developing duties to become the coffee company's full-time roaster. "Fortunately, I have good partners," he said -- Atherton and Filios continue to run the development side of the business.

"It started out as a little hobby, now it's turned into a job," Kirk said, with a grin.

It can be frustrating at times, he said, especially the retail end with Jitterz. But there is a payoff beyond the money, Kirk said.

"Creating a product is very rewarding, when people tell me, 'That's a great cup of joe.'"

Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at 578-2349 or tmoran@modbee.com.




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Story Source: Modesto Bee

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Nicaragua; Coffee

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