Java Nice Day

Can an upstart coffee company survive in the age of Starbucks? Mills Duncan has high hopes, and so far his cups runneth over.

THE MINUTE I POURED CREAM in my coffee, I knew I had screwed up. I was having lunch with Mills Duncan—who had gone to great trouble to select, blend, and roast the coffee beans—and as I glanced across the table, I saw him wince. Poor guy. He must have felt like an artist discovering that some creep has drawn a mustache on the portrait he had painted.

To say that 35-year-old Herschel Mills Duncan IV is crazy about coffee is an understatement. He likes to drink it (ten cups a day), talk about it, and sell it. For the past 23 months, he has been hard at work building the Duncan Coffee Company, which he hopes will someday be the preeminent roaster and wholesale source of gourmet beans not just in Houston but in Texas and the surrounding states. While ambition fuels his passion, he also has a personal reason for wanting to succeed: In 1918 his great-grandfather Herschel Mills Duncan founded the original Duncan Coffee, and for 46 years, until the brand was sold to Coca-Cola, it was famous nationwide for its coffee. Mills is not going to be satisfied until the words “fine coffee” are once again synonymous with the name “Duncan.”

If you were assessing the present status of Duncan Coffee, you could say that it amounts to more than a hill of beans but less than a mountain. Its sales last year to upscale specialty shops and restaurants amounted to $500,000, and it’s producing 15,000 pounds to 20,000 pounds a month in roasters that can handle 25 pounds to 60 pounds at a time. But while those numbers aren’t huge—by industry standards, it’s only a midsize company, and some competitors have 600-pound machines—its clients are of a caliber that any business would envy: In Houston, the upscale restaurants Cafe

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