“Boston just sounded like a classy word to Don,” Sally Dean remembered of Boston Stoker’s founding. “It was either that or Argyle or something similar, but driving back to the farm in Ludlow Falls, he’d pass by Boston’s Wine Cellar all of the time. The name just kind of stuck.”
Only a month and a half after deciding to start their pipe and tobacco shop, Don and Sally Dean opened the first Boston Stoker in Englewood, Ohio in 1973, followed shortly by a second shop in Fairborn, Ohio in 1975. Located north of Dayton, the close proximity to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base meant that a large portion of Boston Stoker’s early clientele were quick drop-ins from the officers. Wanting to keep customers in the shop longer, the Deans started offering them free, freshly brewed coffee.
“Dad was originally buying the coffee from a local roaster, pretty uncommon for that time in first wave coffee,” Henry Dean, current Boston Stoker CEO said. “It worked for keeping people in the shop but then more and more people were wanting to buy the coffee to take home too.”
This community of Boston Stoker’s first customers developed many of the relationships that would stay with the company for years to come. Mat Beckler would sit in the shop and hand carving pipes to order for customers. A native of Turkey, Beckler worked in Mershum, a mineral only found in his native country but highly valued by pipe smokers for its bright white color. John Pennick worked for Boston Stoker for over 40 years and began his employment by coming to the shop on his way to work for three days in a row, but never actually making it in to work any of those days.
After a few years of running both Boston Stoker locations, the original local coffee supplier went out of business. Never one to be satisfied with a lesser product, Don Dean began roasting his own coffee in 1975. Without a large industry in place to support it, the original Boston Stoker roaster was a repurposed 10-15 pound peanut roaster.
Closing and opening a new third location in the early 80s, as the tobacco business grew for Boston Stoker, so did the demand for coffee. With the peanut roaster unable to keep up, in 1983 Don bought a Probat coffee roaster able to roast 5 kilos at a time. Purposefully installing it to be visible to customers at the Fairborn facility, this helped create a greater appreciation for what Boston Stoker was doing by roasting their own coffee.
“When we started selling whole bean coffee people thought they were jars of raisins on the wall,” Henry said. “Before then they’d only ever seen coffee come as powder from out of a can.”
Don had only years before been just as new to coffee as many of his customers. Having no real education on roasting, most of what he learned was self-taught through calling experts from larger cities for advice. These phone calls and Don’s dedication to a quality product lead to Boston Stoker being invited to a meeting in 1986 for what would became the the Specialty Coffee Association of America. As one of only 80 charter members, this group now is a global association that boasts tens of thousands of members.
Reaching into the mid-80s, coffee continued becoming more and more a part of Boston Stoker’s business and a larger roaster was soon needed. The Gothot roaster could handle 55 pounds and replaced the Probat roaster in the Fairborn store. Even with the increased quantity, quality remained a focus and beans were kept in the store for no longer than two weeks to preserve freshness.
Other changes came with the coffee industry in the 1980s. With additional roasting, flavoring also become a part of Boston Stoker’s coffee offerings. Don also purchased one of the area’s first espresso machines for the newly opened Centerville shop.
“At first, it just sat there without being hooked up, maybe for first three years,” Henry said. “Once it was running it was like if he could do $10 a day it was a successful day. Back then we were just doing espresso, not really any specialty drinks. People just didn’t know about it yet.”
Another way Boston Stoker proved to be ahead of industry trends was by starting to develop direct relationships with the farmers who provided their beans. In 1986 Costa Rican farmer, Bill Mcalpin stopped by Boston Stoker on a nationwide tour, selling his La Minita coffee bag by bag from out of a UHaul truck. Don bought a bag that started the direct trade relationship where we now carry three varieties of Bill’s coffee.
Opening a fourth shop before the end of the decade, Boston Stoker remained a family run business. As Don managed the products of coffee and tobacco for the shops, his retired parents would help with day-to-day operations, and his wife Sally ran accounting, developed new accounts and raised the couple’s young family.
Throughout the 1990s interest and demand for quality coffee and tobacco exploded. Large chains and independent coffee houses opened nationwide and cigar suppliers were unable to even keep shelves stocked. Boston Stoker’s espresso machine that at first sat unattached and dormant quickly became a fixture in people’s morning routine. Over the decade, six new locations were opened as well as a dedicated office and roasting facility in Vandalia, Ohio.
“By the mid-nineties, Fairborn just wasn’t able to keep up with the new demand for roasting,” Henry said. “Seeing I-70 and I-75 as a great crossroads for expanded distribution, the Vandalia location worked well. There really wasn’t anything to the building at first. We would drive up in the 86 Camaro to mow the grass and play hockey inside the building.”
This expanded roasting facility allowed for the opening of new locations inside regional gourmet grocers, Lofino’s and Dorothy Lane Markets, as well as coffee carts at the nearby Wright State University and the Nutter Center.
“It was a much different time for coffee too,” Henry said. “For second wave coffee the focus was on variety, which meant six different drip coffees available each day and shelves and shelves of flavored syrups for making the different drinks.”
With a number of different locations, branding also became an important focus. Taking inspiration from the ubiquitous Ohio State Patrol seal, the winged Boston Stoker label soon found it’s way onto coffee cups and bags of coffee.
Bags of coffee were another expansion for Boston Stoker as beans found their way into local independent grocers, IGAs, Wagner’s, Lofino’s and more. With well-established connections, Boston Stoker was the first independent coffee roaster that many of these stores ever carried.
As the wholesale business continued to develop, the Dean family remained some of Boston Stoker’s busiest employees, with the kids doing whatever they could over holiday breaks, including bagging coffee in the living room.
The turn of the century saw the beginning of the transition from second to third wave coffee. This meant pairing down the choices of drinks and their additives for a more refined curation of coffees. For Boston Stoker, it also meant the continuation and expansion on the direct trade relationships started in the mid-eighties when Don Dean bought his first bag of La Minita beans from Costa Rican farmer, Bill Mcalpin.
“Second wave coffee started seeing importers traveling to the farms they got their beans from, bringing back samples of new varieties and neighboring farms,” Henry said. “Third wave was more about roasters traveling themselves, and I was lucky enough to experience that firsthand in 2005.”
Longtime employee, John Penick was supposed to accompany Don Dean on that trip down to visit Mcalpin’s farm, but health concerns lead him to cancel. Having worked full time at the company since 2003, starting off as a barista at the Dayton International Airport kiosk, Henry took John’s place to travel with his father.
“It was a real light bulb moment for us and how we do direct trade,” Henry said. “We should buy all coffee this way. Not only did it give us an insight into the farms and the methods in which the coffee was handled and dried, but it also gave us a greater appreciation of the workers, from the farm owners to the migrant laborers.”
Growing his role at Boston Stoker, Henry began talking with the farmers and importers the company already worked with to develop more direct relationships with farmers and co-ops from all around the world.
“A lot of trips at the beginning was just learning how coffee was done around the world,” Henry said. “We’d take what we’d learn and bring it back to develop a training program for the baristas back home. Everything from the varieties of coffees, the effects of micro climates, cupping practices, it was all still new at the time.”
As knowledge from the baristas grew, so did the desire learning from the customers. In 2006, the downtown Dayton location that had opened just three years before hosted the company’s first public barista competition with a grand prize trip to Mcalpin’s farm in Costa Rica.
“People were excited with coffee and the culture, but it would still be hard to convince them to wait a few extra minutes on a pourover,” Henry said. “Dad was always very purposeful though about making real experiences over that maximum perceived convenience though. As drive-thrus became part of coffee culture, he made sure that Boston Stoker never had a faceless speaker box, but a big window where you could watch your coffee being made.”
As third wave coffee fully made it’s way in from the coasts, Boston Stoker made it’s own transition as Henry Dean officially took over as CEO in 2015, joined by his sister Laura Dean as CFO. The new generation of Deans meant the full realization of third wave coffee for the company.
“We had been doing direct trade for a number of years, but didn’t want to really market it until our community efforts were in place for those farmers,” Henry said. “We’d previously been working with charities, but some had folded and the more we looked at it the more we realized that we could directly provide the assistance needed in these communities.”
These international relationships weren’t the only ones being developed as Henry began making more connections with the coffee scene in Columbus, Ohio through helping his friend Mike Habte open Upper Cup Coffee roasters. Getting together with the other roasters and shop owners from the city, an inclusive community soon lead to inviting Boston Stoker in and even helping make the connections that lead to the first Boston Stoker shop in the city.
“Columbus has always been very welcoming to us, even helping to fight for us to have a presence at city-centric events early on,” Henry said. “It’s a great community of working together to help build a larger scene for the city as a whole.”
With the new shop opened in Columbus and consolidating of shops in the greater Dayton region, the focus for Boston Stoker shifted to growing wholesale operations and making their carefully sought after beans available to a larger market.