In 1904, at the dawn of a new century, St. Louis played host to the World’s Fair. Amongst the Vulcan statues, ragtime bands and Summer Olympic Games entertaining some nineteen million people, a coffee bean importer set up a gas burner in a tiny corner of the immense fairgrounds and began quietly roasting his beans on it. Two brothers, J.P. and James O’Connor, happened to walk by his booth and, noticing (and no doubt smelling) the exhibit, stayed to watch. The rest is coffee history.
Inspired by that World’s Fair exhibit, the O’Connors, both entrepreneurs, went on to found Ronnoco Coffee Company, which quickly found a market delivering coffee beans to local hotels via horse and buggy. Ronnoco (O’Connor spelled backwards) grew rapidly, eventually expanding into a full beverage service solution for hotels, food service and ultimately the fast-growing convenience store market.
This was not St. Louis’s first taste of coffee, however. French traders had brought coffee to the region as early as the 18th Century, and the town quickly became obsessed with the drink. By 1920 it had become the coffee capital of the world, competing only with New York and New Orleans in volume of imports and exports, and boasting nearly a hundred of its own independent coffee roasters. In fact, St. Louis was acknowledged throughout the country as the epicenter of coffee roasting even by the time of the 1904 World’s Fair.
It is difficult to understate the importance of St. Louis’s location in its rise to the top of the coffee heap. Settlers looked upon the city as the gateway to the West (as evidenced by the famous St. Louis Arch) and as such, it held a tantalizing aura of promise and potential for a nation eager to launch itself toward global significance. St. Louis’ status and geographical position made it peerless as an inland distributor of coffee, and the temperament of its population—uniquely dedicated and hardworking—put the city over the top.
The entrepreneurial spirit of the Ronnoco brothers was characteristic of St. Louis, a city that dedicated itself to commerce and industry. The raw coffee beans were typically delivered by steamboat from New Orleans; after roasting, they were then carried westward by Conestoga wagons, stagecoaches and trains. It’s no exaggeration that, for a time, St. Louis kept the western half of the United States supplied with coffee.
It was a combination of three factors—The Great Depression, World War I and national advertising for coffee brands—that contributed to the shift of coffee roasting within St. Louis, and by the 1950s, the number of local independent roasters had declined.
From the French settlers first voyage up the Mississippi from New Orleans, St. Louis has always played a significant role in the world of coffee. Even as Seattle continues to grab headlines as a coffee metropolis, St. Louis will always be the historical coffee leader.