UPPER JAY — They lifted the coffee grinder four feet off the floor with an electric winch, but it wasn’t high enough.
“We had nine feet of water in here,” said Lewis Axtell, who, with his wife, Jean, was a founder of Adirondack Mountain Coffee in Upper Jay. “We had to replace all the electric motors and tear everything down and rebuild. When you get water and sand in that kind of mechanism, you can have some real problems.”
This was not good news for Lewis’s son, William, and his daughter-in-law, Michelle, who had just taken over the family enterprise. Tropical Storm Irene not only flooded their new business on Artos Way, where Lewis’s residence is also located, but their home in AuSable Forks as well.
“William and Michelle were washed out of their home,” Lewis said. “We were washed out of ours.”
But when repairs were planned, the business came first.
“The first few months are the most important, because that’s where your customers are gained,” Lewis said. The couple lost one account because of the flood, but gained six more when people heard of their plight.
“This is something we enjoy so much,” Michelle said. “It was an escape from cleaning up all the houses.”
And, while their homes had yet to be repaired, three-and-a-half weeks later Adirondack Mountain Coffee was back in service.
“A lot of new small businesses would have taken this as a chance to just back away and say, ‘This wasn’t meant to be,’” Michelle said. “If we can overcome that obstacle, we can overcome others in the future.”
Not only did their homes and business nearly get swept away, they also had to witness the final destruction of Arto Monaco’s Land of Make Believe theme park, adjacent to Lewis and Jean’s house.
“From my bedroom window, I could look out and see the castle,” William said. “Not many people can say that. It was something I was very sad to see go.”
The only silver lining was that a lot of artifacts and Monaco’s creations had already been moved for preservation and display at other locations.
“I was always doing little things for him, helping him out in his shop,” William said of Monaco. “He was a wonderful man.”
Lewis, an executive chef since 1971, conceived of the business as he approached retirement because, locally, it was so hard to find a good cup of coffee.
Born in Boston, he grew up in New Hampshire and Maine and took a job in Lake Placid where he met Jean, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, around the time of the 1980 Winter Olympics. He’d worked in prestigious resorts and country clubs throughout the east including much time spend in Florida, but they picked the Adirondacks to settle and raise a family.
“I had it right when I decided to move back up here,” Lewis said. “There’s a sense of community you just don’t get in Florida.”
In days past, the best chefs hired someone to be responsible exclusively for the coffee. They did the grinding and blending, cleaned the urns, oversaw the roasting and were responsible for every cup.
But now, with everything hurried and mass produced, Lewis wanted to revive this tradition as well as recreate what was offered by coffeehouses of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
“They were meticulous about their coffee,” he said. “That’s what we were trying to achieve.”
Selecting an import center, American-made equipment and coffee beans harvested responsibly and humanely in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, he and his family started the business in earnest about three years ago.
“We have a proprietary blend of the three,” Lewis said of the coffee beans, explaining how slow roasting and careful grinding and production eliminates any acidic or burned taste.
Michelle, who handles the marketing and bookkeeping, works at High Peaks Dental as a clinical assistant and is currently enrolled at North Country Community College in retail business management. William has worked in kitchens and the hospitality industry including the Mirror Lake Inn and Whiteface Lodge, where he is now facilities manager.
They market to hotels, restaurants and tourist destinations such as the Candyman, the Olympic arena, the Hungry Trout restaurant, Whiteface and on their web site, www.adkmountaincoffee.com. Their brews include Blue Line, Hiker’s Delight, Sunrise on Marcy and Midnight Moon. They also offer mugs, t-shirts, pancake mix, maple syrup and gift baskets.
Visitors to the region take their taste for Adirondack Mountain Coffee home with them, as far away as California. “We ship to New York City, Park Avenue addresses,” Lewis said.
A friend, artist Robert Segall, helped them get back on their feet financially after the flood.
“My big goal is to make this my main job,” Michelle said, adding that it would allow her to stay close to home and family, and bring yet another generation of Axtells into the business.
“My daughter helps out,” she said. “She loves to hang out with us when we work.”
Email Bruce Rowland: email@example.com