Ugly Mug Coffee started out in 1998 as a coffee shop near the intersection of Poplar and Highland, a gathering place for University of Memphis students. Back then, the shop was known for its free refills and for the fact that patrons could bring their own coffee mugs. Co-founders Mark Ottinger and Tim Burleson like to joke that the idea for the Ugly Mug's name came from either Mark or Tim (depending on who's telling the story) having such an ugly mug. The real story is that one day a customer walked into the shop, looked at the hundreds of mugs on the wall, and said, "That wall is full of ugly mugs." The name stuck.
In its early years of operation, Ugly Mug was more about the place -- and supporting the local student community -- than the coffee. But when Burleson and Ottinger were forced to make a choice between roasting their own coffee and keeping the shop open, they made the tough decision to close their retail operation. From that point forward, the pair dedicated themselves to getting the best-quality coffee for their customers and to buying only certified fair-trade coffee.
At the time, Burleson had no idea how complicated the roasting business would be -- as complex as brewing beer or producing a good bottle of wine. He and Ottinger visited various coffee plantations, where they tasted a lot of bad coffee and discovered that each country has its own grading system, based on bean size, altitude at which the coffee is grown, color, moisture, and taste. To complicate things even more, the coffee-roasting process is as tricky as choosing the beans. Through the three stages of roasting, during which the beans turn from green to yellow to light brown to dark brown, some 1,200 chemical compounds are changed in ways that augment the flavor, acidity, aftertaste, and body of the coffee. And that's all in just 10 to 20 minutes.
Ugly Mug launched its first full line of fair-trade, organic coffee in September 2002. In the beginning, the company didn't do much in terms of marketing. The theory was, if they taste it, they will come. The company got the word out through local craft shows, Junior League shows, any venue where Ugly Mug could get people to try its coffee. Slowly but surely, the strategy worked: In 2003, Ugly Mug caught on with local grocers such as Miss Cordelia's and Square Foods, and in March 2004, the coffee company landed its first major grocery store, Schnucks. A few months later, the business formed an agreement with the Memphis Grizzlies and the FedExForum to sell its coffee at the arena. And in October 2005, Ugly Mug made its first push to introduce its coffee outside the Mid-South, going to trade shows in 30 cities in just six weeks. It now sells to every state on the eastern seaboard, in addition to Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, and -- of course -- Tennessee.
Ugly Mug's latest endeavor is its Elvis coffee, introduced in November 2005. For now, Elvis coffee includes just four limited-edition holiday blends. In the works are a Limited Edition Elvis Collector's Series, Elvis hot chocolate, and an Elvis house blend. The coffee has garnered fans from all over the country -- and the world. Just after the release of the Elvis coffee, Ugly Mug received more than 100 voice-mail messages, some in German, Japanese, and French. To date, the company has sent out shipments to all 50 states and 20 countries.
Now that the company is more established, Burleson says he and Ottinger hope to open another shop. It's all about timing, he says. In the meantime, the easiest way to get your Ugly Mug fix is to have it delivered directly to your door -- no taxes, no shipping fees. All coffee is roasted to order, which means the beans haven't been sitting around for more than three or four days.
For additional information about Ugly Mug coffee -- including some quirky profiles of the company's staff members -- go to www.uglymugcoffee.com.