Zakir Twaddle expected to be in trouble when he brought his date home at 8 a.m. after the California High School prom. Instead, her mother invited him in and gave Twaddle his first cup of coffee. It wasn’t love at first sip, but that taste would lead to another cup, and that next cup would lead to a passion and, ultimately, a career in coffee roasting.
Eleven years ago, Zakir started Z-Best Coffee Co., a roasting and distribution operation based in his house and an outbuilding in northern Boone County. The business began with sudden inspiration and a $5,000 loan. It now provides 1,200 pounds of roasted coffee beans each week for more than a dozen local restaurants and grocery stores, including Hy-Vee, and boasts a widespread mail-order clientele.
“Even when I was poor, I always splurged and bought good coffee,” Twaddle said. “It always seemed to be really important. It helped me to keep a good attitude, and it just sort of touched me.”
Zakir was born Tracy Twaddle in Maryville, Mo. After a year at the University of Missouri-Columbia, he quit school and set out to learn about the world through a series of odd jobs and spiritual explorations. A Sufi sheikh in Texas gave him the name Zakir, which means “one who remembers God.” He does not practice Sufism, a branch of Islam, but the faith has a place in his life and work.
When Twaddle begins to roast a batch of coffee beans, he recites the first verse, or sura, of the Koran.
“I have this intention that when people drink my coffee they’ll not only enjoy the taste, but they’ll get something good in their life and they’ll find what they need,” Twaddle said.
The space in Twaddle’s fan-cooled outbuilding is nearly filled by the gas-fired barrel roaster he refers to as “my baby.” And the steel behemoth gets angry-hot, up to 450 degrees, and drenches him in sweat.
He bought the roaster a little more than two years ago from a company in Oklahoma City. It’s his third roaster and the largest he has ever owned. It can roast 40 pounds of beans at a time, where his last roaster could roast only five.
Back in 1986, Twaddle used part of a $5,000 loan to buy an antique sample roaster from a friend whose uncle was the head taster for Folgers. The bulk of the money went to buy scales, packaging and four 150-pound bags of coffee. Twaddle could roast only one pound of coffee at a time, but it was enough to get him started.
But when Twaddle announced to his wife, Pat, and daughter, Sarah, that he wanted to start a coffee company, they laughed.
“When my wife realized I was serious, she said, ‘If this is what you want to do, I support you, but let’s do it with a small amount of money, hard work and time,’” Twaddle said. “So that’s how we did it.”
With roasting more or less under control, Twaddle took on the challenge of running a small business and made a classic rookie mistake: He miscalculated cost versus overhead.
“I sold coffee so cheap in the beginning that I couldn’t replace all four bags,” Twaddle said. “And then coffee prices went up.”
He had to raise his prices suddenly, but few of his clients were surprised.
“People were expecting me to raise it,” Twaddle said. “Every time I’ve raised my prices, my sales have gone up. I said, ‘Sorry, I gotta raise my price,’ and they said, ‘Yeah, we figured you were going to have to.’”
Z-Best Coffee’s client list includes Clovers health food stores, Sycamore restaurant and Uprise Bakery, to name a few. Each week the businesses call Twaddle with their orders on Monday, he roasts on Tuesday, and he delivers the coffee (sometimes with help from his wife or daughter) on Wednesday.
“Sometimes they go out of their way to help us out because they can,” said Sanford Speake, manager of Sycamore. “If I forget to order coffee, he’ll just bring it. And with that, I have to be forgiving when I order coffee and he forgets to bring it. It has to go both ways, and it doesn’t always work that way with bigger companies.”
Sean Foley, frozen, refrigerated and coffee buyer at Clovers Natural Market, also likes working with Twaddle not only on a professional level, but also a personal one.
“He’s very positive, good to work with,” Foley said. “He has this slogan — ‘At Z-Best we bean with pride.’ I like that.”
Once beans have been roasted, they have a relatively short shelf life before the oils break down, so Twaddle advises customers to order no more than they can use in a month. His beans come from Africa, Indonesia, South America, Central America and, soon, from Hawaii. On his coffee menu are 19 varieties, including four decaffeinated options.
One of the mottos on the Z-Best Web site is “We keep no roasted coffee in stock.”
Clovers has been carrying Z-Best Coffee for about six years, Foley said. He orders 10 pounds of coffee a week, usually selling out completely at both stores.
“At first [coffee sales] was slow, but then it picked up after a while,” Foley said. “Word gets around, I think. He’s been doing a lot more advertising and promotional benefits,”
Most of Z-Best’s promotion is through local public radio station KBIA. Z-Best is the station’s coffee sponsor, providing coffee at the radio station’s offices, concert series and events in return for advertising at a reduced cost.
“It’s really expensive to do advertising,” Twaddle said. “KBIA is basically all I can afford and only because they’re so reasonable and generous and I get to do all this trading. I checked into marketing with other radio stations, and I just couldn’t afford it.”
Branding is especially important to Twaddle because Z-Best has no storefront. “Everybody said, ‘You cannot survive if you don’t have a storefront; you’ll never make it as a business,’” Twaddle said. “I just kept saying that I think there’s a way to do it as a home-based business. Just take the orders from home and deliver. That way I can keep my overhead costs down. There’s a potential to make more money, but I would lose my quality of life.”