It was 1972, and America was ready for a caffeine revolution.
For years, we’d been drinking coffee the same way we had since the early 1800s: from a percolator, which worked by repeatedly forcing boiling water through a chamber full of grounds. The process was slow, and sometimes resulted in a bitter, burnt-tasting brew, but it was preferable to the only alternative — the bland, granular swill that was instant coffee.
But Vincent Marotta Sr., a real estate developer with some time on his hands and a yen for a decent cup of joe, changed all that.
With the help of his business partner and two engineers, Marotta designed Mr. Coffee, the world’s first electric drip coffee maker. Then he used his salesman’s combination of hard work and chutzpah to accomplished a second unlikely feat: He talked Joe DiMaggio, baseball Hall of Famer and coffee-abstainer, into being the appliance’s spokesman.
Marotta, who died at his Ohio home Saturday at age 91, often spoke of his creation as though it was nothing less than a triumph of human ingenuity — which, if you’re a caffeine addict whose morning routine revolves around the carefully timed gurgle of your counter coffee pot, you may be inclined to agree with.
“You know, I gotta tell you from the bottom of my heart, no bull crap at all, when I was developing Mr. Coffee, I never thought that this coffeemaker would be the greatest success in the appliance industry in this century!” he told Forbes in 1979, at which point he was cranking out 40,000 coffee makers a day and dominating half the U.S. coffeemaker market.
“I … was so involved with the thing itself,” he continued, speaking with a salesman’s flair for theatrics. “Like Michelangelo, when he was making his Moses.”
Marotta made for an unlikely Michaelangelo. Born in Cleveland in 1924 to a coal dealer who had immigrated from Italy, he had long envisioned a future as an athlete. As a high school baseball player he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, according to the New York Times, but his career was derailed by the start of World War II. After serving stateside in the Army he enrolled at Mount Union College in Ohio and then was drafted by professional football’s Cleveland Browns, where he played briefly.
Eventually, Marotta left sports to start his own company with his high school classmate Samuel Glazer. For more than a decade they made a good living developing shopping centers and pre-fab homes. But the business stalled during the credit crunch of 1968, leaving the exuberant Marotta with energy to spare for other projects.
Improving America’s caffeine consumption seemed like as good a goal as any.
“I didn’t like the taste of coffee at home,” he told Forbes, “or even at other homes.”
So Marotta turned to the experts, the folks at the Pan American Coffee Bureau, and asked them for their cardinal principles of coffee brewing. He found that percolators were heating the water to too high a temperature, creating a sharper, more bitter taste. Their technique of recycling the water through the grounds only exacerbated the problem. But the water couldn’t be too cool either — then it wouldn’t extract enough flavor from the grounds and the coffee would be too weak.
The ideal temperature would be 200 degrees Fahrenheit, he thought. The only problem was building a machine that could consistently hit that target. Marotta became obsessed with the project, much to the amusement of his friends and competitors.
“Hi, Vince! How ya doin’?” Marotta mimicked their mocking tones. “Still monkeyin’ around with that pot?”
Eventually he and Glazer hired two former Westinghouse engineers, Edmund Abel and Erwin Schulze, to design a device that would heat the water to precisely the right temperature and then and send it through a lined basket filled with grounds into a heated carafe. It took them three years to come up with a machine that made Marotta go, “Jeez — I like it!”
Marotta took his device to the Chicago Housewares Show in 1971, where he showed it off to potential buyers. A colleague would run to the bathroom to fill the carafe with water while Marotta sung the coffeemaker’s praises to interested onlookers. Exactly 15 seconds before the machine finished its cycle, Marotta would exclaim “And now there’s coffee!” And suddenly, there coffee was.
The buyers ate it up. Marotta left Chicago with 5,000 orders for his new product and a smug sense of success.
“I didn’t fly back to Cleveland,” he told Forbes. “I came back on a cloud!”
Despite being three to four times the price of the pervasive percolators, the new Mr. Coffee flew off the shelves. That’s when Marotta began brainstorming ways to “capture the ears and eyes of the nation.” After some thinking, he decided that “Joltin’ Joe” DiMaggio as company spokesman would do nicely.
The famed Yankee slugger had retired from baseball — and from public life — more than 20 years earlier. DiMaggio didn’t even drink coffee — because of an ulcer, he abstained from caffeine. But no matter. Marotta was eventually able to dig up DiMaggio’s unlisted number from a friend in Cleveland, and one morning in 1973 he called him up to make his pitch.
As luck would have it, the ballplayer had just won a Mr. Coffee at a golf tournament a week before.
“I said to myself, ‘Hallelujah, hallelujah,'” Marotta recalled to NPR in 2005. He continued his offer, “That’s it, Mr. DiMaggio. I’d like you to be my spokesman.”
DiMaggio’s response? “Well, I don’t think so.”
But it would take more than a polite “no” to stop the indefatigable Marotta. After getting off the phone, Marotta turned to his wife and asked her how she felt about a trip to California. They flew out the following day, then gave DiMaggio another call and asked him out to lunch.
“I talked a roll of cotton from Cleveland to Toledo about my grand and glorious plans,” Marotta told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2004.
Two hours later, the ballplayer and the businessman were shaking hands over a plate of broiled salmon. The partnership lasted almost 15 years.
In 1987, Mr. Coffee and its parent company, North American Systems, were sold to a securities firm. The brand eventually wound up in the hands of Jarden Consumer Solutions, which also makes Crock-Pots and Sunbeam appliances.
But not before Mr. Coffee had changed the way Americans caffeinate.
A New York Times article from 1973 that headlined “Coffee — After long years of decline, some hopeful signs” listed Marotta’s machine as one of those signs. “The electric drip pot is beginning to put a decent tasting brew in the American cup,” read an enthusiastic Washington Post story three years later.
By 1991, a Consumer Reports survey found that 90 percent of coffee-drinkers used a drip-style maker.
And Marotta, the relentless optimist, always saw opportunity for more.
“You can’t say, Goddamn it, you hit the moon with your coffeemaker, now you gotta bounce back and come down to earth.'” he told Forbes in 1979. “No! Because past the moon is Saturn!”
Marotta is survived by his wife Ann, six children and 11 grandchildren.