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Gourmet coffee line blends with outdoors

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`Everybody kind of liked my coffee, and when I retired, they still liked my coffee,' says Gene Hicks, who retired in 1996 from Phillips Display Components to become a fishing guide in the Minnesota woods. As a result, he created his own gourmet coffee line with an outdoors theme.

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OTTOVILLE, Ohio - When Gene Hicks retired in 1996 from his longtime job at Phillips Display Components, he escaped to the northern Minnesota woods to become a fishing guide. But he didn't disappear into the wilderness altogether.

Mr. Hicks, 60, whose northwest Ohio friends remember him as a premier coffee experimenter in his Phillips days, has created his own gourmet coffee line that follows an outdoors theme. “Everybody kind of liked my coffee, and, when I retired, they still liked my coffee,” Mr. Hicks said. “I was giving away 100 pounds of coffee a year. And my family said: `Why don't you just start selling it?'”

He decided to do just that, but he took the concept to an extreme.

Most of his coffees have well-thought out names, including a fishing blend, campfire blend, canoe blend, and sunset blend, the latter of which is a mild coffee that's at least 97 per cent caffeine free. The fishing blend's label includes a photograph of Mr. Hicks, who's holding a nearly nine-pound walleye that he caught on a fishing trip.

Mr. Hicks got involved with the coffee business after personally experimenting with different roasts, and coming up with what he believes are good blends.

He selects beans from specific plantations, and then makes sure that they are slow-roasted and air-cooled by an award-winning master roaster he's hired.

As a result of the process, Mr. Hicks created a coffee known as the farmer's blend in honor of his friends and family members back home, many of whom farm throughout Putnam County.

He recently developed a “good morning” blend, which could become a favorite among farmers.

Sue Barker, Mr. Hicks' sister-in-law, said those coffees are more popular in Ohio.

“It's a totally different market here than it is up there,” she said. “We're in a rural community here, so the farmers' blend works well.”

In the past few years, Mr. Hicks has sold his products around his home in Ely, Minn., as well as local stores in Findlay, Ottawa, Ottoville, Pandora, and Gilboa. Mr. Hicks said his business has grown to include customers in 29 different states.

Last year, he sold 4,500 of his 12-ounce coffee bags, a figure which makes him proud. Those bags typically are sold for $8 in stores.

But the transition from novice to professional brewer hasn't been easy, Mr. Hicks admitted.

He struggled to find just the right packaging for his grounds, but spent even more time looking for quality beans and a knowledgeable master roaster to handle his business.

It wasn't until Mr. Hicks found all the right ingredients that he started producing his own coffee line. Despite growing pains, he intends to continue with the work. “I plan on staying in it,” he said. “This is getting to be a real job now.”

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