Coffeehouses are by their very nature warm and inviting environments. The smell of fresh brewed coffee hangs in the air, comfy chairs and sofas are scattered about, friends engaged in conversation are huddled together while solo word warriors peck away at their laptops. The sounds of screaming heavy metal music blast froth from the shop’s speakers while people…WHAT?? Rewind that, please. Typo alert! Should be “the sounds of acoustic singer/songwriters flow gently from the shop’s speakers.”
One can imagine David Ellefson smiling at that image as he says “Because it’s not what everybody else is doing with just another, you know, brand of alcohol or an energy drink…and I saw what everybody else is doing, meaning those things have already been pushed out there.”
Ellefson is talking about his specialty coffee business, simply named Ellefson Coffee Company. The company features online sales of roasted coffees with names such as Roast in Peace, She Wolf, Kenya Thrash and Urban Legend. Ellefson also has a coffeehouse in his hometown of Jackson, Minnesota, where one can not only get a cup of great java, but also check out music memorabilia from Megadeth and other bands.
Celebrities attaching their names to products are nothing new, but this isn’t a case of Ellefson simply licensing his moniker to an existing business–he’s a coffee aficionado and has a hand in the day-to-day operations. “Yeah, I mean, this is my company. We started the company from scratch. This is not a merch item where I just laid my brand and my name over top of something. It started when I was introduced to Paul Waggoner, who is with Parliament Coffee Roasters out of Charlotte, North Carolina. He said ‘I’ll roast and you just give me whatever names,’ but I was very involved from the very beginning as I was very particular about the coffee that I wanted to use. I love Indonesian coffee so I was really adamant about trying to do that out of the gate but Paul kept steering me toward the Brazilian blend, which is what we ended up using for our debut, which has now become our flagship roast, Roast in Peace.
“And part of what I wanted to do was also have the flag like we would do in a Megadeth tour book, how we would put the flags of every country we went to in there. And I really wanted it to be something that was very fan-friendly, very much something that my music fans were engaged in, yet have it really, truly be my company, not just me walking into a roaster and laying my name over top of it and then having them sell it. So, I’ve been fully engaged in the roasts, the branding, the marketing, even the sales outlets, and now I have a sales team to go out to the individual retailer. We’re opening up some new retail accounts, we opened up a new retail store in my hometown of Jackson, Minnesota. We started selling at the Danny Wimmer Festivals [Wimmer is a concert promoter] this summer with everything from Fort Rock, Carolina Rebellion, Rock on the Range, and now we’re going to have a full activation with them at Chicago Open Air coming up in July.”
“And we were also their coffee for their big yoga festival called Wanderlust. You know, as a musician, part of me says, ‘Hey, it’s cool to have a store because that gives us some real mainstream storefront credibility and we can have our museum and all that there,’ but it’s also important that just like a musician, you have to go out to where the people are. So that’s what we’re doing as far as being involved with the festivals now, too.”
“And to be honest with you, you know, it’s just like starting a rock band, you learn as you do it.”
Ellefson is a Renaissance man of sorts; in addition to being a member of Megadeth, he also started a record label and a management company. There are lessons from each that he used when establishing his coffee company. “It certainly would have been easier to go to a roaster and say, ‘Hey, you know, I’m David Ellefson from Megadeth and I want to throw my name on some of your coffee,’ and then you’re instantly in 300 retail outlets. Yeah, that would have been way easier, for sure. But, you know, I’m a guy who likes to start things. I mean, I’ve started rock bands since I was 12 years old, and I’ve started my record company. I started a management company, I started the coffee company so to me, being fully engaged in doing it how I want it to be done, to have the look that I want it to have and to really be able to control the product, to be able to help be part of a team and build a team, that’s a real big part of how I like to operate.”
A recent business venture that Ellefson was involved in was the Megadeth Boot Camp, which took place this past March at Dave Mustaine’s house in Fallbrook, California. According to the Boot Camp website, the activities included “fireside stories from the road with the band, an intimate acoustic performance from Megadeth, jam session and live streaming of Symphony of Destruction, drum, guitar and bass lessons, wine tastings excursion with Dave [Mustaine], and metal trivia to challenge the depths of your music appreciation.” The camp wasn’t for the financially faint-of-heart: Prices ranged from $1000 to $5500, depending on the package the camper chose.
I explain to Ellefson that my initial reaction upon hearing the announcement was “Wow, these guys really sold out.” I always thought of Megadeth as a kind of a blue collar, workingman’s band. You know the type…the guy who slaves away all day at a job he hates for a boss he can’t stand. At the end of the day, he puts a Megadeth CD in the car stereo and rocks out, forgetting about the drudgery of the past eight hours. When a Megadeth tour is announced, he buys tickets as soon as they go on sale, and then counts the days until the band arrives in town. The boot camp would seem to cater to a completely different type of upscale fan: The doctor or lawyer who has tons of disposable income, and perhaps plays in a cover band as a weekend warrior. Ellefson takes in the question carefully, and doesn’t shy away from the subject in his answer.
“Yeah, well, we did our research and we looked at all the other camps that are out there. And there’s several of them out there who cater to exactly who you said, these sort of 50’s, 60’s-something classic rock fan who probably is a lawyer, a doctor, a real estate developer who has some excessive disposable income to be able to afford a very high ticket price. I’ve been involved in some of those camps as a camp counselor and even as a special guest. And I’m always amazed that people are willing to pay that much money. I know that’s far above what our fans are going to pay, what they want to pay, and quite honestly, what I think they deserve to have to pay.”
“So at the same time, we looked at another camp model that was very musician-oriented, and while there’s a huge musician component to a lot of our fans, and that was something we really wanted to cater to, we also had to look at the location, we had to look at the cost, and we had to look at…kind of like my coffee company, could we sort of lay our brand over top of what someone else was doing or could we try to do it on our own. And we chose to do it on our own. Because we have some resources and people inside of our organization who are willing to be partners with us, make money if we make money, lose money if we lose money, we chose to set up the boot camp business model in that fashion.”
Once Ellefson gets on a roll, the fire and passion he displays while defending a viewpoint makes it obvious why he is successful at whatever venture he chooses to explore, be it music, business or a hybrid of the two. (He would probably make an excellent litigator if he ever decided to study law).
“I think if you look at the cost of what a Megadeth boot camp was, there were three phases, one was $1000 bucks. If you lived in the area, you can drive in every day for three days and participate. The other was $2000 if you wanted to have the hotel option, participate every day but stay at a hotel off-site with all the other campers. The third one was camp on Dave’s lawns and feel like you’re…I know for me as a fan if I could have camped on Gene Simmons’ or Jimmy Page’s lawn, I would have done it in a heartbeat.”
“So, I think when you look at what you’re really getting–it is exclusive. It’s absolutely an exclusive opportunity. This is not…you know, if you want to come and see Megadeth play their songs at a concert, look, that’s open to everybody and you can see us everywhere from a 1000 to a 100,000 seat venue and that’s why it’s priced affordable for everybody. But to come and do something like this where you get the value of everything that we did, I mean, look, I not only did all my Megadeth duties, I also did a bass clinic, I preached a sermon, I married somebody and I also did a coffee tasting with me. That’s five things I participated in in three days that normally I get paid very well to do separately. And if you look at what someone paid to come into the boot camp and do that, well, I gave excessively of my time, talent, energy, brand and 52 years of experience of life as did Kiko [Loureiro], as did Dave [Mustaine], as did Dirk [Verbeuren]. I mean, Dave basically let everybody come over to his house. You know what I mean? So when you view it…and I understand, again, this is a sort of back and forth conversation but when you look at the [other camps]…there’s another brand in the LA area that does camps, you look at what they charge, you look at what other music camps charge, and then you look at what we charge, I feel that we gave an exceptional value to what you were provided with at the camp.”
“And I think if you look at it through that lens rather than just the price…it’s like going car shopping, you know, one car costs 20 grand another cars costs 100 grand. Well, what are you getting for the extra $80,000? And part of it is just the experience. Some of it is just, ‘Wow, I get this experience to do this, that in the less expensive car, I don’t get that same experience.’ When you only look at the money, you’re only looking at one part of it, you’re looking at the cost but when, I think with the camp in particular and probably coffee and all these things, what is the experience that you’re getting? And that’s why, for me, even with coffee, having it be something that’s small and personal, I like to make it feel like you’re sitting down with David Ellefson and having a cup of coffee. And that’s important to me that we retain that personal experience, because to me that justifies the cost and it justifies the whole experience.”
With “campers” paying thousands of dollars to attend these types of events held nationwide, the “camp counselors,” as they are must walk a fine line. These are some of the most skilled professional musicians in the business; how do they relate to campers who can barely form an open chord on the guitar?
“Again, I’ve participated in the rock star sort of the fantasy camp, which is where you’re paying to stand next to and rub elbows with the elite rock stars. I’ve also done the music camp type where it’s very music-focused. I think when we were putting this boot camp together, we really thought about how to create this amazing experience for our fans, they get to come to Dave’s house and hang out like a Sunday afternoon picnic. You know what I mean? That’s a unique experience. On the flip side, I do a lot of bass clinics. I’ve done a ton of them and I’ve learned all the nuances of the uber shredder guy who can play circles around me yet he’s at the clinic because he could learn something. And, quite honestly, when I’m at those clinics, I learn stuff! I learn stuff from everybody there. I learn not only musical things but I learn business things, I learn how to be a performer on a stage because it’s just me, I don’t get the luxury of having Dave, Kiko, and Dirk up there with me, so I got to hold it all down on my own. “
“So when it comes to the musical interaction, look, I think at this point, Megadeth is…we’re a community and we’re a culture and when our fans come to see us, it could be at a clinic or at a boot camp, and that’s why we provided guitars to them, between Ovation and Dean guitars we provided an instrument for everyone at that camp so they could jam along with us in the clinics as well as the final finale of playing, Symphony of Destruction with us on Dave’s front yard. And it was important that during that process no one got left out. And Kiko was really the musical director of that, to be able to teach every person there, regardless of their skill level, to be able to participate and have the thrill and the payoff of saying, ‘Wow, I jammed with Megadeth.’ And some guys can shred and other guys, other people probably could barely keep their finger on a string and play along, but Kiko was amazing at making sure everybody in that camp was able to have that experience.”
Coffee and hard music…hard music and coffee. What would seem to be on odd pairing at first glance now seems to come into focus as the conversation progresses. And, being the entrepreneur that he is, Ellefson is no doubt planning a whole chain of Ellefson Café coffeehouses nationwide.
“Well, you know what, I’ve been getting hit up by all kinds of different people to open coffee shops and do different things. And part of it is timing, part of it is not overextending yourself because young, growing businesses face two big obstacles. One, being understaffed and undercapitalized, and two…and/or two, I should say, having enough capital but overextending and building out too much. And you can look at the examples like Krispy Kreme and companies like that who built too fast, too quickly and they weren’t able to sustain it, and they ended up having to close locations. So I would prefer not to have to close locations if I don’t have to.”
“And I’m learning a lot more about venture capital, and again I learned a lot working…when I worked for Hartley Peavey, he was a man who owned his company entirely by himself and I learned a lot from him about how to grow and retain ownership and to be able to, especially when your name is on the door, how much from an owner’s perspective you really want your customer to feel that connection to you because your name is everything. Your name takes years and years to build and it only takes one or two dumb moves to tarnish it. So there’s an additional responsibility that goes with having your name on the door.”
The more one speaks with David Ellefson, it’s apparent he is much more than just a bass player. He really is a Renaissance man, which the dictionary defines as “a present-day man who has acquired profound knowledge or proficiency in more than one field.”
“It’s nice because we have coffee now in the Megadeth VIP experiences that are advertised on megadeth.com during the tours. Also, we’re actually starting to provide coffee now for some other ventures where we are the roaster, where essentially Ellefson Coffee is the roaster and the supplier to other people. Kind of similar to what you see, there’s other big mainstream roasters whom we drink their coffee every day, but don’t realize it. They do the same thing. They have been roasters and they’ve been kind of behind the scenes but they’ve provided the roasting and the coffee for other people to put their brands on.”
“So, now that I’m in the game and I’m in the coffee business, I’m learning a lot about all of the different opportunities that are out there. I really feel like the sky’s the limit and the timing of entering the market was really, really just laid right in front of me at a perfect time.”