Horror and Coffee: A Beautiful Match Made In HellFebruary 28, 2015
Recently, I had a chance to talk to Tom Lialios, founder of Deadly Grounds Coffee, who shared his thoughts on the coffee business, his love of horror and how ‘the only hearse based coffee company in America’ came into existence.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your background in Film and Television?
I was always heavily into TV and movies like a lot of kids growing up. The fascination stuck and I always wondered how they made certain things happen on the screen especially with horror and film noir movies. While a friend and I were raiding his dads sock drawer for adult magazines we found his father’s super-8 movie camera and “borrowed” it for a few years. We tried to pull off stunts on film and discovered it was even more fun than watching on tv or at the movies, although we ended up destroying a lot of our parents stuff.
It was fun but the fascination with visual storytelling became more of an obsession that to this day hasn’t left me. I took out every filmmaking book in the local library and wanted more. I did study cinematography for some time but it was only when I put it into practice did I really learn anything. Several years later I started my own production company – Sono Creative Media – and have been lucky enough to travel around the country and abroad shooting commercials, promotional media and documentaries. Still no horror films… someday.
How did you come up with the idea do combine coffee and horror?
I couldn’t imagine coffee and horror apart. It’s always seemed to go together. I can’t flip on a good horror flick without brewing a pot. I found the coffee industry interesting because we all stood in such long lines for a cup. Looking at everyone in line – they couldn’t have been more different from each other but everyone united and stayed orderly to reach the counter. It was almost like the “Soup Nazi” episode in Seinfeld. Somehow that morphed into an idea for an all-powerful & evil corporate entity addicting its customers to its product. All that horror and noir influence made its way through. It wasn’t supposed to be a real coffee company initially – just a character in my mind but it became a “hey, what if…” idea and the rest followed.
What is the tougher business to be in, entertainment or the coffee wars?
Small business in general is tough no matter what, whether entertainment or coffee. In my world there isn’t much difference between the two. Both seem theatrical, ha! There are always bigger players out there that have amassed enough capital to drown out your voice. That doesn’t mean you can’t make it or you’re product isn’t better than theirs, but you have to be a lot more creative than they are. More often than not, if you really follow through with out-of-the-box ideas you can get noticed and perhaps reach an audience or customer base but you have to bring the goods. You can’t be just a slogan or cute idea. You have to be as good as you say or you will end up in the dustbin of other “what if?” ideas.
How hard was it to start Deadly Grounds Coffee and to get and keep the public interested in you as something more that a novelty?
If I was a “business” guy, I would say it was hard because adorning your product with the image of a toe tagged cadaver in something that looks like a small body bag or using a funeral hearse as your company vehicle probably doesn’t come up very often in the boardrooms of the Fortune 500’s. That’s fine, I didn’t want to be that guy anyway. The coffee world itself is loaded with brands that are very serious. I didn’t want to take myself too seriously but I wanted to take the coffee REALLY serious. Waiting on those long lines in many of those other places always left me wanting. The coffee itself was mediocre at best but they were able to convince enough people to that they were “gourmet” coffee. I didn’t see it. So as we made our way through to develop what we wanted our coffee to be we knew we had to be better. No bitter, hard-edged aftertaste or burnt flavor that has unfortunately become the hallmark of what’s out there these days. I knew that if I could get people to try it, they would become Deadly Grounds Coffee customers.
Many times people buy the coffee as a novelty because they like the artwork and theme, but the aroma usually gets to them and they try it. We have grown through word of mouth because of it and have become the coffee you don’t want to admit that you drink, ha! We’ve also done a lot of horror themed conventions and comic cons and those are great venues to connect with customers that appreciate the dark tongue-in-cheek humor with our theme. I get a thrill when people come up to our booth for a free sample and watch their eyes light up with a “Hey this is great!” and then buy up one of each of the roasts. We’ve found a lot of people buy Deadly Grounds for gifts for their coffee lover friends especially around the holidays. It’s all been a lot of fun, especially meeting people that become our customers. It’s not like they’re customers, they’re really Deadly Grounds coffee buddies. Still, you have to keep your foot on the gas to keep things moving forward. I expect it to always be a challenge, but at least we’ll be drinking great coffee while we try to figure it all out.
Was it always a plan to combine the horror theme with coffee or did your business start off as something different?
It was an unplanned happy accident in that we were not courting the horror fans. I just thought it would be cool. With the coffee culture being the way it is, I wanted to be the anti-coffee-culture coffee – coffee for the rest of us. Maybe that’s not the best way to start a business but we found enough like-minded folks that loved it. Soon afterwards the word spread and continues to spread. The imagery might turn off some people until they take it in the light that it’s meant to be. If you’re into the high priced overdone coffee that’s out there, then we’re not for you. We’re coffee for everyone else.
Are you a horror fan? What are your favorite horror movies?
I’m a HUGE horror fan and of film noir movies. Love that dark stuff. My favorite horror film to date is not one that many would think was that scary. Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things impressed me when I was a kid because it looked so bad that I thought it could be real, ha! The classics will always be my favorites. There is nothing like blasting The Exorcist or The Conjuring through a really powerful home theater system and on huge screen. I like it when the experience over takes you and you lose yourself.
What has the reaction been when people find out about Deadly Grounds?
The hearse gets the most attention and reaction when we’re traveling to different events. It has been the best ambassador of coffee we could ever have. It is harder to find a parking space at the mall because of its size but it’s very useful around the holidays when we get our Christmas tree. It does have its drawbacks, though. We “accidently” attempted to drive through Canada on the way back home. The Canadian border guards are very nice but driving a hearse full of coffee across the border was enough to have me pulled over for a nice chat and search. The reaction to the coffee theme itself is always split between those that are skeptics and are loyal to their own brand, and those that think the approach is cool. In the end the aroma gets to both and we all become really good coffee buddies.
Do you find you business attracts a more ‘eclectic’ crowd with the horror theme attached to it?
Eclectic doesn’t even come close to describing the crowd we have attracted. We have a local customer, Minnie who will be turning 94 this summer and orders several bags every month. At conventions we have been lucky enough to Deadly Ground rockers like Dee Snider, TV icons like Butch Patrick from The Munsters, horror movie royalty from Hellraiser and Nightbreed, horror legend Tom Savini, Paranormal stars like Joe Chin, our friends from The Walking Dead and more. It’s always a thrill to see an online order comes through for one of them and then pop in one of their movies or watch an episode of their shows at home.
The horror theme, including the hearse is great but obviously the coffee is the main product here. How long did it take to come up with blends you were happy enough with to sell to the public?
Yes, the horror theme is fun but it’s really just fluff unless you have a really good coffee behind it. It took some time from the initial thought of doing this – about year and a half before I could get enough education and trial and error under my belt. A big part of our flavor not only comes from the high-grade beans that we use but also from the special way that it’s roasted. It’s one thing to make yourself a cup of coffee, it’s totally a different thing to make something that appeals to everyone’s taste. We have a lot of roasts from our House Blend which is our breakfast blend to the darkest of the dark – our French Roast which a solid dark roast with a little smoke to it.
I think we’re probably the only coffee company out there that will make our seasonal pumpkin spice coffee throughout different times of the year. We’ve also made a coffee for the Frozen Dead Guy Days festival in Colorado that takes place every March. It’s a very cool festival and nothing goes as well with a frozen dead guy then a coffee called Deadly Grounds. If you check Fangoria’s website you’ll find an exclusive 4 coffee gift pack we make. The blues legend, Johnny Winter approached us early last year to make the coffee that bears his name. It was a great honor to do so. It says a lot when a huge international blues and rock star comes to a small coffee company in his own back yard instead anyone he wanted to in the world. Slowly but surely, we’ll be everywhere good coffee is needed and it’s needed everywhere.
Finally, what are your future plans for Deadly Grounds?
World Coffee Domination. Our Canadian friends Hauntopolis and Deadly Grounds will be working together to bringing our caffeinated treats to our neighbors to the north very soon. In a couple of months we’ll finish up on a series of online commercials we’ll post. We’re also looking to expand our online business here at home, and get it into stores as well. We wanted to build up a following online first and then look to spread out a bit. We’ve had many inquire about franchising but we’re not ready quite yet, but stay tuned. You might just see a Deadly Grounds Coffeehouse open soon.