On February 7th, as major automakers and giant beer brewers get some much-lauded Super Bowl screen time, at least one ad is sure to stand out from the pack. In it, a Viking crew rows through a rainstorm, then morphs into a stream of Death Wish Coffee. 

Founded by CEO Mike Brown in 2012, Death Wish Coffee is an 11-person coffee retailer based in Round Lake, New York. On Thursday, the company was announced as the winner of Intuit's "Small Business, Big Game" contest.

A small startup primed for more success.

As part of the competition, 15,000 small businesses vied for the grand prize of a free, 30-second advertisement during the 2016 Super Bowl.

This year, companies in the U.S. spent a record-breaking $5 million on their 30-second slots. In 2015, the event drew in a record 114 million viewers, making it the most-popular television program to date. Between 2005 and 2016, the Super Bowl has amassed more than $2.38 billion in network ad sales, according to Kantar Media.

Death Wish Coffee billed $6 million in sales in 2015. This year, that number could increase up to as much as $15 million -- thanks in large part, of course, to the Super Bowl. Brown says he's reaching out to a handful of local roasters to shovel in more inventory than ever before, though he is slightly concerned about not being able to satisfy demand.

Although Death Wish has not yet partnered with any national grocery chains (sales come primarily from e-commerce and from six brick-and-mortar partners in New York), it hopes to partner with Target and to rekindle previously unsuccessful talks with Whole Foods this year. 

Before the end of this month, the coffee company aims to be in 19 Price Shoppers nationwide. By the end of 2016, the goal is to reach 100.

The Super Bowl ad was produced by RPA, and Brown says his input throughout the process was fairly minimal. 

"It's a foreign world to me," he said. "I'm a coffee roaster, not a commercial guy."

Still, if the graphics feel epic, there's a reason: MPC New York, the CGI animator responsible for the ad, worked on the hit Disney franchise Pirates of the Caribbean, and on Warner Bros.' upcoming Batman vs. Superman.

"It's incredibly gratifying to create a Super Bowl commercial for a small business. They're the unsung heroes of the communities where we live and work each day," said Joe Baratelli, the CCO at RPA, in a statement. 

Brewing the idea for Death Wish Coffee.

Brown, who also owns and operates a small coffee shop called Saratoga Coffee Traders, in Saratoga Springs, New York, says he got the idea for Death Wish when he noticed growing demand for stronger cups of joe. While a typical roast might have 250 milligrams of caffeine, the flagship Death Wish recipe can contain up to 650 milligrams -- depending, of course, on how it is prepared.

The coffee costs a lofty $20 per pound. Death Wish blends arabica beans with robusta beans, the latter of which are bitter tasting, but contain higher quantities of caffeine. The beans are sourced primarily from India.

In addition to the signature blend, the startup also manufactures a Valhalla Java, named after the underworld in Norse mythology, along with barrel coffee, for which beans are poured into wine, rum, and whiskey oak barrels, where they steep for roughly 15 days.  

How to stimulate the masses.

Brown notes that he's faced significant obstacles in growing the company's operations, especially given his background as the proprietor of a small shop.

"Inventory is a challenge," he says, nodding specifically to what he calls the "re-order" points, which is the number of bags sold. The company needs 500,000 bags, for example, before it can commission more coffee.

"There's an art to that side of the business," he says. "We've been running out of bundles, but not our main products. Luckily, that hasn't been a giant issue."

It helps that Brown employs a production manager, and recently brought on two new hires to manage customer service and day-to-day operations, as the company gears up for the Super Bowl limelight.

One area where Brown hasn't struggled is developing an almost cultlike following --both on social media, and in the physical world. Currently, there are roughly 140,000 people on the company's mailing list.

"Our merchandise is selling almost as well as our coffee," Brown says. Some eager users are reselling the company's branded mug, which retails at $25, for as much as $300 on eBay.

"For fans of the brand, it's like an identity for them," he adds.

That comment should perhaps be taken literally: More than one customer -- five, by Brown's count -- has had"Death Wish Coffee" tattooed to his body.

Published on: Jan 29, 2016