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Then and Now: M&K Coffee

Before the Mearow building became a longtime furniture store, the Richmond Hotel occupied its upper floors and the storefront was the first home of Matthews and Kerr, a retail tea, coffee and spice business at 230 W. Sprague Ave.

The company was known for its black-and-orange delivery wagons stenciled with “M&K Coffee.” Richard M. Matthews arrived in Spokane from Portland in 1904 and opened the business with his partner, J.A. Kerr, who left the business early in their partnership. The company’s wagons would deliver coffee, tea, spices, rice, macaroni and flour to homes, restaurants, farms and hospitals. The company’s coffee roasting operation grew to be the biggest in the region and supplied 1,500 restaurants and food service sites between Glacier Park and the Columbia River, from Grangeville, Idaho, to the Canadian border.

A 1942 Spokane Chronicle photo showed roaster Ed Simmons piling up bags of coffee as M&K cranked up production in anticipation of food rationing. All large food producers were afraid that wartime demands would divert food from their regular customers. The company later expanded to a four-story building at 1102 W. Second St., and built a sophisticated roaster with electronic controls in the 1950s. The business had a staff of coffee experts to blend beans and roast them to perfection.

M&K was the official coffee of Expo ’74, but not everybody loved the smell of roasting coffee. When the company tried to install a new roaster to increase capacity to 500 pounds per batch that year, the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority forced the company, the only one still roasting coffee in Spokane, to add an afterburner to decrease the smell and visible emissions. The company’s line of bulk foods and restaurant and kitchen equipment and cleaning items eventually became more profitable than the coffee roasting.

“We used to say we furnish our customers with everything from toothpicks to ranges,” company President Malcolm McKay said in 1970. “But we stopped carrying toothpicks.”

Matthews and Kerr merged with Western Soap Co. in 1980. Simmons retired in 1972 after working for M&K for 50 years, the last 31 as head roaster. His coffee brewing advice was simple: Any electric or stovetop percolator will work. Use 2 1/2 to 3 ounces of coffee to make nine cups. You don’t need to boil eggshells with it, as many people did, to reduce bitterness. “Just use the best coffee available and you’ll get a good brew.”

     – Jesse Tinsley

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