The life, and death, of "Java" Joe Charleville, a local coffee icon

St. Louis lost a coffee icon on March 16 when "Java Joe" Charleville passed away at 97. Up until a few weeks before his death, Charleville was still delivering Chauvin Coffee Company beans to a few of the several dozen coffee shops that buy them from the south-side importer.

"He used to wheel the beans in on the dolly himself," recalls Patrick Liberto, the owner of Meshuggah Café. "I remember he always used to park about a block past the shop and always said, 'Overshot it again.' I couldn't believe a guy his age hauling that weight by himself."

"His eyesight wasn't what it used to be, so his wife, Marge, did the driving," says Verner Earls, director of sales and marketing for Chauvin, "but I still used to ask him directions. He knew where everything was in town, and he also knew what used to be there 70, 80 years ago."

Chauvin Coffee Company’s "Java Joe" Charleville on a delivery.
Chauvin Coffee Company’s "Java Joe" Charleville on a delivery.

Location Info


Chauvin Coffee Company

4160 Meramec St.
St. Louis, MO 63116

Category: Retail

Region: St. Louis - South City

It's no surprise; before Charleville was running last-minute refill deliveries for Chauvin, he owned it, and before that, he owned Rose Coffee Company. All in all, his career spanned 80 years. "He used to tell me about going down to the riverfront to unload the beans that came off the barges," says Earls. "He loaded the beans off the truck and got paid $14 a week — but his dad charged him seven bucks a week room and board, so I guess that's where his work ethic came from."

The coffee business was a crowded one in St. Louis in the early part of the century. It made sense to roast here; beans came primarily from South and Central America, entered the States in New Orleans and shot due north on the Mississippi to be roasted and distributed by one of at least a few dozen roasters. Joe himself estimated (and the Chauvin website maintains) that there were 75 roasters active before the Depression. It's hard to get a precise count. A Greater St. Louis Magazine article from 1920 puts the number of roasters and distributors at an even twenty, but Rose Coffee Company — which Charleville bought from his stepfather Isaac Rose and held until he sold it in 1977 — fails to appear in their list, as do Old Judge, Manhattan and countless other roasters that anchored the coffee business. What is clear is that many of the companies — Forbes Bros., Hanley & Kinsella, Nash-Smith, Biston — are long gone or have been abandoned, absorbed or crushed by national competitors. It's a typical story of St. Louis industry: It really was bigger in the past, but it's hard to determine by how much.

Manhattan Coffee — yeah, that was a St. Louis company — was eventually purchased by its top salesman, the legendary Dana Brown. Brown sold Manhattan to Stamford, Connecticut's Unilac, itself a subsidiary of Nestlé, albeit with a stunningly mid-century corporate name, redolent of the vacuum sealing and automated processing that would "improve" coffee over succeeding decades. Brown also maintained the Safari brand, whose red coffee cans depicted the African animals — zebras, lions, elephants — that Brown liked to shoot went he went on, well, safari. That was the thing about coffee men: They were adventurers of the old mold. Charleville was a roaster and a businessman but also a pilot who flew himself to Guatemala to inspect the fields.

Like the wild game on Safari coffee cans, local roasters eventually tilted toward extinction, their plight not unlike a corner bakery's fight against Wonder bread. In 1977, Charleville told St. Louis Commerce Magazine that "the coffee business is a dying industry. The industry is being taken over by the giants." By that point, Charleville estimated that 90 percent of the business was done by 10 percent of the roasters.

It wasn't just industry growth; it was also shrinking demand: In 1946, Americans drank on average 45 gallons of coffee a year — a figure that dropped by half in the late '70s. St. Louis saw its brewing industry decimated due to Prohibition — from 27 consolidated breweries, plus majors and independents besides before, to just one after. Demand for coffee, though, evaporated on its own, and in 1977 Charleville sold Rose, the family business since 1900, to Ronnoco — a giant, but a local giant.

Another fact about Charleville's piloting skills: He crashed his first plane, walked away from the wreck and bought a new one. He couldn't quit. Maybe it's no surprise that, seven years after Charleville sold to Ronnoco, in 1984, Joe and his son Dave opened Chauvin. Dave, who passed away in 2006, brought to Joe's business experience what would be the future for coffee: diversity, craft roasting and a whole host of preparation techniques unknown (or rather, unused) in the postwar java heyday.

Another of Charleville's sons, Tom, started Thomas Coffee the same year. Thomas Coffee and Chauvin shared space on Boyle Avenue until 2000, when Chauvin moved to its current building at 4160 Meramec Street in south St. Louis. Charleville's grandson Mike is Chauvin's roastmaster, and Joe's daughter-in-law, Bonnie Charleville, is the owner and president. Under Tom's control, Thomas Coffee supplied restaurants and, later, grocery stores. At Chauvin, Joe and Dave supplied wholesale beans to coffee shops and — well, everyone else. "We serve thirty states right now," Earls says.

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