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Victor Mondry

Victor Mondry was diagnosed with esophageal cancer 18 months before his death.

Before Madison had Starbucks, it had Victor Allen’s and its coffee-expert founder, Victor Mondry, who died from esophageal cancer last month at age 63.

“He was a pioneer for the Madison scene and for coffee internationally. He was ahead of his time for Madison for sure,” said Tony Bitner, a co-owner of Madison’s 5-year-old Rusty Dog Coffee. “He started the scene here,” said Bitner, crediting Mondry in large part for its vibrancy today.

Mondry’s wife, Annette Mondry, who had a long career as an executive at American Family Insurance and now teaches business at Edgewood College, uses the words “legend” and “visionary” to describe her husband.

She said since Mondry’s death Dec. 15, she’s received emails from people he inspired “who really looked up to him and who have started their own businesses as a result.”

Mondry dropped out of his first year of medical school at UW-Madison, and opened a gourmet coffee store, Victor Allen’s Coffee and Tea, in 1979. He built Victor Allen’s into a multimillion-dollar coffee business, and would routinely visit coffee-producing Central American countries in search of the perfect beans.

Dale Cleary, an electrical controls engineer, who worked with Mondry the last 10 years, said Mondry was “extremely smart” and “knew a little bit about everything.”

Mondry was diagnosed with cancer 18 months before his death, and worked until his last few days, his wife said. “He was still consulting and sharing his knowledge with everybody,” she said.

Cleary said Mondry was contacted by an Italian company, IMF Roasters, to be its U.S. representative for a large line of commercial coffee roasters. Cleary went to Italy with Mondry in September to finalize the deal.

In 2003, Mondry sold controlling interest in Victor Allen’s Coffee & Tea to Appleton businessman Jim Geerts, famous for building the Jack’s Pizza brand. At the time, there were 13 Victor Allen’s coffee shop locations in Madison and Milwaukee.

There are no coffee shop locations left. The last one, on Monroe Street, closed in 2016. Victor Allen’s coffee is still sold as a brand of Trilliant Food and Nutrition based in Little Chute, outside of Appleton.

Cleary is helping to liquidate Mondry’s coffee consulting and equipment business, Original V, known by its trademark, Viamo. Cleary will continue to run Viamo Coffee Equipment and IMF Roasters sales in the U.S.

When the two traveled to Minnesota recently and ate in a Chinese restaurant, Mondry began speaking Mandarin to an employee, Cleary said. The next day, at a Mexican place, he started speaking Spanish. In Italy, he used some Italian, and with a business associate in Poland, he started speaking Polish.

“It was amazing how many different languages he knew,” Cleary said. “He knew a few words, like, hello, goodbye, thank you, you’re welcome. ... But it was interesting how he could basically go anywhere and start talking in at least a few words of their tongue.”

Mondry, who leaves behind two children, Jordan, 20, and Kaya, 18, “gravitated towards little kids,” and knew how to talk to them, Cleary said. When they’d consult with coffee roasters with young families, Mondry would give the children rides on the forklift in his warehouse, Cleary said.

Longtime friend Lea Aschkenase, a local clinical psychologist who knew Mondry for 38 years, said he was great at helping her put her young daughter to bed.

“He would tell her the most imaginative, magnificent stories that he would make up,” Aschkenase said. “They were just spellbinding for her and for me, too.”

Mondry was also a great cook who would make meals for his friends, she said.

Bitner, of Rusty Dog Coffee, said one of Mondry’s favorite stories had to do with Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO, who got his start as an appliance salesman for the Swedish company Hammarplast.

Early in his career, Mondry went to a coffee festival in Chicago and helped a Hammarplast rep unload his car. The guy turned out to be Schultz, who gave Mondry some thermoses and pour-over containers to thank him, Bitner said.

Mondry never stopped using that equipment, he said. “So every time you went to Victor’s warehouse, he would be like, ‘Do you need some coffee?’ And he would fire up coffee and it would be a pour over inside one of those Hammarplast really cool vintage-looking thermoses that he received from Howard Schultz.”

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Wisconsin State Journal food writer Samara Kalk Derby brings you the latest news on the Madison area's eclectic restaurant scene.