Mark Berry

The Extraordinary Life of Mark Berry and Blind Dog Coffee

Writing, Video Production and Photography By Tracie Douglas

Six days a week, Mark Berry spends ten to 12 hours per day roasting and packaging premium coffee that is sold throughout Northern Nevada. He says he roasts about 7,500 pounds every week, along with placing labels on each bag, weighing it for accuracy, deciding which bag contains whole beans or ground coffee, all by himself. What makes this story extraordinary is that Mark is 100 percent blind.

In 1959, at the age of two, Mark was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, which is a rare childhood cancer found in the part of the eye called the retina. The retina is a thin layer of nerve tissue that coats the back of the eye and enables the eye to see. Most cases involve only one eye, but both eyes may be involved. In Mark’s case, it was in his left eye. He received radiation treatments, which stopped the cancer, but left him totally blind in his left eye. The radiation also caused some damage to his right eye, but he could still see very well out of it and he continued to live a full life.


Mark Berry

Around the age of 48, Mark was on a hunting trip with his father when he started having some trouble seeing out of his right eye. Tests showed that while the radiation had saved his life when he was a baby, it severely damaged his right eye. By the time he was 49, he was legally blind and when he reached 50, he had lost all vision and was 100 percent blind.

Life Before Roasting and the Trip to Coffee

Mark and Robin Berry built a good life for themselves and their five children as horse trainers. While he dislikes the term “horse whisperer,” that was essentially what Mark did – he trained problem horses throughout the western and southwestern United States.
“We had a great time, driving from job to job, building a good life, and spending quality time with each other,” Mark says of his wife Robin.

Once Mark realized he would soon be totally blind, he began worrying about the future and how he would be able to support his family. He had always talked about maybe one day in retirement he would open a small coffeehouse where he could spend his time talking with his customers. Being blind wasn’t optimum for serving hot beverages, so be began researching how a blind man could roast the coffee.
“Robin and I would go to these shows where they have all the equipment and as soon as I told a vendor I was going blind, he would stop looking at me and only talk to Robin, as if I was also deaf. That really made me mad because I was standing right in front of him,” Mark said.

He learned of another blind man who was roasting coffee in Colorado and eventually Mark was able to find out that the guy used a talking temperature monitor that gave the internal temperature of the roaster every three seconds. Mark also found a company in Fallon, Nev., that made coffee roasters, and would work with him to retrofit a roaster with the special talking equipment Mark needed.

Blind Dog Coffee

Mark first set up his roaster in a small shed in his back yard and began learning the tricks of the trade. As part of his rebellion to being blind, Mark let his hair and beard grow, so that with his quick wit and wonderful sense of humor, he quickly had a following. It became time to come up with a name for his company. The family spent hours tossing out ideas and one that Mark decided on was “How’ve You Bean?” Since Mark loves good conversation and excellent coffee, he liked the word play of How’ve You Bean (Been).

As his roasting business became bigger, Mark found that he needed to take food safety classes though the state of Nevada, in order to meet business license and health regulations. One regulation required that Mark wear a hair net over his long hair and a face net over his beard. He was also meeting with storeowners to get them to carry his product, so soon, his hair became short and neat and his beard was shaved off.

One day, Mark was thinking about a logo for his company and the image of a dog, riding in a car with his head out the window with ears blowing back, kept coming into his mind. He could also envision the dog with dark glasses and a cane, when the name Blind Dog Coffee came to him. Everyone agreed it was the perfect name and from Mark’s description, the Blind Dog was designed.

Difficulties of Being Blind

Sighted people say so much with just a quick look, a wink or body language. Mark was sighted until the age of 50 and sometimes struggles with how people treat him now that he’s blind.
“One thing that happens all the time is that I will be having a conversation with someone, they will see someone else and they’ll walk away without telling me, leaving me talking to myself. If I could still see, I would know that they had seen someone they needed to talk to, usually by their body language, and there would be an unspoken end of the conversation. That’s hard for me and it really makes Robin mad,” Mark explained.

Sometimes, people who didn’t know Mark before he became blind, think he is quite serious because he doesn’t smile a lot.
“When you can’t see someone’s face, you have no frame of reference and since you don’t know if they are smiling at you, you don’t smile at them”, said Mark. “So much of what we do and what we perceive are from little things we see that we don’t even realize how it makes us react.”

Pamela, the Imperfect Guide Dog

Walking into the small warehouse that houses Blind Dog Coffee, you might be greeted by a small, beautiful, black labrador retriever named Pamela. As soon as Mark went completely blind, he called Guide Dogs for the Blind and asked for a dog. He didn’t know that before he could get a guide dog, he had to first be trained on how to get around using a white cane, and then learn how to appropriately use a guide dog.

“They sent me to New York City and matched me to Pam and for the next few weeks, a handful of us tried not to hurt each other as we swung sticks around our heads and walked into each other,” laughed Mark. By the end of the training, Mark and Pam could negotiate New York City buses, subways, streets and more. However, a few days before Pam and Mark came back to Nevada, the trainers sat with him and explained that Pam had a few bad habits that they hadn’t been able to break her of, and since Mark had trained problem horses, they felt he would be able to use a firm hand with Pam.

“Don’t tell her, but Pam is about a six on a scale of one to ten,” whispered Mark. “She wants to be friends with people and if I allow that, she could really get me into trouble. For instance, if she sees someone she knows across the street and we’re coming up to the curb, she could ignore me and I might fall off the curb – or she could walk me into a lamp post.”
So upon entering the shop, Mark asks that no one pets or even looks at Pam. Of course, all bets are off when Marks’s three-year-old grandson, Jacob arrives. Within minutes, Jacob and Pam will be sitting on the couch sharing a bag of Cheese Nips, but in Grandpa’s eyes, Jacob can do no wrong.

Roasting Coffee — Talking Machines and Special Tools

Because Mark only roasts about 7,500 pounds of coffee per week, he is able to purchase the top 10 percent of beans, brokered through San Francisco. He gets the raw beans in large burlap bags from Mexico, South America and Africa. Taking the beans from the burlap bags and placing them in large, food grade plastic barrels in the only part of the process that Mark can’t do by himself. He has several tools that read bar codes out loud, but nothing works on burlap with printing in different languages. So, one of Mark’s sons will pour the beans into the barrels. The lid for each barrel has raised letters on each that tells what specific bean is inside. Mark decides how many pounds of a particular bean he is roasting that day and will fill five pound buckets from the large barrels.

Mark uses a Braille machine to make small cards that are attached to each bucket, so he knows which beans he has. He then uses a talking scale to weight out 25 pounds of beans per batch. While he is preparing buckets of beans, the roaster is turned on so that it will reach the appropriate temperature for roasting whichever bean. Some beans are dark roasts, some are light roasts, so Mark knows exactly how long and at what temperature the beans need to roast.

A special talking thermo-coupler has been attached to the roaster and will tell Mark the exact temperature inside the roaster every three seconds. He uses a regular tape recorder (circa 1980s) with a message that gives him time in 15-second intervals, up to whatever total minutes necessary for the finished product.

While the beans roast, Mark puts the proper labels on the proper bags for that days roast. Blind Dog Coffee comes in two different color bags, silver and lime green. Mark has a tool that when pressed against the bag, will tell you what color you have in your hand.

“I have to laugh because this meter is always wrong about what color it sees,” said Mark. “But it is consistently wrong – if it says I’m holding a white bag, then I know I have a silver one – if it says its neutral, I know I’m holding the green bag. So as long as it’s consistently wrong, I can keep using it.” Another issue occurs when the printer puts labels on the roll the opposite way from what Mark has asked. If the labels peel off the roll correctly, Mark can place the correct labels on the bags. “More than once, Robin will come in and tell me that I’ve done a really good job labeling the bags and then she’ll ask me if I knew I had put them all on upside down. I usually laugh and explain to her that I didn’t know they were upside down because I’m blind,” laughs Mark.

Making a Difference

Mark Berry works hard and is quite successful in the coffee business. He believes in giving back and a percentage of his profits are donated to fighting childhood cancers. While it’s true that Mark’s roasted beans make an excellent cup of coffee, the real pleasure is getting the chance to know the man.

Explore Mark Berry’s “Blind Dog Coffee” production facility in virtual reality. In a usual week, Mark produces approximately 7,500 pounds of coffee, doing all of the work from roasting, to putting stickers on the bags, to bagging the product, by himself. On this particular day, son Ian Berry helps with the bagging process. (VR by Tracie Douglas.)