As a rapper and hip-hop producer, Mark Sutton went by the name Diezzle Don. In his kitchen life, he took classic culinary training, worked in Atlantic City casino restaurants and later made TV shows as “The Original Hip-Hop Chef Chardon.” But as a coffee entrepreneur, he just uses the name he grew up with in Atlantic City.
Sutton brought his old name back to his hometown almost 18 months ago, when he cooked up his first batch of coffee with a brand-new name — Atlantic City Salt Water Roast Coffee. He made that maiden batch of beans right on the Boardwalk, in front of a saltwater taffy shop.
And his origin story for his Salt Water Roast — one of a few brands in his Lucky 7 Coffee family — shares a lot with the candy famously created in Atlantic City. By legend, saltwater taffy was born when a stormy ocean swamped a Boardwalk candy shop, soaking some of the store’s sweets. The owner tasted the results, sold them and made candy history.
Sutton roasts his Salt Water beans in sand — locally sourced sand, he emphasizes, although he traces this little-known roasting method back to a beach in Cameroon, the African nation that grows the beans he uses.
Even when he heats that sand enough to bake all the moisture out, it retains a bit of sea salt, Sutton says.
But don’t worry, you don’t get any sand — or salt — in your cup. Sutton says that by the time the sand “gets to 400 or 500 degrees, it’s like glass, it won’t stick to anything.” Plus, he uses kitchen strainers to shake the sand out and leave the beans behind.
You can see a video of that sand-roasting process on his website, lucky7brand.com.
Sutton documented the birthing of that first batch in a public ceremony that drew dignitaries from Atlantic City to Cameroon.
But by this summer, he plans to do regular roasting in public on the Boardwalk beside Celebrity Corner Beach Bar & Grill, on the ground floor at the Ocean Club condo towers. Domenico Gaggiano, Celebrity Corner’s owner, was happy to show a visitor where Sutton will create his coffee — because it’s on a freshly expanded Boardwalk street end that Gaggiano has lobbied for years to get.
The bar owner is so excited about the addition because along with a place for Sutton to do his roasting, it also gives Celebrity Corner a place to add outside seating.
Gaggiano sees it as a sign of transformation in the city because of the cooperation he finally got for his outdoor expansion — although that follows a big jolt of pain. He figures he lost 45 percent of his business in 2014 to the closing of the nearby Atlantic Club casino.
“We worked very hard to get this for years,” he said. “The city gives support to the little guy. ... But it took a while to get to this stage.”
In his 25 years on the Boardwalk, he didn’t always have as much faith in Atlantic City’s treatment of small operators like him and his friendly coffee maker. But after seeing how things have gone lately, he’s starting to see the coffee cups as half full.
“In this city, I’ve seen things go upstairs, downstairs, sideways. I’ve seen it all,” Gaggiano says. “This time, I see a lot of promise.”
Sutton also sees promise in showing off his Salt Water roasting to Boardwalk crowds.
“We want to create like a destination situation here,” says Sutton, who has used his music-business connections to draw DJs, jazz groups and more entertainers to Celebrity Corner — or “Bourbon Street, Atlantic City,” as he calls it.
It’s nice when people show up to see music, but he wants the crowds to get to know his product, too.
“This definitely will be the freshest coffee in Atlantic City — roasted daily,” he promises.
He has more plans as a coffee entrepreneur, including helping out the source of his Salt Water Roast beans, Cameroon. Production has suffered in the country in recent years, Cameroon’s National Cocoa and Coffee Board reported last November. The latest 17,000-ton crop was up a bit from the previous year, but down sharply from a 38,000-ton harvest just two years earlier, the agency said.
Still, Sutton believes in his Cameroonian Boyo beans, which are labeled “More Than Fair” trade and which spring from the same seeds as Jamaica’s legendary Blue Mountain coffee. And regardless of any other coffee trends in Cameroon, Sutton’s brand has grown in the country: He started dealing with 20 farmers but now says he works with 200.
He gets beans from other sources, too, and has them roasted in bulk at a commercial plant in Millville where he produces blends for customers from New York to Baltimore to California. Still, he acknowledges that he’s a fairly new and definitely small player in the coffee business, although he didn’t disclose how much coffee he’s producing.
His only other current commercial customer isn’t open yet. It’s a cafe in the Noyes Arts Garage in Atlantic City, and he will supply the coffee when they’re up and running — but not yet.
He has believers of his own around Atlantic City. Dominic Alcaro, who has owned Barbera Fish Market in Atlantic City for 30 years, plans to carry Salt Water Roast at his place, too. He remembers Sutton as a neighborhood kid and is happy to see him come back to do something good in his hometown.
“I’m going to sell his stuff. ... I want to see him do well in life,” Alcaro said. “There’s nothing wrong with helping each other out — especially when times are tough.”
Willie Lewis, the board chairman of the Professional Chefs Association of South Jersey, is Sutton’s former boss in the kitchens at Atlantic City’s Claridge Hotel.
“Mark is very talented and he did a good job for me,” said Lewis, now a chef-consultant at Kelsey’s in Atlantic City. “I think he’ll be very successful with this business.”
Even after a lifetime in food, Lewis had never heard of roasting coffee in sand. But he knows coffee-roasting has a rich history in Sutton’s hometown.
“I remember years ago when Ireland Coffee was in Atlantic City,” Lewis said — Ireland had a busy roasting plant on Albany Avenue until 1989. “You could smell that coffee for miles and miles, but when they left, that odor left too.”
Now, Sutton is trying to bring that coffee aroma back home — one batch of beans at a time. His goal, he says, is to make Salt Water Roast as famous as saltwater taffy.
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