Bob Stiller: EZ Wider Maker, Green Mountain Coffee Roaster, Spiritual Seeker

Along with Burt Rubin, Bob Stiller created a signature countercultural company, EW Wider, maker of extra wide cigarette papers that held an abundance of marijuana, a drug that made people silly. Today he sells a drug that makes them more productive. Having followed the Zeitgeist, he now seeks the Truth.

By Michael Gross
Interviewed via telephone from Vermont in fall, 1998.

MG: When were you born?
BS: In ’43. I grew up in Mount Vernon. And went away to school. My dad was from Germany and in 1918 or something like that, was an engineer on a ship and jumped ship when he got to New York. He was a tool and dye type of person and later had a manufacturing plant for tubular heating elements. I think he developed the first steam iron and did a whole bunch of stuff in that area, but was focused on designing weapons and was draft exempt because of the manufacture of war-related tools. He manufactured and helped design some guns during the war. He was an American success story; his manufacturing facility employed about a thousand people at one time. He went public with the company and it was sold to Teledyne in the early 60’s.
MG: Was your mom also German?
BS: She was from Poland, I believe. She was a beautician. She had her own salon in New York on 86th Street. She died when I was around 13. And I went away to boarding school for high school. I am the youngest. I have an older sister, 4 years older than I. I went away to military school. New York Military Academy, which seemed cool to me ’cause they had a lot of sports and a lot of facilities and stuff like that. I graduated in ’61. I went from there to Syracuse, to study engineering.
MG: Were you a good little soldier?
BS: I think I was pretty angry. I was rebellious and I was always doing things –you know, I was into pranks. I was not a great student. But I always got by.
MG: Were you angry because your mom had died and you were stuck in military school?
BS: Yeah, there was a lot of anger there that I didn’t realize. I’ve spent years in therapy understanding it all. My father remarried when Iwas in my second year there, and that year I got into a lot of trouble, and at one point they told me to pack my bags and I was out. I never equated that to my father getting remarried. But you look back at it, you say, but of course. And it’s interesting how so many of our behaviors are driven by things that we’re not conscious of. And when I was in college, I used to drink and party and I didn’t take things seriously. I was not focused or driven, I followed my peers and I wasn’t conscious of my rebelling but I would say in hindsight I was rebelling and was not focused on my life and what I wanted to do with it. I was I think pretty immature.
MG: Rebellion was surfacing in the culture. Did you admire Brando or James Dean or Elvis Presley?
BS: Well I did ride motorcycles in college for a while. I flunked out in ’63 and then I worked for my father. I went back in ’64 and they asked me to leave again. Which was sort of unfair, ’cause I did have a C average. I had like four B’s and two F’s but I didn’t take two of the finals. If I had taken them they would have given me D’s and they just didn’t like my attitude. One was an electrical engineering course and it was like program learning, they were trying to see how much we could absorb. And I didn’t think I was doing that well in it. The other course it was more of an attitude thing. I had gotten an A in it the semester before and I had just not gone to class and felt I knew it all. And then come exam time I, you know, didn’t.
MG: Some people had a sense of hopelessness, a feeling of we’re all going to die then-did you?
BS: Right. With the uncertainty of the future, not indulge in the present moment. I did feel that.
MG: What were you serious about? Or frivolous about?
BS: I’d play basketball, I drank a fair amount and just wasted time. I wasn’t driven to make a statement. I was more just doing nothing. I shouldn’t say doing nothing, but spinning my wheels. I ended up going out to Parsons College in Iowa in ’65. And graduated from there in ’68. But I wasn’t studying with the intent of building a foundation for a particular career.
MG: Were you affluent?
BS: Yes. Well, let’s put it this way. My father had that business, he sold it, he gave me, let’s say $100,000 bucks. I paid for my school, I paid for things myself for a number of years. I moved to New York, I ate at Lutece, Caravelle, all those restaurants. I had an apartment, I had some Picasso and Calders, I had nice stuff. And when I ran out of money, I went to work. I worked for a year delivering yachts, and then I got a job at Columbia University working in their comptroller’s office in ’68 or ’69.
MG: Back up a second. Did Kennedy’s assassination affect you?
BS: Not consciously. We all remember probably where we were when we heard it. I was working for my father then in the Bronx and I was walking back from lunch and somebody said, did you hear. It sends shivers down your spine, and you realize the vulnerability of people and that no one is immune from violence. It’s like, they’re going to get you wherever you are.
MG: The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Dylan, any of that affect you?
BS: I enjoyed Dylan–the Rolling Stones I liked too. But I didn’t know their lyrics, I didn’t look for meaning in that. It just sort of was.

MG: Did the war in Vietnam affect you?
BS: Well I was conscious of staying out of the military. I stayed in school.
MG: At Parsons, is the ferment in the larger world seeping in? Have you grown your hair long yet?
BS: Yeah, I certainly had my bell bottoms and I had long hair. I got a motorcycle. I liked the power, the freedom, the closeness to nature, the sense of the wind in your face. We had a huge party in school, like a Hell’s Angels party, everybody grew beards and rented bikes if they didn’t have one. But I don’t think I was a leader, it’s just your friends did it, you know, we used to go out and party. I think it was just not wanting to conform and be productive. It was very self-indulgent. It was definitely personal but there was a cultural pull and there was a cultural acceptance of my personal orientation.
MG: Did you get involved with drugs?
BS: Not really. I certainly smoked some dope in college. I didn’t do coke till later. I didn’t do acid. I never really got into acid or pills and all that stuff. I used to do nitrous oxide, I used to have tanks delivered after college, in New York. But in college it was more drinking and some pot. But not much.
MG: The year you move to New York, 1968, was one of the most dramatic years in American history. Did it get to you?…
BS: I wasn’t conscious of being deeply affected. It certainly helped my attitude of eat, drink and be merry, there is no purpose to things. But I was conservative in my ideals, I’ve always been an honest, straightforward person. I believe in doing good. I didn’t go out with a different woman every night. I was maybe more insecure in that area. I was lonely. I got into tennis then. I actually started playing a lot of tennis, come to think of it.
MG: You were living a fairly carefree life.
BS: Yes. But I was running out of money. I got the job at Columbia in ’69. And worked there for maybe 2 or 3 years.
MG: How did you get into the rolling paper business?
BS: I had known Burt Rubin. Burt was my father’s partner’s daughter’s husband. And he had come up with the idea of putting two papers together, coming up with a wider cigarette paper. It was a thought, a what if and why don’t we? And we looked into the feasibility of it and decided to go for it.
MG: Were you serious dopers?
BS: What’s a serious doper? Burt smoked a little bit more than me but I would certainly not classify him as a doper. I mean he was a metals trader. I had worked for my father. I have common sense and I’m persistent, if I focus on something, I will get there, sooner or later. And we thought it was interesting. We were not totally sure that it would be successful. Because it was so obvious we didn’t understand why somebody else hadn’t done it before. MG: What was the environment then? There was already Zigzag rolling paper, Bambu, American flags, dollar bill papers, made for smoking dope. A network of head shops, right?
BS: Correct. We knew there was a market out there. There is a tax paid on cigarette paper, a U.S. Tobacco and Firearms or whatever department tax, so we had checked the taxes that were being paid to try to get an estimate of the market. I think we had seen also an article about Paul Rapp, who did the flag and dollar bill papers.
MG: Where did you go to manufacture them?
BS: To Europe. We wrote several to various countries, to the cultural attaches, and tried to find companies in Europe that would do this. We also tried to find someone in the U.S., but everybody’s paper here was a flax-based paper. They were interested in paper that burned very quickly to keep tar and nicotine ratings down for cigarettes, where we needed a wood pulp or cellular-based paper that would burn slower. And that was only available in Europe. And there were also no real paper converters here. The equipment here was not right for inter-leafing paper for booklets. So we ended up going to Europe and the first company that we dealt with was in Spain, a cigarette company, cigars, they had plants in the Canary Islands. And I went over there and it turned out that they were manufacturing paper that was wider and then cutting it in half. The paper was manufactured 80 mm wide with a glue strip on each side and then they would cut it in the middle and end up with 40 mm wide each. And they were doing that because this paper was generally for tobacco. And tobacco is a longer leaf and you can roll a good cigarette with a shorter paper but marijuana was a much more smaller leaf and it was more difficult to roll with a narrower paper. So most of the paper was manufactured for cigarettes and didn’t have to be wider. And we got them to manufacture for us.
MG: How did you come up with the name?
BS: We brainstormed for days, and a girl that I was seeing at the time came up with it. Connie, she’s in Greenwich, Connecticut, these days. She said, “I got it, I got it,” and then she said “No.” And we said “What?” And she said “No, no, no, it would never work.” And we finally dragged it out of her and as soon as she said it, Easy Wider, we thought that was terrific. We wanted a name that was a double play.
MG: One imagines a Cheech and Chong scene, but that isn’t the way it happened?
BS: We were very focused and methodical. Certainly Burt used the product, I used the product. But I don’t think we were obsessive dopers. We wanted to get rich. Yes, we wanted to have the best paper and the best product, to provide value to the consumer. But we wanted to make money.
MG: What do you do next?
BS: We met with one of the head shop distributors. We got our first shipment in and then he started really squeezing us. He wasn’t moving the product and I think was trying to take advantage of the whole situation instead of really working with us. So we ended up seeking our own distribution and we actually had a bunch of people from TWA, airline attendants who were on strike and they were crossing off the printed line saying, “Distributed exclusively by¬∑” with magic markers so we could sell them ourselves.
MG: Were they using the product?
BS: No, I think we were focused on getting the job done, not getting high. Burt quit his job as sales increased and could support people, I quit my job and we were importing, shipping, and sales just kept growing, and we hired more people. We couldn’t get enough production from Europe so we ended up deciding to do it ourselves. And we bought a number of inter-leafing machines and a packaging machine and then we bought bobbins of paper in Europe and did the converting over here. I think we had the best plant in the country as far as minimum waste percentages and productivity. Our offices were in New York. We had 1 floor, then 2 floors then we probably ended up with maybe 4 more floors. And then we moved our offices and we had 10,000 feet of office space. And then we had the plant in New Jersey which I think was about 30,000 foot which included a warehouse and a production facility. The production facility was environmentally controlled both from a temperature and humidity point of view because the paper was very fragile and difficult to work with–and the bobbins that came from Europe actually had to rest for a month or 2 before we could use them. The molecular structure just had to realign itself. So we would have them sit in this atmospherically controlled room for 3 weeks before we would use them. I mean it sounds so weird, but we tried using the paper sooner and it just wouldn’t run right.
We did a study analyzing maybe 40 or 50 variables that we thought could affect the production process. And we went about seeing the effect of varying each one of those on the manufacturing process. We used to switch operators to see if it was the operator’s skill in making the adjustments on the machine, or it was actually the machine itself that was producing at a better rate. The knives had to be sharpened a particular way and aligned a particular way. It was about 4,000, 5,000 feet of paper on a bobbin. The paper would be produced in Europe on a 10-foot roll and then they would re-wind that to these bobbins that would be maybe 80 mm wide. And they would apply the glue during that slitting and rewinding process.
We looked at different glues. At one time actually we played around with flavored glues, flavored paper, strawberry, banana, and stuff so that people had a better taste in their mouth. One of the things we realized was that the paper was a little bit too wide and we started doing a little bit narrower width. I think that was one of the first things that we changed and went to a 1-1/2 size paper. And then we went to Joker which was another brand, and another paper called Roach. I think we also were the first ones to develop really innovative packaging. We really approached this from a business point of view. For a tobacco retailer, the space around the register is very limited, so we asked, how can we get our product there without taking up counter space and interfering with anybody else? And we came up with gravity feed dispensers, a little carousel-type rack that held four gravity dispensers with different products–like a double wide, a size and a half, and a Joker paper.
MG: In the mid-70’s you begin to expand the business?
BS: Right. Burt and I went to Europe together visiting other manufacturers, trying to get more production, and we visited Job company in Paris, and they were very inquisitive, like, how is it going and would you do anything differently if you did it again and it was very strange questioning. So we said well, if we had it to do all over again, we would make the paper wider yet, you know, it was still too narrow was. And of course we were then looking to make it less wide–
MG: –so you told them that to keep them out of your turf?
BS: Well we didn’t know what they were doing but it was none of their business-and they were saying they couldn’t produce for us. And they couldn’t produce that type of paper. And two months later, they came out with a paper that was 10 mm wider than ours. And we cracked up.

MG: What was the milieu like? Were there head shop trade shows? Was there a group of people who all knew each other?
BS: There was head shop trade shows but if we had limited ourselves to head shops we would have been nowhere. So we went to the tobacco and candy distributors. Actually we had trouble [getting into those outlets]. They were a little resistant to carrying them. Everybody knew what they were for. Because of resistance to the product, we developed a box with tobacco in it–E-Z-Wider tobacco, to legitimize the papers. And as soon as we got acceptance, we forgot about the tobacco. When we sold the company in ’80, we were selling I believe over 90 million booklets a year. Which was enough paper to stretch from New York to California and back twice in one month.
MG: Did the political climate affect your business?
BS: Well, there was a lot of resistance to some of our ads. We had a little trouble getting into some of the straighter magazines. I think we wanted to advertise in Psychology Today for some reason, I don’t know why. And they wouldn’t take it, and we were outraged that they would take liquor advertising and not papers.
MG: I remember your ads. They were every good.
BS: We had ads that positioned the paper against cookies and milk. And also with stereos. We had a race car that we used to race in the formula V, we sponsored Howdy Holmes who later was the rookie of the year at Indy. When they were going around the track everybody would hold up their lighters or matches. The races were a really big party scene.
MG: Aside from resistance from strait-laced magazines, did you encounter other resistance to what you were doing?
BS: We actually got kicked out of 7-11. We were in there for a couple years and then they decided that even though they were making millions on our product, they didn’t like the association.
MG: You end up with something like a 25 percent market share, don’t you?
BS: I would say we were there maybe in the late 70’s. Yeah, we were still growing.
MG: Were you aware of trends in drug use? Was that the sort of thing you kept tabs on?
BS: Not really. I mean we were aware of trends but not from a market size point of view. We felt the market was you know pretty substantial and were focused at capturing our share. We weren’t working statistics or research from the people point of view, we were working the research from who’s our competitors and what are the volumes.
MG: Did you have competitors who screwed up their business because they were fucked up on dope?
BS: I’m sure yes but those would be smaller head shop people. Anybody that we were really aware of, had to be substantial. The people that were like that didn’t make it. You know the people that stayed with their drugs aren’t here today. You explored it and you moved on. And most people that stayed, you know, didn’t make it.
MG: Do you…regret your involvement in the drug culture of the 70’s?
BS: I have no regrets. I mean we give it our best shot at the time. And I would certainly do things differently perhaps but I did what I did, you know, and that’s where I’m at.
MG: What made you sell the company…?
BS: We had some problems getting along. We wanted to do different things and go different directions and we ended up auctioning the company off to the highest bidder. We had differences of opinion that we didn’t have the skill set to resolve.
MG: You sell the company just as Ronald Reagan is about to become president.
BS: Right. Let’s say the spiritual guides were guiding us along. I would say it was time to get out and we happened to get out at the right time. It was destiny–or luck. Synchronicity. I actually wanted to retain the business. We auctioned the company off to the highest bidder and I thought I would have the most money. I was able to raise a couple million,a nd I thought I would be able to buy it. But Burt brought Rizla in, and they were able to get tax-free money and used that to buy the company.
MG: You end up splitting $6.2 million. That’s a lot of money.
BS: It was a lot more money then, yeah. I took about a year off but I was looking for something to do. And I wanted to do a consumable product. I was not much of a coffee drinker at the time and one day I had some really great coffee. There was a couple that had just opened a shop up in Vermont. I had a ski house up here. And this coffee was great, a different product from what coffee normally was–really good fresh-roasted coffee. And I knew that there was a huge market for this because people just didn’t know what great coffee could taste like.
MG: So you formed Green Mountain Coffee Roasters then? Talk about synchronicity! It was the dawn of the Yuppie era, the coffee achievers. Were you aware the culture had shifted and you were surfing the crest of the wave?
BS: I just saw that great coffee had a huge market potential. We bought coffee from around the world. Roasted it and you know packaged it. But I lost millions of dollars in the starting of this company. We didn’t do as well as I thought. It was expensive setting the plant up. It’s a process type of manufacturing where you don’t buy a small machine and then when you get a little bigger you buy a bigger machine. You know, it processes a great quantity at one time and that’s costly. We also had 12 retail shops but we’ve gotten rid of those. We also have mail order.
MG: Do you end up in financial trouble?
BS: In the first 2 years? It was borderline.
MG: Did you feelcoffee was becoming the new drug? Was something cultural going on with coffee?
BS: I think it’s an experience, I don’t think it’s a drug. I think it’s a fascinating product because it is spiritual in a sense because coffee can be energizing but at the same time it’s very relaxing and contemplative.
MG: Is there a relationship between the substance and the times?
BS: It just fits the experience that people are looking for. You sort of ritualize anything that you really enjoy. And I’ve enjoyed growing the organization. Our organization is very environmentally and socially involved. We have relationships with some farms directly where we have helped educate them on sustainable growing practices. We work the supply chain, we minimize our packaging, we’ve always donated money to a lot of causes, from building playgrounds to sponsoring seminars on skill development. We always took care of our people, we’ve always had that orientation that you do well, you treat people well and you provide a great product and value and you’ll always be successful. You know, if you just do good, it comes back to you.
MG: What’s the source of that impulse? You’ve pursued spirtuality, taken seminars with Deepak Chopra. Is that it?
BS: I think maybe I’m less ego driven. I think there’s more of a ‘how can I help?’ orientation, more of a connection to our universality than like a what’s in it for me attitude.
MG: What was the turning point?
BS: Well, after Deepak, I started meditating daily and I’m much more in touch with my spirit and your spirit, he says this, is the domain of your awareness of your universality. I’ve always had that orientation. We’ve been donating to the rain forest and Conservation International for like 10 years. We just developed a coffee that is certified environmentally friendly, not only organic but–see, coffee is a great buffer crop to a lot of the rain forests, it gives people in the community work where they can sustain themselves and it’s one of the least destructive to the environment. Banana crops, they throw the stalks into the rivers, sugar cane, they burn, a lot of other crops are more destructive so coffee is one of the best crops to buffer areas that are in danger of extinction, where they’re really focusing on biodiversity.
MG: I’m having a little trouble reconciling the guy who made EZ Wider with who you are now.
BS: It’s just an evolution. I enjoy helping people grow and making things work. I try to be at one with everything, to live my life in that zone of spiritual awareness, being aware of the present moment and how things in the moment guide me along.
MG: One of the things that’s been said about the baby boom is that it is a very spiritual generation, but that it will come to that very late in life. That it will become a mentoring generation in its dotage, that as elders we’ll be very concerned with morality and spirituality. Do you feel that’s true?
BS: Well, I try to expose people to it. I’m not saying it’s the right answer for everyone. But I think it’s great that people might have the opportunity to experience some of this and then embrace it or reject it, having known a little of what it’s about. I’m not maybe good enough at this to explain it but the world and life is a total system. At the quantum level everything is just energy and information. So that there is no matter in a sense, it’s waves, it’s vibrations. And our nervous system gives us an awareness of things and we experience things in a total flow of universality. It’s like something is guiding how things evolve out of a total universal consciousness. And things change over time through a universal awareness of things. It’s like when great discoveries have happened historically they might have been discovered at the same time in different parts of the world. How did that happen? Well it’s because these people are tapping into this universal knowledge of things. Sometimes the information is there in front of us for hundreds of years and then all of a sudden we see it. And it’s like we are evolving as a society to the tune of something that we’re not aware of.