Retired Chief Maritime Enforcement Specialist Michael Vecchione spent 20 years wearing Coast Guard blue. Raised by a close-knit Italian family in New Jersey, service to others and really good coffee were woven into his everyday life.
“When you’re serving aboard a cutter, you can’t control very much. Everything you do they tell you – from the food you can eat to when to wake up,” he said. “But the one thing I could control was starting my day with a really great cup of coffee. Everything else can suck, but I know my morning wouldn’t.”
Now he’s giving others a chance for that same morning motivation through his new coffee brand, Mortem Labs.
Discovering unique coffee culture
After enlisting in 1998, Vecchione spent a few years on cutters and small boat stations as a boatswain’s mate – but law enforcement was always on his mind. A deployment to the Middle East on the Aquidneck convinced him it was time to make the switch.
The Maritime Safety and Security Teams (MSST), created in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, consisted of elite units experienced in maritime counterterrorism. Vecchione was part of the Direct Action Section, which is highly trained in close-quarters combat.
After nearly two years of training, he was assigned to the International Training Division for three years and set foot in 25 countries across five continents.
“One thing I noticed is that whether they grew it or roasted it locally or not – they all had their own unique coffee culture,” Vecchione said. “I just fell in love with the fact that no matter where we went, even if I couldn’t speak the language, we would always have coffee. And we’d have a translator, but we would be enjoying coffee together – like a universal language.”
Vecchione was sent to language immersion school in Guatemala to learn Spanish. Though he’d always loved coffee – it was these years which would shape it into something more.
“The hostel I stayed in was right next to a coffee roaster. I would go over and just practice my Spanish with him. His wife would cook breakfast and it was amazing,” he said. “I would ask him about coffee because whenever I get into something, I get really into it. I would always ask why they picked certain beans. He would explain to me all these different things about coffee, and I realized what a science there was behind the roasting in the actual sourcing of beans.”
An injury in 2018 forced him into an earlier-than-planned retirement, as he was no longer deployable. After 20 years in the Coast Guard, including three deployments to CENTCOM during Operation Iraqi Freedom, he walked away – ready for the next chapter.
“I opened up my cigar shop, primo cigars and coffee right after that. I bought a trolley car from Rhode Island, turned it into an actual cigar bar and I was in the national news for it,” he said. “Unfortunately, COVID killed it. But you know things happen for a reason.”
Not only did he lose the cigar business but also made the decision to leave the coffee roasting company he helped start with two other veterans.
However, with a father who was a passionate entrepreneur with multiple patents under his belt, Vecchione adapted that mentality to carry himself forward. In 2021, he took a position with Town Center Cold Pressed in Virginia as head of its coffee roasterie.
“I had won gold for Coastal Virginia Magazine’s Best coffee in the 757 area and when I came here to cold pressed, they had never been nominated before. After seven months they won silver,” Vecchione said. “They are an amazing company and extremely veteran friendly, offering discounts every single day. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work alongside them.”
Coffee roasting at the ‘next level’
Just this year, he launched his own coffee, cigar and attire brand – Mortem Labs.
“It allowed me to take my coffee roasting to the next level. Not only am I working for an amazing company, but they’ve allowed me the freedom to experiment and create unique blends and roasts,” he said.
Looking back, his life didn’t turn out quite as he planned it but there isn’t a moment he’d change.
“I think Special Operations attracts a certain type of person and I think that’s why those people become successful when they get out because of that mentality,” Vecchione said. “I carry that mentality with me everywhere and it’s simple. Do work, find work and don’t quit. When you stop or get to a roadblock, get up – don’t stay down.”