Building a Better Travel Mug

Whitefish builder creates new porcelain and cork coffee mug

By Molly Priddy

WHITEFISH – As a builder in the construction industry, Robert Knox understands the value of a good cup of coffee and a durable travel mug that can keep up with a rough-and-tumble day on the worksite.

In the many years he’s worked in the industry in Whitefish, Knox went through countless porcelain mugs, metal travel mugs and any other combination. The handles on traditional mugs would break, and then he’d be left with a hot cup and no way to hold it.

Metal travel mugs are OK, he said, but they fall apart after a few trips through the dishwasher. Plus, the metallic aftertaste was not a welcome addition to his coffee.

“I didn’t want to drink out of metal,” he said last week while standing in his wood shop. “And I hated drinking out of plastic, especially hot drinks.”

Finding the perfect mug was always a quest in the back of his mind, Knox said, but the idea for that mug hit him one day while he was building a fly fishing rod. He got up to get some coffee, and walked back to his work table.

“It just hit me: I wanted a porcelain mug wrapped in cork,” Knox said.

Thus the idea for the new Cortiça mug was born. He couldn’t find one online, and there weren’t any patents, “so I decided to make it.” Now, the patent is pending, and Knox is already taking orders for his cork-wrapped creation.

The cork acts as an insulator, shock absorber, and a coaster for tables. Once the mug needs cleaning, it’s as simple as taking the porcelain piece out of the cork – which holds the 12 oz. mug tight with a friction fit – and putting it in the dishwasher. The cork piece can be hand washed.

Knox isn’t a stranger to the business world; during the major construction boom, his company, Knox on Wood, built many custom houses for clients throughout the valley. What started as a way to be a professional builder turned into a larger company, he said, and soon he was managing dozens of people and working crazy hours just to keep up.

“I woke up one morning and turned to my wife and said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’” Knox said.

They closed the company down and went to Cambodia and Thailand, where they built orphanages.

“I just really needed to build something that was going to be used all the time,” he said.

When they got back, Knox restarted his construction company but on a much smaller scale; now he is contracted to build custom pieces and rarely has to hire more than one person for a job. For the Cortiça mug idea, Knox leaned heavily on his family – his sons, Caleb and Nathan, and of course, his wife Rachael.

The mug idea was also partially funded through a Kickstarter campaign, which reached its $35,000 goal with two weeks of funding still to go. The mug and cork pieces will be manufactured overseas by an American company, Knox said, but that was worth the price variable for him.

Instead of having to sell the Cortiça for $40 retail, they’ll cost $25, he said. This way, more people will be able to afford them, and start using fewer paper cups and reduce waste.

“I really wanted it to be sustainable,” Knox said. “If it gets thrown out, it’ll just decompose and break.”

The porcelain will turn back into dust, he said, and the cork will decompose because it’s wood.

Knox is already taking orders for the travel mugs, and expects to be able to start filling those by October. The Kickstarter campaign helped find a market for the minimum number of mugs he needed to order, and now he hopes he will find a local market for the travel mugs at Flathead coffee shops and household stores.

He is also offering 200 mugs at $5 off for Flathead Valley residents, which will be delivered in October.

The prototype of the Cortiça mug that Knox made five months ago is still alive and well, which is practically a miracle with how hard he is on his mugs, he said.

“I’ve been looking for a mug like this for a long time,” he said. For more information on Cortiça travel mugs and the Kickstarter campaign, visit www.kickstarter.com/projects/1672271502/the-cortica-mug-a-coffee-mug-for-coffee-connoisseu