Small Business Feature: Hilltop Packs and Hilltop Packs Coffee Company

The very first thing that greets you when you walk into the building that Hilltop Packs and Hilltop Packs Coffee Company share is a wooden cutout of bigfoot holding a stand that dispenses hand sanitizer. The walls are filled with pictures of owner Ben McMillen on numerous hiking trips, various wooden coffee-related decorations, and a Hilltop road sign that McMillen said was sourced from a yard sale, although McMillen doesn’t know where in the US it was originally from. Overlooking it all is a wooden silhouette of a bear next to a display featuring one of Hilltop Packs’ signature bear bags, a bag that backpackers use to store food high in the trees to keep bears out, and the smell of coffee permeates the air. The atmosphere is an eclectic mashup of the two businesses that inhabit the building.

Micah Leith

Although Hilltop Packs and Hilltop Packs Coffee Company occupy the same building on East Greene Street in Waynesburg, the two businesses are technically separate entities. McMillen is the sole owner of Hilltop Packs and the co-owner of Hilltop Packs Coffee Company with his aunt Bridget Vilenca. Although he said that some family members have trouble working together, he said that he and Vilenca have had a smooth working relationship. 

“There’s a lot of family that can’t work together, whether that it’s employee and employer or whatever. A big issue is trust,” McMillen said. “I’ve known her my whole life, she’s a hard worker. Trust is everything. “

According to McMillen, Hilltop Packs was established at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, while the coffee roastery was launched in July of 2021. Despite both businesses being in operation for less than five years, McMillen said that both businesses have done well. Hilltop Packs has established a respected place in the ultralight backpacking community, Macmillan says, and the gear that they sell has been featured on prominent backpacking YouTube channels, such as Dan Becker and Darwin on the Trail.

“[Ben McMillen] is the owner of a company called Hilltop Packs. And Hilltop Packs makes those super cool, Dyneema printed bear bags that everybody is using now,” Dan Becker, a backpacking influencer with over 111,000 subscribers on Youtube, said in a video posted on Feb 9, 2021. 

According to the brand’s website, Dyneema fabrics are “available as composites, denim, knits, wovens and hybrid fabrics for composite reinforcements” and are both lightweight and fifteen times stronger than steel. Hilltop Packs utilizes Dyneema fabrics for a number of its products, along with recycled materials for its string backpacks.

All of the products sold by Hilltop Packs are made by McMillen and his employees, including the sewing and the printing, which is done with equipment from McMillen’s photography business. McMillen said that this cuts down on his overhead cost.

“We make literally everything. The straps, shoulder pads, we make everything here,” McMillen said. 

In addition to support within the backpacking community for Hilltop Packs, McMillan and Vilenca said that there has been a lot of local support for the coffee roastery. Part of this is because of the lack of other coffee roasters in Greene County and renewed interest in shopping local, he said, and the roastery supplies coffee to businesses like Fruition Bowls and Brew on High Street. 

“There’s coffee roasters in Washington County, in the Morgantown area, but there aren’t any here in Greene County,” he said. “It’s local. People are more interested in going to local businesses than, I think, ever before.”

One of the biggest components for the businesses is the policy of free cups of coffee for anyone that walks in. They also invite people to use their space to meet, including students at Waynesburg University.

“We have guest wifi, so if kids want to come down and do some work and have some coffee, we’d love to have them,” Vilenca said.

The roaster that McMillen and Vilenca currently own is capable of handling 10 pounds of coffee beans in 14 minutes for each batch. Vilenca said they can roast 40 pounds of coffee beans per hour, and the process requires careful attention.

“It’s really not rocket science, but you do have to pay attention to time and temperature,” she said. “Every batch we make we try. If it’s not good then we can do something different next time.”

Trial and error is an important part of the process, so much so that it found its way into the motto that McMillen and Vilenca have displayed on a sign, which says “Be brave enough to suck at something new.” Both said that developing a new variety of coffee requires lots of taste testing and adjustments, and the process was new to them.

“Neither one of us had much experience with coffee prior to this, before I would just go through McDonalds and get a cup,” McMillen said.

There are currently 20 different varieties of coffee listed on the business’s website, including flavored coffees and seasonal offerings like Pumpkin Spice, which Vilenca says is constantly selling out. Every coffee has its own name, like High Street, a medium roast from beans grown in Indonesia and Ethiopia, and Bucktown elbow, a Sumatra and Ethiopia dark roast that references a well-known local saying, according to McMillen

For McMillen, one of the best parts of running his own business is not having to depend on someone else to get paid. He says that he appreciates the freedom and responsibility that working for yourself brings.

Micah Leith