4 Seasons Coffee owner sentenced to $80K restitution, probation for misbranding coffee

May 19—The owner of Four Seasons Coffee in Albert Lea was sentenced to three years of probation, a $5,000 fine and almost $80,000 in restitution Thursday in U.S. District Court for felony misbranding of coffee to his customers for over four years.

David William Nelson pleaded guilty in October to the charge, which took place from January 2014 to 2018, though court documents reflect the actions began as early as 2012. Court documents stated Nelson had reduced the amount of coffee sold in the 5-pound bags of coffee through his business to 4 1/2 pounds and took off the label indicating how much coffee was in each bag. Customers were still under the impression they were receiving 5 pounds and were still charged for such.

Federal law requires food products be sold with an accurate net weight on the packaging.

Court records state in December 2013, Nelson learned of a complaint from one of his customers that the coffee bags were light and did not contain the five pounds that was expected. Court documents stated he corrected the issue for the customer that complained, but did not change the bags for his other customers and continued to sell the 4-1/2-pound bags to them.

Nelson stopped selling 5-pound bags of coffee with the correct net weight label in May 2018 after an inspection by the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

Court documents state Nelson's company sold approximately 50,656 4-1/2-pound bags of coffee without a net weight label to nearly 300 customers across multiple states, including businesses, churches and nonprofits, totaling approximately 227,952 pounds of coffee. The customers received 22,795 pounds less coffee than if they had sold the 5-pound bags. Though numerous customers purchased as little as one bag of mislabeled coffee, one customer purchased over 11,000 pounds.

In a sentencing memo to the court, federal prosecutors recommended a sentence of one year of probation, including 100 hours of community service, restitution and a $50,000 fine. It stated Nelson "knowingly and intentionally misled hundreds of customers, transaction after transaction and year after year" if it weren't for an employee whistleblower. The employee told law enforcement Nelson came up with the plan with another employee and began changing the weight and removing the weight labeling in 2012.

Notices of the criminal case were mailed to nearly 300 customers who purchased the mislabeled product explaining their entitlement to restitution. Of those, approximately 100 customers responded and confirmed their requests for restitution, and a significant number of the mailings returned as undeliverable.

In a position filed by Nelson's lawyer, Joseph T. Dixon III, ahead of the sentencing, Dixon described Nelson as a good person who has lived a largely law-abiding life in Albert Lea and was a devoted family man.

It stated he also struggled with alcohol dependence but had been sober since 2005 and served on several boards and committees in the community.

His family started the wholesale coffee company in the mid-1960s and he gained full responsibility for the company in the early 2000s. It struggled starting in 2017 and has suffered six-figure losses every year since then, the document continued. Nelson considered selling the company five years ago to a larger organization, but opted to keep the company and the 15 jobs it had at the time.

"At a certain point, when the price of coffee was high, in an effort to reverse the operational losses at the company,

Mr. Nelson gave a directive that the company should reduce the quantity of the coffee sold in its standard 5-pound bags in lieu of raising prices," Dixon said, along with removing the net-weight label.

He argued that the case has weighed heavily on Nelson and that "living with the case hanging over him for five years was a punishment in and of itself."

Nelson and the company provided assistance to the U.S. Attorney's Office in identifying prior customers, providing updated contact information and identifying customer purchases. Dixon argued that a probationary sentence would allow him to continue to manage his two business, make restitution and repay the Small Business Administration.