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Gillies: looking into the 90s and back to our roots.

Gillies: Looking Into The 90s and Back to Our Roots

In an old leather box beside an ancient Goldenberg-Zornhoff #1 Mill, in the finished basement of a small fieldstone and brick house in Great Neck, New York, there lies a pen and ink drawing of a man standing by a horse drawn contraption. The man is Wright Gillies and he is roasting coffee.

In 1840, when a young Gillies had just set out on his own at the tender age of 19 there were only a score of coffee merchants in the American trade, the very first commercial roating establishment having been founded less than 50 years earlier in that same American city of New York.

Wright, first alone, and later with his brother James forged the beginnings of the smart little enterprise that continues to flourish today as the Gillies Coffee Co. and who this year celebrates its sesquicentenial. It is said that an institution is but the lengthening shadow of one man's vision and leadership. We cannot know whether Gilles believed he would have a lasting influence on his chosen trade. He worked hard. He prospered, and he left behind in others the conviction and the will to carry on his ideals.

Gillies was whiplashed through the years by changing technology and fashions in coffee, still the little house persevered, and continues after all these years as a thriving producer of high grade coffee specialties to the gourmet retailer an chef restauranteur. A separate retail mail-order company sees to the requisites of individual consumers. Gillies stands as a reminder that there has always been, in the much maligned U.S. trade, a tradition of uncompromised craftsmanship and fair value.

Probably the most important thing that has kept the company, the nation's oldest, afloat for seven generations has been its ability to periodically redefine its clientele as a defense against changing market conditions. The firm's move into gourmet retailing a generation ago, at a time when the independent grocers had given up on bulk bean sales, found a new market niche for coffee and a new product category for specialty food: gourmet coffee. The firm ceased its profitable five store retail operation in the mid-eighties to concentrate on what president Donald N. Schoenholt sees as the company's future market, that of serving the growing number of up-scale food service operators and specialty grocers. The trick that Gillies seems to have mastered is to move from niche to niche in a changing business environment, without dropping the ball and while remaining steadfast to its values.

What makes Gillies of interest is that, outside of its outlandish longevity, it is not an anomaly in the American trade. What makes it newsworthy is that it is only one of a host of merchants whose existence and success have defined the American coffee landscape and who will likely continue to do so from here to the 21st century.

The Gillies firm has been innovating coffee ideas since it was among the first to install electric and telephone service prior to the turn of the 20th century. With the opening of the East River (Brooklyn) Bridge deliveries were extended to the "City Across the River." In the age before business incorporation the firm's name changed with time reflecting proprietorship; Wright Gillies was the style in 1840, then Wright Gillies & Bro. By the "Guilded Age" of the 1880s the house became Gillies Coffee Co. under which name it was incorporated in New York, in 1906. Mack Shoenholt entered the trade in 1914. David L. Schoenholt entered the roasting business in 1923. David's son Donald N. became active in the firm in 1963; taking over the reigns of management in 1975. Hy Chabbot joined the firm some 15 years ago, and serves as chief financial officer.

The commercial world into which the Gillies firm was born was drastically different from todays. The coffee houses were clustered near the waterfront piers. Messengers did the work of today's fax and overnight express service. Even the telephone was 20 years away. Slings and wooden wagons were the method of moving cargoes. Horse drawn carts moved green coffees to the old row "Counting Houses" that had begun, by that time to be converted to roasting plants along Front and Water Streets on the East and Greenwich and Washington Streets on the West side of the city.

Can you imagine conducting business with neither natural gas, nor electric light? Roasters, in the fashion of old colonial kitchens, were built outdoors because of the constant danger of fire spreading to the warehouse.

By the time Gillies celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1915 coffee was selling for its lowest prices in history. "Old Government Java" was already, at that time, a term inappropriate for use, as there had been no coffee by that description available for sale in many years (Peculiar, isn't it that the term DAK continues to crop up on coffee lists today when the item has been out of existence so very long?) Much too much was being made of the Style "Mocha" as almost none of the coffee by that name was from Arabia, but was from Brazil which was rising as a great coffee shipping empire.

The great Central American coffees were first being developed and recognized at this time. Decaffeinated coffee existed but was of no importance. Of great fascination to the trade was the concentration of market in the two great coffee giants of the day - Arbuckle's Ariosa and Havemeyer's Lion Brand. The new fledgling Pure Food and Drug Administration, which was moving to prevent adulteration of products, and that new Norton invention being innovated by Hill's of San Francisco, the vacuum can, were much talked about on the curbs of Front Street.

With the passage of another 75 years, the old behemoths fade and are replaced continually with new Coffeesauruses which will in their turn change ownership, stewardship, and soul (though the brand names may endure). This is the way of all sophisticated marketplaces. The specialty coffee community, and Gillies in particular, has earned a reputation within its communities of providing its clientele with an intangible feeling of assurance that there is a sense of continuity with the past, and respect for tradition, craft and individual taste preferences, in the variety of products offered. Gillies introduced the coffee consumer to uncompromised coffee, and the trade to a totally new vision of itself by championing varietal blends of all-Arabica beans and coupling the coffee with an education process that encompassed both consumers, chefs and the trade at large. In choosing to be the standard bearer, ironically, it primed the market for a new generation of coffee entreneurship which has filled the field with competitors, many of whom, as divisions of large regional coffee companies, dwarf the small pioneer's size.

New tastes in flavored coffees, new decaffeinated varieties, changing consumer taste preferences, and dramatic price fluctuations are only part of what the specialty segment and Gillies will face in the coming decade. When the question of specialty coffee (and Gillies') ability to survive crops up Schoenholt waxes philosophic, "It is comforting to remember that the idea of good coffee as championed by us has survived The Mexican and Civil War, panics, depressions, world wars and the antics of an industry which from time to time takes pleasure in shooting itself in the foot." The confidence expressed by a fellow who has grown up in the trade is echoed by virtually all who share the specialty vision and work daily to fulfill its potential.

We can do no less than to wish them well, they have contributed much to the value of coffee and our feelings of self worth here in the U.S. trade.
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Title Annotation:history of Gillies Coffee Co.
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Mar 1, 1990
Words:1287
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