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Why did I ever sell my gourmet shops back in the 60's?

At the recent Orlando convention of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, I couldn't help but notice the great changes that have taken place since I bought my first "Gourmet Bean Store" as they were then referred to, in 1964. There is still much naivete and a certain pseudo-sophistication among the burgeoning numbers of store operators. But there is also much more knowhow and practical respect for the public than in that past era when operators knew just enough to be misinformed about the product they sold, and roasters were of little help.

We bought the store from a character who had, along with his predecessor, run the business since the 1920's. It was in a far-off suburb of Toronto and was the first of three we would operate before selling them all in the 1970's on the premise that it was tough to make any money with them (Oh, for the benefit of some foresight).

Anyhow, I had been providing the previous owner with three kinds of green coffee prior to 1964, which he roasted in a 25 pound Deere machine, and in which he also roasted peanuts. Knowing that he only purchased three varieties, and noticing that he had at least 14 bins of coffee named by exotic points of origin, I asked him how he worked this particular magic.

"You know that, I know that, but they don't know that," was essentially his answer. And I actually witnessed his witchcraft when applied to several buyers over a period of time. As an example. Lady Elegance would pull up in front of his store in a chauffeur-driven limousine. She would come in and in a whisper ask to see the manager in person, as if the upcoming transaction was too important to be left to a mere clerk.

On seeing him, she would, almost in a conspiratorial way, ask for a half-pound of Lady Elegance's private blend. He, with the look of a co-conspirator, would take a metal file box from a shelf and pull Lady Elegance's formula card containing the blend composition. Then, scoop in hand, he would expertly measure out portions of beans from four or five bins and slide them into a small white gusset bag. He would carefully fold it and ask Lady Elegance for the $4.00 price. (This part always floored me, for he was paying me perhaps 60 [cents]/lb. for the average of the three green coffees. I had yet to understand the dynamics and imperatives of specialty store pricing).

Then Lady Elegance would presumably entertain her friends at the afternoon bridge party, and with a slightly elevated head sniff that what they were enjoying was a private blend, exclusively hers for the whole city. Now, many years later and after 42 years of coffee roasting, I am getting for the first time telephone calls with such questions as, "What estate does your Kona originate from?" and "Is your Guat from Huehuetennango?" Is my what from what? And this question likely comes from some one who in a cup test wouldn't know Guat from squat.

But in spite of this uppity yuppity approach to coffee retailing, and in spite of the tendency for the industry to be too quick to embrace the whole environmental, ecological, conservation, preservation, world hunger et al movements (it was suggested at one meeting in Orlando that modern packaging would soon become passe as being environmentally unfriendly and thus roasters would have to be in the city of consumption to ensure rapid delivery and freshness), there is a lot to be said for what is, essentially, a new industry.

Specialty coffee, in drawing the attention of the public to the idea of quality coffee just as the wine industry has done with that beverage, has had a profound effect on all other segments of the coffee business. Restaurants, coffee service operators, national brand roasters and many other segments of the coffee market now cannot ignore the public pressure for a better deal after decades of product degradation.

If specialty coffee can maintain its present course toward real quality and integrity, some 20 million people the world over who depend on coffee for their livelihood will owe it a real debt of gratitude.

Stuart Daw is president of Nationwide Gourmets, Inc. which roasts coffee, both regular and most recently gourmet, supplies the office coffee service industry and is a prolific writer. He was a regular contributor to this magazine, covering the coffee service industry, during the early 80's. He has presented many seminars on behalf of the Coffee Development Fund and the Office Coffee Service Association. Daw is based in St. Petersburg, Florida, and can be found on a plane twice a week going to Toronto where his offices/roasting facilities are also located.
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Title Annotation:upward trend in specialty coffee retailing
Author:Daw, Stuart
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 1, 1991
Words:797
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