“I don’t know…maybe that sounds like a hippie thing or something…but that’s just the way we do things!” –Caroline Bell
This might be hard to believe, but there was a time, not so long ago, when New York City was notorious for the complete absence of good coffee anywhere within the city limits. Of course, most of us didn’t notice — we’d been reared on Mr. Coffee-brewed Folger’s crystals and street cart swill. Coffee was all about caffeine, not quality.
When Caroline Bell and her husband Chris Timbrell opened the first Café Grumpy on a quiet corner in the yet-to-be hip Greenpoint of 2005, few recognized that their obsession with quality was a harbinger of changing tastes. Yes, once we got a taste of the good stuff, we all became insatiable coffee fanatics, and now there is good coffee to be had in every neighborhood (well…pretty good coffee…in most neighborhoods).
Café Grumpy has ridden the wave, opening three additional locations (including an outpost in Park Slope). But more impressively, they’ve managed to stay way out in front of the quality curve by sourcing their coffee directly from farmers in Central and South America, and by roasting the beans themselves in their Greenpoint shop — both things that very few other shops are able to or interested in doing. They’ve even opened a bakery at their Lower East Side location that’s now supplying baked goods to all four shops.
We met with Caroline and Colleen Duhamel, Grumpy’s coffee buyer, to learn more about the cafe’s cult-like dedication to quality at every step of the chain from seed to cup.
So Caroline, how did you come to open Café Grumpy?
We opened the Greenpoint shop in 2005. My husband is Australian. The company he was working for wanted to transfer him back to Australia. I really loved my job here at the time, and neither of us really wanted to leave. We had been kind of complaining for a while about how hard it was to find a good cup of coffee back then. Gimme Coffee had opened, which was really exciting! But no one else was focusing on quality. So we decided to go for it.
We lived in Greenpoint at the time, and it was the only neighborhood where we could find a landlord who’d give us the time of day, so it made sense for a number of reasons to do it here.
How did you become interested in coffee in the first place?
I grew up in New Jersey, so I spent a lot of time hanging out at the diner drinking coffee for hours with friends. So that kind of coffee was always a part of my life. It’s a part of almost everyone’s life. Once I discovered good coffee, I just wanted to learn more about it.
How did you learn more? How much did you know when you opened?
There was a lot we didn’t know when we decided to open the shop. We needed help. So we went out to Victrola Coffee, a small-scale roaster and coffee shop in Seattle. At the time it was owned by a young couple. We spent a few weeks out there training. We learned so much. We trained on the espresso machine, and ended up buying one of those for our shop. We sampled lots of different beans from places like Victrola, Intelligentsia, Counter Culture…through it all we started to really understand how important the beans, the roast and the brewing are to making a really good cup of coffee.
After that training, we came back and worked by ourselves, learning more and more every day. And we just always kept the focus on quality. That’s what we were interested in. Looking back, I understand why people don’t do that – it’s so expensive and takes so much time and commitment, but for us it was the only way to go.
From the start, we wanted to offer different beans grown in different places and roasted by different roasters. That’s more commonplace now, but back then the roasters all wanted exclusivity. We just didn’t want to be limited by relying on one company to supply all our coffee. We wanted Grumpy to be its own brand, focused on providing a variety of great beans and roasts that we’d choose ourselves. We didn’t want to just represent someone else’s brand, someone else’s taste in coffee.
Sounds like you had back then what has become a very ‘Brooklyn’ approach – wanting to be independent, do things your way, focus on quality…
I think so. It has been challenging. It’s just us. We don’t have investors or a PR company or anything. Everything is personal. We wanted to create a business that would let us give people jobs, competitive salaries, health insurance and all that — and do it all around sourcing, roasting, making and serving coffee in a way that we believe in.
There’s some sacrifice that comes with that – you could certainly make more money if you had a different approach, but in the end, what are you doing it for? You’re not going to get rich doing it this way. You hope that you can make a business that’s sustainable, that gives the staff and customers a good place to be, and that offers a really high quality product.
I don’t know…maybe that sounds like a hippie thing or something…but that’s just the way we do things!
When did you start roasting? And why?
We started roasting about two years ago, and we started sourcing and buying our own beans then too. We had been trying to roast for quite a while before that, but it was…complicated. It took more than a year to get it going.
We wanted to roast to just bring more of the whole process in-house. Coffee is so complicated. We wanted to go deeper into all the aspects of it, to understand it better, and to have more control over our product. It’s just more interesting that way. There’s only so much you can really understand about coffee if you’re relying on someone else to source and roast your beans.
We also knew it would give the staff the opportunity to learn more. Colleen, our buyer, used to be a full-time barista here. Another one of our baristas became one of our roasters. The more you learn about coffee, the more you want to learn. The more steps in the chain from growing the coffee to serving it that we can be involved in, the more opportunity there is for all of us to stay interested, to learn more, and to ensure that we’re getting the highest quality.
How does the sourcing work?
So Colleen is our ‘green buyer.’ The position is called ‘green buyer’ because you’re buying green coffee beans – before they’re roasted. She travels quite a bit. She’s been to Colombia, Brazil, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua…she travels to form direct relationships with farmers, co-ops and exporters. In coffee, you have to work with exporters who can clean the beans and ship them out of the country.
So Colleen does the traveling and samples the beans. When she finds something she likes, she brings it back. We do small sample roasts and we all cup the coffee together and talk about it. We decide what to buy and how to roast it…we make decisions together.
With sourcing, we’re looking for the best quality, but we’re also trying to focus on making sure it’s all traceable – that we know where it’s coming from, who’s growing it, how it’s grown, who’s picking it up from the farmer and processing the beans and exporting them to us…we want to know everyone involved in the process, make sure that we trust them, and that we’re getting really great beans.
One challenging thing about coffee is all the labels out there. Like ‘Fair Trade.’ Every once in a while people will come into the shop and say they want ‘Fair Trade’ coffee. ‘Fair Trade’ sets standards for pay for farmers, but it’s not always a high standard. The coffee we buy is priced so high. The farmers we work with get paid significantly more than many farmers whose coffee is labeled something like ‘Fair Trade.’ Our coffee might not have the label, but it goes way beyond that label. It can be confusing.
It all translates to our baristas having to know everything about the coffee, so they can explain it to the customers. They can tell you where the beans are from, how Colleen found them, who grew them, what makes them special. Their friends are in the back roasting the beans. Having the sourcing and the roasting in-house ends up meaning that we all learn a lot more about it, and that keeps it interesting for us, and for the customers – I hope!
So how do you communicate all that to the customers?
It’s a challenge. We do all this stuff in the background. We buy all the coffee directly from people growing it. We go to places like Honduras and Colombia to find the best beans. We roast here – we have a whole team right here working to make sure it’s great. It can be a challenge figuring out how to communicate all that to customers – that it’s this price for a reason. Not because we have high rent or something. It’s because we’re doing all this work to be able to provide a special coffee.
But communicating that is a challenge. We have our menu divided up by price. We list the producers and give brief tasting notes. We post on our blog about Colleen’s trips. But it’s not easy to convey to someone coming in for the first time that all that sourcing, roasting and careful brewing is behind that cup.
I don’t have the personality to make a big deal about it. I kind of like people to discover it themselves. We don’t have things plastered all over the place bragging about how we do things. But hopefully people catch on, and know that we’re doing it this way and that this is why it’s good.
How is the way you do it different from bigger coffee producers?
Normally there’s just a complete disconnect between the person growing coffee and the person drinking it.
Generally bigger coffee companies buy lots of beans at one time. So the exporters will buy lots of coffee from lots of different farmers across a region or a whole country, and they mix it all together to create a blend designed to provide a consistent overall flavor month after month and year after year.
We do single origin coffee which is really single farm or single micro-lot. We’re able to do that because we’re smaller, and we like changing our menu seasonally depending on where harvests are happening. Coffee is seasonal. We have different coffees from different places throughout the year. That means the flavor of our coffees change throughout the year. We like that. That’s interesting. It’s fun. For me, anyway! I hope our customers think so too.
That brings up another challenge – I don’t want people to think it’s our coffee. We want them to understand that it came from a farmer who lives on a mountain in Nicaragua or Colombia, growing this kind of bean. We want people to think of Grumpy as a place to get great coffee, not as the coffee itself. Does that make sense?
It makes all the sense in the world. Have you noticed a change in attitude among your customers since you opened in 2005? Are they more interested in this sort of thing now?
In Brooklyn there’s such a huge appreciation of where things come from and how they’re made – an interest in just getting more connected to stuff. When we opened in 2005 it was much more challenging. I don’t know whether it’s a trend that will fade, but I think that once people start asking those questions they start getting into it. I’m not sure there’s any going back.
I remember when we opened the shop in Chelsea – we started brewing by the cup. People thought that was ridiculous! They thought we were nuts to be offering different coffees at different prices, and brewing coffee to order. Everyone said, “No one’s going to wait two minutes for a cup of coffee!” Now all that is…normal. I was worried, but it worked.
We never had a business plan, which horrified my parents when we decided to do this. We just believed that if we did things in a way we believed in, things would work. You learn and you get a feel for the right choices. I think it’s all about trusting your instincts, being observant, thinking bigger picture, and trusting your staff.
[After chatting with Caroline, I sat down with Colleen Duhamel, Grumpy’s coffee buyer. Colleen was a barista at the cafe. When they began sourcing and roasting their own beans two years ago, Colleen moved to the back of the house to take on the role of buyer.]
Colleen, tell me about the process of buying coffee. Caroline mentioned that Grumpy is all about single-origin coffee? How does it all work?
The general label for the type of coffee we’re interested in is ‘single origin.’ That’s a label you see a lot these days, but it’s basically meaningless. Single origin just means that the coffee comes from one place, but ‘place’ is a really vague word. So sometimes single origin means the coffee comes from one lot or one farm, but other times it means one region or one country. I saw Starbucks selling ‘Kenyan Microlot’ coffee and thought that was hilarious. They probably sell more of that ‘microlot’ coffee in a day than we sell in a year.
We’re most interested in really high quality coffee grown by a specific person in a specific place. Coffee from one farm or one co-op.
In order to source that kind of coffee, it’s really important to have really close relationships with exporters – with the people who are on the ground where the coffee is being grown, all the time. Those relationships are key. They can steer me toward a handful of producers who they know personally, and who are growing great coffee. If I didn’t have that, I’d have to go to Central America on my own to try to meet a thousand farmers and taste thousands of cups of coffee to find what we’re looking for! It wouldn’t work.
How do you find good exporters to work with?
Really through word of mouth. Coffee is complicated. In order to get coffee out of the country of origin, you have to work with exporters. In order to get coffee into this country, you have to work with importers. My importers have actually connected me with a lot of great exporters, who have connected me with a lot of great farmers.
Some exporters are focused on big wholesale accounts, and some are more focused on smaller-scale specialty orders. You just have to find people who understand what you’re after and who respect that and are interested in working with you even though you’re not a big buyer.
We also look for exporters who are willing to talk about costs. When I find a farmer producing great coffee, I’ll tell that farmer what we’re going to pay him for it. But because of the way the system works, it’s actually the exporter who collects the coffee, mills it, ships it to us, and pays the farmer. We want to make sure the farmer gets what we tell them they’re going to get, so we need to find exporters we can trust to hold up their end of things with the farmers.
Also, exporters usually mill the coffee. Coffee beans are the seeds from a cherry-like fruit that grows on the coffee plant. It’s really important that harvested fruit is milled – cleaned – from the bean on the same day that it’s harvested, or the fruit will start to impart flavors that make things more complicated. So you need to find an exporter that you can trust on the milling end as well.
And why is it important to work directly with farmers?
Most small coffee farmers aren’t used to focusing on quality. They’re used to growing coffee the way they always have and selling it to exporters at commodity prices. They often don’t understand that if they focus on quality and are able to connect with the right kind of buyer, they can get a higher rate for their coffee.
The exporters are generally trying to buy large quantities of beans at the lowest prices. We’re interested in finding the best coffee and are willing to pay more for it. If we can develop a relationship with a farmer and help them improve their approach in order to improve the quality of their coffee, and to do that year after year, it’s in everybody’s best interest. They make more money, we get a consistently really great quality coffee, they don’t have to look for new buyers each year, and I don’t have to look for new farmers each year.
For me, it’s also nice to have a personal relationship – to know the people that grow the coffee. To visit the place where it’s grown. It’s one thing to talk about a farm and how they grow their coffee, but without actually seeing it or being there, it’s hard to really understand how it all works. Farmers are really under-appreciated.
I told a farmer one time, “You’re coffee is one of the most beautiful coffees I’ve ever tasted.” He said, “You have to come meet my family. I want you to meet my entire family.” He took us to his house, introduced us to his wife and said, “This is my wife. She runs everything. She makes sure that when I come in from the fields at night I have food. She makes sure that my sons, who will take over this farm some day, are being raised well and fed well. It means so much to us that you come here all the way from America and show us that you really appreciate us, and our coffee.”
It’s just great to be able to have those kind of connections with growers.
What does working with coffee from specific farms mean in terms of flavor?
There’s this coffee growing region in Guatemala called Huehuetenago. You can go there and taste five different coffees from five neighboring farms, and they’ll each taste completely different. And there’s nothing cooler than that.
Exporters are used to buying lots of coffee from lots of farmers and mixing it together to sell in bulk. They know what they’re doing. They’re cupping their coffees all the time. But they cup coffee very differently than we do. They’re looking for flaws, defects. They’re doing business. They’re creating blends for big roasters designed to taste the same all the time.
We’re looking for great coffee. Not for defects. We’re looking for an amazing flavor profile that’s unique to the place in which the coffee is grown, and the way in which it’s grown. That’s pretty much what we’re after.
So what have you learned so far?
Still learning, but we’ve figured out a lot of it. It’s definitely become easier to make calls on good connections versus bad connections, on making decisions about which coffees we want to buy and which we don’t. Early on I’d be totally stressed out, thinking, “What if I’m crazy? What if I’m missing something here? What if this coffee I’m not buying is actually the best coffee in the world!?”
Ha ha. Now we have confidence! Now we know. That makes it a lot easier.