How the Pandemic Has Impacted NJ’s Coffee Supply Chains

Unemployment is above 16 percent, people with jobs are increasingly working at home. For this sample of coffee roasters, online is a lifeline.

Steve McFadden, Justin and Anastasia of Revolution Coffee at the Collingswood farmers market. Photo by Devon Segel

If you’re looking for a symbol of the pre-Covid workplace, one likely candidate is the communal coffee pot at the office. It’s almost cringeworthy now—everybody touching the handle, helping themselves, crowding around, gabbing. Innocent times.

People are still drinking coffee, of course, but they might be making it at home more than they used to, with cold brew (forgiving and easy, just grind and add water) enjoying an uptick.

We checked in with four New Jersey roasters to talk about recent trends in coffee consumption.

Revolution Coffee, Collingswood

Revolution Coffee in Collingswood, founded in 2013, is expanding its footprint, moving from a small shop on a side street to a larger space on Haddon Avenue, next door to Hearthside restaurant. I spoke with co-founder Steve McFadden, who back in the day was a car mechanic.

“We’re moving because we need to expand capacity for roasting. It’s been an odd ride for us, because we’re primarily a roaster. We closed our coffee shop back in March at the governor’s order and shifted to curbside pickup, delivery and online ordering. Turned out it was a wise pivot. We’re surprised how much volume we’re doing just with that, and the feedback is people are really happy we we’re doing it.

“When we opened in July of 2013 as a small-batch roaster, we didn’t have retail; we were marketing to restaurants and cafes. But we started doing a couple of farmers’ markets, and the communities, especially Collingswood, embraced us. We built up a stable of wholesale customers, and we eventually decided to open a retail coffee shop to build on the momentum that started at the farmers’ markets.

“Then the pandemic hit, and a majority of our wholesale customers were shut down or very limited. But a core continued to thrive and we moved decent volume. Meanwhile, with pickup and delivery there was no drop off in retail sales, and we saw we would need more production space. We had maxed out our current location [on Fern Avenue].

“Our new location was formerly the Nutty Duchess Tea Room. She gave up the space, and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity. We’ll have production, packaging and everything complete by the middle of August. And we should have takeout ready at the cafe by Labor Day weekend.

“Our cold brew production is through the roof. We bottle a cold brew concentrate in 64-ounce growlers. People dilute it 50/50 with water, so it makes a full gallon. Compared to last summer, without looking up the numbers, my guess is we’re looking at a volume increase in cold brew of about 30 percent over last year—and that’s without being able to seat customers and a lot of our wholesale customers closed or at limited capacity. That growler is in quite a few refrigerators in the Collingswood area.

“The overall amount of beans we’re using is up. We’re making more trips to buy green unroasted beans. People are consuming more coffee at home, because they are at home, as opposed to grabbing a cup on the way to the office or in the office.”

Modcup, Jersey City

Modcup in Jersey City, launched in 2013 as a single cart in Jersey City’s financial district near the Hudson River. The company grew to three brick-and-mortar cafes before the pandemic shutdown. I spoke with co-founder Travas Clifton.

“Cold brew is what put us on the map. When we launched we made the decision to make cold brew using naturally processed coffees. That means beans that are dried in the sun, which imparts a fruity sweetness to the bean. That’s the first thing people went crazy for when we launched our cart in the summer of 2013. Cold brew was a new thing seven years ago.

“When we closed our cafes [in the pandemic], we had 450 pounds of coffee on our shelves. That would have supplied our three cafes for two weeks. What to do with it? We cold-brewed half of it, filled growlers and gave them away to hospitals, first responders. Police officers and firefighters also came and got it.

“We were hoping they’d bring the growlers back and we’d do it again for them with the other 225 pounds. But we realized nobody was bringing them back, so we needed another way of preserving this coffee. We contacted a company in Pennsylvania called Swift Cup that many roasters have been working with to create instant-coffee sachets that extend shelf life to nine months.

And we realized that growlers in a pandemic are maybe not the best move, because they are shared and handled by more than one person. But a sachet [containing instant coffee] is perfect for a first responder because it’s handled by just one person and it’s fully biodegradable. In a pandemic that is the kind of product nurses need. So we created a website for nurses to put in their information, and every time we sell a sachet we mail a sachet to a registered nurse.

Modcup teamed up with Swift Cup to produce individual sachets of coffee in instant form. Photo courtesy of Modcup

“It took awhile. We’ve spoken to local hospitals, and nurses have begun registering on [the website]. We began selling the sachets this week. So far we’ve sold 36 sachets and have mailed 36 sachets to RNs.

“In our first six years, we weren’t a massive company online. We focused on the cafes. In 2019, we did X dollars of business online the entire year. We sold that amount online in one month in April. Incredible. With the cafes closed, we thought we were dead in the water, but online saved us, no question.

“I didn’t pay myself for four months. It allowed me to keep four of our core staff in the roastery. I said, ‘Guys, I don’t have the money to pay full wages.’ They said, ‘Pay us whatever you can. We’ve got to keep going because we want our jobs back when we come back.’

“But I applied for and got a PPP loan, and it was a massive celebration because I could pay them full wages.

“Our cash cow was the cafe in the financial center [downtown, by the Hudson River]. And that is not open. Overall, we’re down revenue-wise compared to last year, but not by much, given it’s a pandemic. We’re not big. We’re actually tiny. There’s only 10 of us that work in the company. We just all work about 70 hours a week.”

Oren’s Daily Roast, Jersey City

Oren’s Daily Roast in Jersey City was founded by Oren Bloostein in 1985. He sold the company in 2018 but remains director of coffee, in charge of roasting and quality control. The company’s cafes, in New York City, closed in the pandemic.

“We had an awful situation. Our driver of 25 years, Miguel Menchu, caught the virus. This was early April. Everyone in the factory, about six people, quarantined themselves. No one else got sick. But Miguel passed away. He was a sweetheart. We raised some money for him and his family. He was 52. It’s just an awful thing. We’re still devastated.

“Miguel’s son Alexis has been working for us this summer, filling orders. He’s a very smart kid, still in college, way too smart to be doing this. He’s going for an engineering degree. He’s very responsible, just a great kid.

“Since I sold the company, I’ve been doing all the buying and quality control, assessing the beans from each roast, looking at time and temperature and other things to see if it matches the profile it should. But when everybody went into quarantine after Miguel got sick, it was either I start roasting again or there would be no coffee.

“We had two qualified roasters; they both were quarantining. One of them had a heart condition, so he stayed out to stay safe. The other was our factory manager, and he decided to move his family to Phoenix. So it wasn’t just a two-week stint of roasting for me. It’s been ever since.

“It’s fine. I like roasting. I have a helper to weigh the coffee, because I’m 64 now, and that’s a real bear, laying out a thousand pounds of coffee by hand. The art is selecting the coffee and assessing and reassessing the coffee and changing the profile until you get what you think is the perfect profile for that coffee. The craft is being able to reproduce the profile so that customers can enjoy the same product again and again.

“As soon as we closed the stores, our online biz tripled. That was good, helped keep the business alive. We’ve also been selling on an online platform called Drink Trade. There are about 40 or 50 different roasting companies represented, and we’ve been one of their top sellers. Over the course of the pandemic, people have been looking to buy more things online, and our volume of trade has increased rather dramatically.

“That’s helped keep the business alive, because our wholesale business has declined because cafes and offices are not in the picture. Companies are realizing their employees can do a lot of work at home, so they can reduce their real estate footprint. In cities like New York, that will make for smaller offices, and that will kill cafe business and food business on the streets.”

Java Love, Montclair

Java Love has two cafes in Montclair and one each in Suffern and Bethel, New York. I spoke with owner Jodie Dawson.

“We roast all our own coffee. When we shut down the cafes in March and April we saw an uptick in online sales. It seemed everyone wanted to get their coffee at home. We sold a lot of French presses and home brewers, and made some fun videos on making coffee at home. People wanted to be more educated about that.

“As we’ve slowly reopened, there’s been a mix—people who know how to brew at home and aren’t so comfortable yet in a public space, and then people who want a little bit of quote unquote normal in their life, coming out. We are not allowing people inside the shops. We’ve created new cleaning practices to keep the staff and customers as safe as possible, and we do have outdoor seating.

“Some people will come and buy coffee and bring their own fold-up chair. We do have cleaning supplies outside, if someone wants to make sure it’s extra clean. Everything is spaced six feet apart. We’re in the business of creating community, and in the seven years we’ve been in Montclair, this has been a whole new challenge. Were also missing one of the largest pieces of our business, our baristas. Normally, they have conversations with our customers. People wait on line, neighbors see each other. People used to hang out, have a meeting here or work [on their laptops] in the shop. [In the pandemic,] even if you see your neighbor, it’s just ‘Hi,’ and then people are running away. Now people are feeling a little more comfortable going out, and we see that in sales.

“Our Bellevue Avenue shop is right across from the bus and train [to New York], and there’s no real commuting. Bellevue used to be open from 6 am to 6 pm, but there’s no need to open at 6 because people are barely rolling out of their houses at 8 or 9.

“We changed our hours for a number of reasons. One of the most important is for the health and safety of our staff. We used to have split shifts, [in which] a third person would overlap. But to minimize the number of people shuffling around the stores, we created barista teams, so people are working with the same people as much as possible to minimize exposure.

“The things you have to think about now, it’s over the top.

“Compared to last summer, our business is 25 to 50 percent less, depending on the store and the day. It’s a different proposition from having a line out the door versus picking up your coffee at the door. You have to really want that coffee.

“We have an e-commerce site for beans and teas. And when we reopened in May or late April we were only doing pre-ordering online and then pickup in store, to minimize contact. We’re taking orders at the door now, but it’s very clunky, so we’re reinventing as we go along.

“I sit in on meetings with different representatives from businesses in town and our Council men and women, and everyone’s trying to figure out what the next step is, for the very near future but also the fall and winter. This doesn’t seem like it’s going to change any time soon.

“For now, it looks like the town is working on some street closings until the end of September, and trying to come up with a permit where businesses can block off parking spots to expand the footprint for eating establishments. There are some challenges to that as far as safety. We’re working with fire and police to see how safe they could make that type of expansion.”

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