Zounds! What Grounds!

They began with a homemade roaster. Now Adam Bossie and his buddies are making Coffee Afficionado the cup that top chefs crave.

Coffee Afficionado CEO Adam Bossie leans against a fortress of his elite goods. Photo by Erik Rank

The white ceramic cups have been set up around the table. Water heated to 198 degrees—a temperature intended to coax out full flavor—has been poured over the freshly ground coffee beans, roasted just this morning in the adjacent room.

“Awesome, I’m getting grapefruit from this,” says Coffee Afficionado CEO Adam Bossie, inhaling deeply over a cup of Aprocetu from Costa Rica. Assessing a coffee’s aroma is a big part of this ritual called cupping.

He works his way around the table to the Mandheling, from Sumatra.  “I almost get a little caramel.”

“Like brown sugar,” agrees Kyle Wuethrich, the employee who develops the company’s roast profiles, which determine how to roast each type of coffee to bring out its best qualities.

Four minutes pass as the coffee steeps; then they skim off the grounds and begin tasting spoonfuls, slurping noisily because “you want to incorporate as much air as possible,” Bossie explains. He dips into the Aprocetu. “I get peanut butter,” he says. “But not in a bad way.”

People talk like this at Coffee Afficionado, probably the most significant New Jersey coffee importer, roaster and wholesaler you’ve never heard of. From this nondescript industrial park in Morganville, Bossie and his team—half a dozen young Monmouth County coffee aficionados in jeans and plaid shirts—now supply some of the state’s most lauded restaurants. (Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown; the Fromagerie in Rumson; the Bernards Inn in Bernardsville; Restaurant Latour at the Crystal Springs resort), plus major chefs in Manhattan (Laurent Tourondel, Michael White, David Burke).

Bossie, 33, spends at least three months a year scouting growers in Central and South America, trekking from his home in Lincroft to mountainside farms to observe their operations and buy select coffees. Cofounder Paul Merces, 31, spends nearly 50 hours a week at the roaster in the next room, surrounded by burlap sacks of beans, constantly checking his batches, murmuring things like, “Maybe another 20 seconds or so.”

Early on, says Bossie, “we decided to be the culinary coffee company, the chef’s chosen coffee.” That business model has brought profits and growth, but because restaurants seldom identify the brand of coffee they serve, it has also meant a low public profile.

When you dine at the Orange Squirrel in Bloomfield, Mediterra in Princeton, Ninety Acres in Peapack-Gladstone or any of the Crystal Springs taverns and cafés, you’re drinking Coffee Afficionado coffee. But unless you go to Coffee Afficionado’s website, to Delicious Orchards in Colts Neck or to one of the 15 Whole Foods (six in New Jersey) that carry it, you can’t buy it retail—yet.

“We’ve always been an under-the-radar coffee company,” Bossie acknowledges. “Outside of chef and sommelier circles, we don’t have much recognition.”

That may be about to change.

A cylinder of discolored sheet metal hangs from the ceiling near the cupping room at company headquarters. In 2007, when Bossie and Merces decided to become coffee roasters, they stapled it together and perforated it with a drill press. They attached a Sunbeam turkey rotisserie and tried roasting beans over Bossie’s parents’ backyard barbecue grill. “Everything about this was wrong,” Bossie groans now. They soon concluded that they needed a commercial roaster.

Every young company has its origin saga. This one involves an encounter with an elderly vendor pushing an espresso cart in Switzerland during Bossie’s first visit to Europe in the winter of his senior year at Drexel University in Philadelphia. The tale also owes something to a Starbucks at 42nd and Madison in Manhattan.

Regarding the former: “I don’t know if it was the backdrop of this beautiful old Swiss town, or if the espresso was that good, but I thought, ‘This is what life should be about.’”

Regarding the latter: “I was, like, ‘God, this coffee is awful.’”

Bossie grew up in an entrepreneurial family; even as a high school student at Middletown South, he ran a car-detailing business. He also bused tables at the Fromagerie, where “I fell in love with food, and with things of quality, polished environments.” After college, he took a full-time job with a hedge fund marketing firm in New York. Though he was paid well, “I wasn’t passionate about what I was doing,” he recalls.

When Wall Street started to teeter and his boss urged, “Go off and do something you really love; be an entrepreneur,” Bossie contemplated brewing beer or making chocolate. But sitting in that Starbucks—“thinking of Switzerland and how good the espresso was and how bad the coffee in my hand was”—resolved matters.

With savings from his two years in finance, plus a loan from his then girlfriend’s father, Bossie and Merces amassed $50,000, bought a proper roaster and set up shop in a Marlboro warehouse lent by Merces’s family, who own an electric motor company. Adding an extra f to aficionado (to echo the two f’s in coffee), they spent their first year or two hustling beans at Jersey farm markets.

“Honestly, our coffee was not that good at the time,” Bossie confesses. “People fell in love with the fact that we were two young guys and our heart was in it.”

That impressed some established chefs, too. As the partners learned more, they landed clients like David Drake, then at Daryl in New Brunswick, and Corey Heyer at the Bernards Inn, roasting to reflect their tastes.

Bossie, always Coffee Afficionado’s chief marketer and public face, “was young, had a lot of energy, was trying to build a business; I respect that,” says Jockey Hollow owner Chris Cannon, then partnered with Michael White in marquee Manhattan restaurants like Marea. “I like a pretty full flavor, pretty nutty, and he matches my taste buds.”

“He had success written on him,” agrees the Fromagerie’s David Burke, another early customer who, he points out, drinks Coffee Afficionado coffee at home. “I thought, I’ll give him a chance.”

A chance was enough.  For the first three years, Bossie and Merces (who lives in Sea Bright) didn’t take a salary. They had launched in the teeth of the recession, and “it was tight,” Bossie says. (An early third partner got bought out after a year.) They hired a tight circle of young, single Jersey guys, including Bossie’s cousin and his cousin’s best childhood chum.

By 2011, Bossie had started traveling and signing contracts with growers in Colombia and Guatemala, then in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama and Brazil, buying exclusive rights to their production, avoiding middlemen and paying a premium for their best beans.

“The top-end coffee we’re getting from these farms is light years ahead of what any of these other importers are bringing in,” he says, not shy about such statements.

The company now wholesales 13 single-origin coffees, each grown on a single farm, plus four blends. It roasted 265,000 pounds in 2013 and 283,000 last year and projects nearly 340,000 pounds this year. (For context, the industry website Daily Coffee News sets 100,000 pounds as the somewhat arbitrary border between micro and macro roasters.)

The politics of coffee can get complicated, however.  Most growers are poor; most specialty consumers are anything but. Bossie dismisses Fair Trade certification—by two nonprofits that audit international transactions to ensure decent wages, working conditions and environmental practices—as well-intentioned but ineffectual.  Farmers pay to be certified and often band together in cooperatives to share the cost.

Pedro Echavarria concurs with Bossie about Fair Trade. His family’s holdings in Antoquia, in central Colombia, include the 80-acre farm La Suiza, which sells its entire crop to Coffee Afficionado. “If I were getting those fair-trade prices, I could barely make payroll,” he says. (He does pay for Rainforest Alliance certification, which attests to sustainable agricultural methods.)

The way Bossie works with farmers is called “direct trade,” an admittedly fuzzy term used by a number of specialty roasters, like Portland, Oregon’s Stumptown and Chicago’s Intelligentsia. It generally means developing relationships with independent farmers, monitoring their practices, collaborating to improve quality, paying premium prices and investing in their communities.

“We used to hand the coffee to a local guy, get paid whatever people were getting paid locally, and we didn’t know where it ended up,” says Echavarria, who manages his family’s exports. “Now it’s completely different.”

In addition to Bossie’s twice-annual visits, during which he relies on his supplier hosts to supplement his rudimentary Spanish, Coffee Afficionado has brought Echavarria and Guatemalan grower/processor Sam Coto to New Jersey to meet restaurateurs and see where their coffee is consumed.
The higher price Bossie pays not only allows farmers to pay workers more; it funds a schoolhouse and women’s educational program near LaSuiza. In Guatemala, says Coto, premium prices have helped pay for a school’s water-filtration system, nutrition supplements for babies and toddlers, and better cooking stoves for families.

Exemplary as this sounds, no third party audits these direct-trade transactions. “It’s been used by some roasters as a marketing term to throw around,” points out Nick Brown, editor of Daily Coffee News. Bossie says his company’s transparency should negate such concerns, but that asks buyers to take a lot on faith.

Do consumers really care, anyway, about which varietals constitute their brew and which farm grew them? David Burke votes yes: “If you’re charging five and six bucks for a cup, it should be special, and people should know where it comes from.”

Like excellent wine and olive oil, predicts Robby Younes, who oversees the Crystal Springs restaurants, well-sourced coffee will soon become an expected feature in good restaurants. “Roasted no more than a week in advance, ground on the spot, made by French press—I guarantee you will return to that restaurant,” he says.

Younes offers five single-origin Coffee Afficionado varieties at Restaurant Latour, rotating them by season, and stocks six at home for his morning brew. When he began buying from Bossie (“a true coffee sommelier”) last year and told the staff he wanted the coffee laboriously prepared cup by cup throughout the resort, “everybody looked at me,” he says. But soon, “our coffee sales went up times seven. The customers ordered more. The staff themselves started appreciating what good coffee is.”

Last spring, as business was, well, perking along, Coffee Afficionado encountered a happy but problematic milestone. “We hit capacity,” Bossie says. Already running its smallish roaster 50 to 60 hours a week, the company couldn’t progress toward his goal—750,000 pounds a year—without substantial expansion.

So here it comes: The company will nearly double its 2,300 square feet of space in Morganville. It has bought a vintage German roaster, a cast-iron Gothot found in a warehouse in Poland, with six times the capacity of its current machine. Bossie will add Honduras, Panama and Mexico to his buying treks, and perhaps Rwanda by the end of the year.

He’s hiring a pricey “strategic brand-design firm” to help revamp Coffee Afficionado’s logo and packaging. “Our biggest flaw is, we’ve put less than 2 percent of our money into marketing,” he says.

It’s time, Bossie figures, for Coffee Afficionado to raise not only its output but its profile. The plan calls for opening a glossy coffee bar in a large city dense with coffee fanatics and restaurateurs.

“We need to get into retail,” he says.

To finance all this, the company borrowed $150,000. Its six employees took pay cuts they hope will be more than repaid when Coffee Afficionado gets bigger and better known. Bossie expects some of the country’s most influential chefs to eventually beat a path to his door. He wants to be ready. If the company hasn’t expanded its output, “how do you tell Daniel Boulud or some other great restaurateur, ‘We can’t take you on’?” Bossie says. “You can’t do that.”

Paula Span writes The New Old Age column for the New York Times and teaches journalism at Columbia University.

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