06.05.2011 – Stumptown Coffee Making Inroads in New York

Stumptown Coffee Making Inroads in New York

by Benjamin J Spencer

The Stumptown Brew Bar in Red Hook.       Photo: Stumptowncoffee.com

Red Hook, Brooklyn –  In a sparsely-populated industrial corner of Red Hook, Brooklyn, within sight of sprawling docks and looming ocean-bound freighters, sits a small, unassuming brownstone building. From its looks, it probably used to be an auto shop. Now, from inside wafts not the stench of axle grease, but the thick, dark tang of roasting coffee.

Some might deem the Brooklyn working waterfront an unlikely place for a coffee roaster. But actually it makes perfect sense, since these Stumptown beans, green and oily when delivered, hail from around the world – from small family and co-op coffee estates where owners and workers are paid a premium for their product that is unmatched in the industry.

Steve Goodwine is a barista behind the counter at the Brew Bar, which takes up a small storefront adjacent to the roasting garage here in Red Hook.

“There are two guys in our company who spend about nine months out of the year travelling to different coffee farms around the world,” he says.

At these small farms, batches of coffee are rigorously tested for quality. The conditions of the farm (organic methods, plenty of shade) and workers (well-taken care of) are checked, and new business relationships are forged with small growers. Stumptown set up this year-old Brew Bar specifically to educate the public on the uniqueness of that model in the coffee importing world – and of course, sell some more coffee.

The beans are also roasted with a care and consistency rare in the world of coffee, and at an exceedingly small scale compared to the mega-conglomerates that feed Manhattan’s endless train of Dunkin’ Donuts.  It seems improbable that from this modest and laid-back feeling roasting facility, every wholesale and café- bound order of Stumptown Coffee in New York City is delivered.

“The roasters are just really efficient,” says Brian Philippi, another barista here. “They work really hard.”

So do the brewers, if today’s demonstration is any indication. As he talks, Philippi, bewhiskered and lanky, stands behind a wooden counter currently decked out like some kind of mad doctor’s lab. The Brew Bar coffee is all ground and brewed to order right in front of sometimes bemused customers, but you won’t see any familiar drip machines here.

Overhead racks of fat glass beakers, plastic plunger tubes and presses of all sizes, and other technical paraphernalia attest to Stumptown’s painstakingly scientific approach to creating the perfect cup. Visitors can test four different labor-intensive methods of brewing up to 16 varieties of single-source, direct-trade gourmet beans.

One simple method involves slowly pouring near-boiling water over a pile of dark, coarse-ground joe, while another, called the Aeropress, resembles a large syringe with a stopper that squeezes hot water through wetted grounds with a column of pressurized air.

As the afternoon wears on, bicyclers enjoying the mild weather chain up and file inside in chattering groups. A sense of community takes hold in the little bar. One man tells the three brewers behind the counter that despite his best efforts at home, he can’t quite get his own Aeropress to make a cup as perfect as theirs.

“The difference between here and home is that here, everything’s precise,” he says. “Maybe because there aren’t three kids shooting soccer balls at me.”

Although anyone can order Portland-based Stumptown’s whole bean, direct-trade coffee  via the Internet, New York and Seattle are the only other localities where the company has a physical presence –  and New York’s inclusion was based more on serendipity than any business plan, according to Matt Lounsbury, Stumptown’s director of operations in its Portland headquarters.

Lounsbury explains that the success of Seattle-based boutique luxury Ace Hotels inspired the chain to start another hotel in Portland in 2007, and they asked Stumptown to run a coffee bar in their lobby. The hotel, and the bar, was a great success, and when Ace set up on 29th Street near Madison Square in mid-town Manhattan two years ago, they asked Stumptown to work the old magic again.

“At first we were like, what? New York City?” says Lounsbury. “We’re just this little coffee company from Portland. For a while we couldn’t quite put our minds around it.”

When they did decide to take the plunge, immediate problems arose. The biggest problem: finding space for their roaster.  Normally, Lounsbury says, if Stumptown can’t build a roaster in a location, they won’t even consider moving any operations there, and for space and financial reasons, Manhattan was simply out of the question. “It’s a freshness thing,” he says.

So they scoured Brooklyn instead, and found the perfect location in Red Hook.

Though the recently opened Brew Bar and the Ace Hotel lobby are so far the only company retail locations in the city, Stumptown does an increasingly brisk wholesale business to area restaurants. In the two years since Stumptown’s introduction to New York City, the business has grown to include wholesaling to dozens of cafes and restaurants in the five boroughs. Several locations in the East 20’s near Baruch College serve at least a Stumptown house brew, including Star Café and the the Mexican chain Dos Caminos on 27th Street and East Third Avenue. In fact, it has become rather a badge of honor to serve Stumptown.

Craig Cochran, the owner of Terri, a successful new vegetarian, vegan and organic sandwich café on West 23rd St. and 6th Avenue, says in an email that since he and his business partner had named their café after their moms (both named Terri), “we only wanted the highest quality products to be associated with us.”

Cochran says that as he relied on his “coffee connoisseur” friends for advice, Stumptown came up again and again.  He had crafted Terri’s menu carefully to appeal to vegetarians and non-vegetarians, with sandwiches that come off like healthy comfort food while being something he could feel proud to serve. So he knew they had to get the coffee right – and preferably socially responsible.

“When I found out that Stumptown also has the highest standards associated with every aspect of their coffee production,” says Cochran, “I knew that this was the right brand to serve at Terri.”

Lounsbury says Stumptown simply got to New York at the right time. Even if their research shows that the term “direct trade” hasn’t quite penetrated into the coffee lingo around here yet, nevertheless, in the past few years, more direct-trade coffee has made it into independent cafes city-wide.

Competitors include North Carolina’s CounterCulture Coffee (served at midtown’s Café Lucid, among other venues) and Chicago-based Intelligentsia Coffee, – along with Stumptown, one of the pioneers of the direct-trade model – with vendors like 9th Street Coffee in Manhattan’s East Village and their own small coffee bar in the Chelsea Market.

“We are definitely responding to a lot of energy around local food in New York, especially in the last year,” said Lounsbury. “We’re starting to see a lot more traction. All across the country there’s a lot of interest in specialty coffees and brewing methods. It bodes well for us as roasters, but also it bodes well for coffee lovers and for independent farmers.”

Not to mention the coffee-lovers on this sleepy stretch of Van Brunt Street in Red Hook. The customers, who might pay up to four dollars for their mug of fresh-ground, exactingly-brewed Stumptown Coffee (depending on the brewing method), don’t seem to mind the extra cost at all.

As one bearded and square-spectacled gent explains to me,  “You pay for precision.”


05.03.2011 – Asian-Americans Dominate NY’s Top Minority Firms – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

Asian-Americans dominate NY’s top minority firms

Latest Crain’s ranking of minority-owned businesses shows Asian-American firms accounting for 10 of the 25 largest names. Top Asian-American firm? ASI System Integration

By Benjamin J. Spencer
May 3, 2011 3:00 p.m.

Asian-American firms are making it big in the Big Apple, accounting for 10 of the Top 25 minority-owned companies in the New York area, according to a new Crain’s list.

There were nine Hispanic and Latino-owned companies and six African-American firms on the Crain’s list, which ranked the region’s 25 largest minority businesses by their 2010 revenues. The No .1 company was Goya Foods Inc., of Secaucus, N.J., with an estimated 1.7 billion in revenues last year.

The top Asian-American firm on the list was information technology company ASI System Integration, which reported $175 million in revenues for 2010, placing No. 5 overall.

Six of the 10 Asian-American-owned companies on the list operate in either apparel or construction and construction supplies, industries that have struggled during the recent recession. Indeed, seven of the 10 Asian-American firms on the list lost revenue from the year earlier.

By Design, a Manhattan-based apparel wholesale company, was founded in 1994 by Korean-American Chief Executive Jay Lee. Though still successful enough to make No. 10 on the list, the company’s revenue last year dropped to $77.1 million from $87.1 million in 2009. By Design’s director of human resources, Richard Eagan, said the continuing lull in the economy, paired with some retailers’ desire to save money by sourcing their own apparel overseas, made things tough last year.

The company is banking on innovation to help blunt the impact of falling revenue, acquiring a partner last summer in Los Angeles-based jeans-maker-to-the-stars David Kahn. Their high-end denims should appear in New York boutiques soon, Mr. Eagan said, noting that the move is “totally new” for a company that sells mainly knits and sweaters for young women.

One apparel wholesaler appears to have emerged unscathed: Lafayette 148 New York. The women’s apparel company ranked No. 8 on this year’s list with $100 million in revenues in 2010, up from $95 million in 2009.

Chief Executive Shun Yen Sui said Lafayette 148’s success in rough times resulted from a refusal to compromise the brand and the product. Favorable manufacturing locations also helped: “Certainly,” Mr. Sui said, “our vertical operations, with our own production facility in Shantou, China, give us a competitive advantage.”

Despite individual success stories, John Wang, president of the Manhattan-based Asian American Business Development Center, said apparel manufacturing has been falling for years. “Much of the manufacturing has moved to Asia, Vietnam,” he said. “And Americans are not spending as freely as before.”

Construction services also continued to slow in 2010: Though all three of the Asian-American construction and construction supplies firms on the Crain’s list moved up in the rankings, their total revenue dropped anywhere from 7% to 22%. (Overall construction spending in New York City plunged 12% in 2010 alone, and it’s off more than 20% from peaks seen in 2007 and 2008.)

Mr. Wang said whatever the sector, local Asian-American businesses will need to continue expanding into unfamiliar territory—even international markets—to stay competitive. He mentioned Latin America and Africa as potential markets for expansion, a trend growing for decades in Chinese business. But he also pointed to a growth market much closer to home.

Previously isolated minority groups are starting to put aside language and cultural barriers and are “developing each other” as potential customers, he said.

“On the smaller scale, people have been teaming up from the neighboring minority communities,” said Mr. Wang. But he said Asian American-owned companies “could be marketing much more heavily to Hispanic, African-American and gay and lesbian markets.”

04.22.2011 – Boathouse Labor Rally Draws Public Officials – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

Boathouse labor rally draws public officials

Workers claiming they were illegally fired from the Loeb Memorial Boathouse restaurant rallied Thursday; the city’s Parks Department has so far stayed out of the fray.

By Benjamin J. Spencer
April 22, 2011 3:46 p.m
Workers who claim they were illegally fired from the Loeb Memorial Boathouse restaurant in Central Park publicly aired their grievances at a union rally adjacent to the restaurant on Thursday, backed up by a chorus of pro-union City Council members and union officials. So far, though, the popular concession’s landlord–the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation—has stayed largely out of the fray.

The Parks Department responded Friday to repeated requests for comment with a written statement.

“The city is not party to this disagreement which is between a labor union and a restaurant operator with a concession to operate at Central Park,” read the statement. “The concessionaire has met all of his obligations to the city under the agreement.”

The rally was the latest turn of events in an intensifying dispute. The New York Hotel Trades Council is representing the group of workers, who said the concession’s operator, Dean Poll, and his managers systematically mistreated workers on the basis of race and sex, stole tips from servers, and improperly fired 14 banquet employees when they attempted to join the Local 6 union chapter in January of this year.

Yasser Nijim, one of the fired employees attending the rally on Thursday, said he worked at the Boathouse for three years, mostly full-time. He said when he and many other employees joined the Local 6 union committee in June of 2010, “management started bribing us.”

“They gave us a raise. They offered us health insurance that we couldn’t afford,” said Mr. Nijim. When he persisted in advocating for the union, he said, his hours were changed drastically. “We’d leave at three in the morning, come back at eight in the morning–that kind of thing,” he said.

Finally, in January, he was terminated along with 13 other union supporters. “It was because we supported the union,” said Mr. Nijim.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, widely considered to be a likely candidate for mayor in 2012, said she was “incredibly concerned and outraged” over the employee reports.

“Operating a business in Central Park is not a right, it’s a privilege,” she said. “The thing about a privilege is that it can be given, and it can be taken away.”

David Weissman, legal counsel for the Boathouse, disputes the charges.
“Boathouse Management has investigated these claims and found that there is no basis for any of them,” Mr. Weissman said via email Friday. He said allegations of union-busting were “untrue” and that claims of racial and sexual harassment were “totally false.”

The union has filed several complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB said through a spokeswoman Friday that the complaints were “under review.”

City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who represents the district the Boathouse is located in and also chairs the City Council Parks and Recreation Committee, called on the Parks Department to do more to pressure Mr. Poll to comply with his contract. She said she “wasn’t really pleased with the response of the [Parks Department Commissioner Adrian Benepe] so far.”

“I interpreted his response as a little dismissive,” she said. “I would hope that we’d have a strong partnership with the Parks Department and this administration on these concessions.”

Mr. Weissman said Mr. Poll was in “constant contact” with the Parks Department.

“Not one of the elected officials who spoke out at yesterday’s rally has ever inquired as to any of these claims,” said Mr. Weisman. “The Boathouse welcomes the opportunity to speak with them about any concerns they might have.”

According to the Parks Department website, the city’s contract with Mr. Poll extends until Dec. 31, 2021.

03.10.2011 – FreshDirect Gets $50M to Expand Outside NY – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

FreshDirect gets $50M to expand outside NY

The Long Island City, Queens-based online supermarket got a big boost from a U.K.-based supermarket chain that wants to incorporate the FreshDirect business model into the London shopping scene.

By Benjamin J. Spencer
March 10, 2011 3:45 p.m.

David Neff
FreshDirect said its unique e-commerce model has set the food retail industry abuzz.
Updated: March 10, 2011 5:32 p.m.

Online grocer FreshDirect bagged a big ticket item Thursday, when it snagged a $50 million investment.

Long Island City, Queens-based FreshDirect and food retailer WM Morrison Supermarket, based in West Yorkshire in Northern England, announced Thursday that Morrison will invest $50 million in FreshDirect, kick starting the online food retailer’s planned growth and expansion outside the tri-state area.

FreshDirect would not immediately elaborate about which markets it is eyeing.

A deal between a New York company that specializes in sourcing and delivering fresh groceries and a supermarket chain across the pond may seem unusual, but FreshDirect said its unique e-commerce model has set the food retail industry abuzz.

“This investment is a clear validation of FreshDirect’s business model,” said Jason Ackerman, FreshDirect’s founder and chief financial officer. “It will help us expand capacity to support accelerated growth and geographic expansion. Also, the Morrisons team’s deep knowledge in food retailing will be valuable to the FreshDirect team.”

Under the terms of the deal, Mr. Ackerman said, FreshDirect will host a “multi-disciplinary” team of top Morrison managers who will be “embedded in FreshDirect” at the company’s headquarters. They will study FreshDirect’s methods for storing, packaging and delivering groceries and take the system back to London for their own use.

“What we learn from FreshDirect will be invaluable as we plan our own profitable e-commerce business for the U.K.,” said Morrisons Chief Executive Dalton Phillips, in a statement. Morrison’s investment represents about a 10% stake in FreshDirect; under the agreement, Mr. Dalton will also join the company’s board.

FreshDirect will also receive a minority interest in Morrisons’ planned online operations in London. Mr. Ackerman wouldn’t specify the value, saying it was “confidential.”

For a relatively new retailer, FreshDirect has endured its share of ups and downs. Just a few years ago, during the height of the recession, Crain’s reported on a company in crisis, almost buried in federal immigration investigations and state environmental fines. The company also battled against a strong union push.

But Morrisons’ strategic investment capped a three-year period a “20% growth rate annually” where the company ended 2010 with around $300 million in revenue, according Mr. Ackerman’s spokeswoman.

01.21.2011 – Slideshow – NYC Job Sectors: Growing and Slowing – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

Job sectors: growing and slowing

By Benjamin J Spencer

Photography by Buck Ennis



01.04.2011 – Kitchen Startups Turn Up the Heat in Harlem – CRAIN’S NEW YORK BUSINESS

Kitchen startups turn up the heat in Harlem

HBK Incubates, a culinary incubator sponsored by the city’s Economic Development Corp., is catering to food retailers who want to expand their reach.

By Benjamin J. Spencer
Published: January 4, 2011 – 3:31 pm

Small food businesses in East Harlem got a shot in the arm Tuesday when the city’s Economic Development Corp. opened HBK Incubates, a new kitchen incubator space at neighborhood market La Marqueta.The incubator program is designed to help fledgling, home-based food retailers grow their businesses by providing them with inexpensive kitchen space, access to professional equipment and technical training, according to the EDC. Hot Bread Kitchen, a tenant at La Marqueta, will oversee the daily operations of the incubator and its training programs. The nonprofit, which trains immigrant women for culinary work, already uses the space for its headquarters.Elvis Hernandez, owner of home-grown cake business Daisita Bakery, plans to use the additional space and equipment he’s getting as a tenant at La Marqueta to expand his business to 100 supermarkets from his current 19. Mr. Hernandez started making cakes for friends and local markets after his bodega folded in 2007.

“My wife used to make the cakes whenever there was a birthday,” he said. “The next thing we knew, the guests at our birthday parties were calling to request them.”

Pretty soon, he says, they were struggling to fill the orders in their small home kitchen. The larger space and better equipment, he says, will allow him to increase production of his signature poundcakes from seven or eight a day to 20. He also plans to expand into flan, rice pudding and bread pudding, among other treats.

The center introduces a sorely-needed revitalization tool for an economically down-trodden area, said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a major proponent of the incubators.

“First and foremost, this revitalization will help a market that is barely holding on,” Ms. Quinn said. “And it’s going to put people to work.” Ms. Quinn also said that the incubators will help foster a local food scene in an area with a shortage of culinary establishments. The program was funded from a relatively small $1.5 million investment from the city, she said, but will provide major benefits to the community, starting with creating jobs for people with even entry-level culinary skills.

“It’s going to help some people start from zero, total start-ups,” Ms. Quinn said.

La Marqueta, formerly a mainly Hispanic market located under the Harlem Metro-North tracks, has struggled since the late 1970s to retain small food retailers, according to the Community Board 11 website. Once standing nearly empty, the main building has seen some recent activity with the arrival of several artisan craft shops and fresh fruit and vegetable vendors. But the kitchen incubator will still take up about a third of the 10,000-square-foot space of La Marqueta, according to the community board.

In a press release, the EDC said HBK Incubators will also train culinary workers for food certification and will be capable of holding up to 40 tenants on a revolving, time-share basis.