The Way We Were | Specialty Coffee’s First Decade

By Donald N. Schoenholt, Gillies Coffee Co., SCAA Co-Founder

Ted Williams and millions of other young men came home from the Second World War in 1946. They went back to school or, as Ted did, they went back to work. They began families and they and their children, who became known as the Baby Boomers, were the driving economic force behind the decades long prosperity that followed in the United States. Good times brought buying power to the citizens of a nation that had known economic deprivation during a decade of depression, followed by years of war rationing. With the end of the war came television, added to radio, and the national magazines such as Look and Life, all offering new shiny household wares and packaged foods, including the reappearance of the coffee can.

Local brands, unable to afford the equipment upgrades or advertising dollars to buy the eyes and ears of consumers that their businesses could not reach with their product, faded, and were replaced with stronger brands. The competition for market share was fierce, causing producers to depend more on marketing (think Mad Men) and less on the coffee in the can. African and Asian coffeelands lost their traditional European customers during the war. They looked to America as the market for their Robusta produce, and American roasters began to incorporate these new ingredients into their blends. The home percolator aided the transition, as it partially obscured the shortcomings of these new blends. Alternative beverages, such as colas and ready-to-drink orange juice, bit into coffee sales. The final indignity was the large-scale marketing of spray dried instant coffee, whose taste, as luck would have it, was less degraded in processing when Robustas replaced Arabica blends.

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By 1963, American coffee hadn’t tasted good for a while, and coffee consumption was lagging. The consumer was faced with a selection of cans and jars with product information that can be summed up with the phrase, “A blend of the world’s finest coffee.” For a while, things looked pretty bad for coffee in the United States. The American cup was the brunt of jokes when international coffee people gathered. At origin, Europeans were offered the better grades. European Preparation designated beans bound across the sea. Lesser grades were made for the U.S. market.

Then things began to change for the better. I remember the first time I saw a catalog for Northwestern Coffee Mills (1875) in Milwaukee, I hadn’t known that they were still operating. M.E. Swing (established 1916) was still going in Washington D.C., and Freed Teller & Freed (1899) was still operating in San Francisco. In Seattle, Starbucks opened (1971), and in Boston The Coffee Connection (1974) began its operation. Pretty soon it appeared that there were coffee beans being sold everywhere, from grocery and department stores to cheese and specialty food shops. An industry was being reborn, and at the same time it was a helter-skelter endeavor, whose vanguard was, as Mark Pendergrast aptly called them, in his book, Uncommon Grounds, (Basic Books, 1999), “A scattered band of fanatics.” They were aided in their search for both the perfect cup and an honest living by the introduction of the Mr. Coffee machine (the first automatic home filter brewer), the ‘Brazilian Black Frost of 1975,’ which drove green prices to historic highs, Young Urban Professionals (Yuppies) who aspired to have the best, and beatniks and hipsters (Hippies,) who developed an alternative lifestyle that included health foods, grinding their own grains, baking their own bread, and grinding their own coffee beans.

After writing a series of articles for Tea and Coffee Trade Journal in 1980, editor and publisher Jim Quinn invited me to become a contributing specialties editor, and so articles for the trade began appearing in that publication. World Coffee and Tea, a rival trade publication at the time, did a cover story on the gourmet coffee phenomenon. Specialty and public media began to write more frequently about coffee at this time, and as they did, public interest and the coffee businesses grew and multiplied.

Marvin Golden, a Harvard man and Boston wine merchant who also operated a coffee service supplying local offices and restaurants fascinated by specialty coffee, was involved as a volunteer in the efforts of The Office Coffee Development Group (OCDG); a U.S. entity created by the International Coffee Organization (ICO) London for promoting coffee consumption in the U.S. Here he met Ted Lingle, a West Pointer, who had recently left the army and joined his family’s coffee roasting business outside of Los Angeles. Lingle was endowed with impressive organizational skills, and was soon put furtively to work by ICO to establish a gourmet coffee trade group, as ICO would need an organized group with which to work if they were to support the U.S. trade in order to grow and buy more coffee from their members.

Marvin and I knew each other, and had discussed the growing need for supporting the newly increasing trade. Marvin told me about Lingle’s efforts to put together a trade association in California, mentioning names he thought that I would know, including Renee Jennett of United Coffee in San Francisco, and Erna Knutsen, a dealer in the office of B.C. Ireland (San Francisco), who had coined the phrase Specialty Coffee in a 1974 Tea and Coffee article. Knutsen said that these folks were interested in such an organization, and Marvin suggested that Lingle and I get together. Ted and I then talked about his ideas for a Specialty Coffee Advisory Board. I can’t say that I was particularly impressed, but I am also a person who believes that one shouldn’t slam the door on an idea that might work, even if it required substantial changes. Ted and I began to travel along the same coffee road in pursuit of some kind of coffee association that would include people whose lives touched specialty coffee in a yet-to-be-defined community.

One stop along the way was to approach the National Coffee Association (NCA) to see if they would make a place for these small companies. This fell to me to do. It became clear from their response that this would not be the case, so I became determined that a new trade association was the only route open to support the new specialty trade.

wayweThe National Association for the Specialty Food Trade (NASFT) operated two conventions each year, one in the winter and the other in the summer. A growing number of specialty coffee roasters were showing wares at these shows, and many more roasters and retailers visited these shows each year. So, NASFT host cities became the logical place where specialty coffee people could meet in numbers and work on the idea of a trade association together. By 1982, we were getting close to a consensus for an association, and after a fateful gathering at the Hotel Louisa, on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, a constitution and bylaws were put before the prospective membership. Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) came into existence in 1983, with 42 Charter Member companies.

The Founding Board of Directors of the association were, in alphabetic order: Phyllis Baldenhoffer, Larry Karper, Paul Katzeff, Ted Lingle, Pete McLaughlin, John Randall, John Rappinchuck, Donald Schoenholt, Tim Snellgrove and Gary Talboy. Interestingly, at least five of these folks were present, as active members of the trade, at the 2013 Expo, which took place 30 years after the organization’s founding.

There was no office or staff back in 1983. There was a post office box in New York and another in California. Checks coming from eastern members to the New York box were re-mailed in bulk to California for deposit in the bank. Communication was by long-distance telephone, an expensive, and therefore infrequent, way to communicate back then. We tried to get SCAA’s newsletter published with some sort of frequency, but we did not succeed in this, with the first issue coming out in early 1983, edited by Gary Talboy (who originated the name In Good Taste; the second issue came in June of that year, edited by Paul Katzeff, and the third and fourth editions followed in months to come, edited by me.

In the beginning, the editor of In Good Taste wrote almost all of the pieces. In my case I did the illustrations, or found suitable art to use. I also made up and executed the cartoons, laid-out the money for type-setting, did the paste-up, collated, folded and stapled, hand wrote each envelope (all 50 of them) and paid for the stamps out of pocket. In May of 1998, the name of the publication was changed to Coffee Chronicles, and now exists as the publication that you read today: The Chronicle.

Each edition of the newsletter had a totally different appearance and editorial point of view, depending on who was editing and distributing the “rag,” but that appeared to please the membership. In 1984, Phyllis Baldenhoffer edited a winter and a spring edition. Dan Cox edited a fall edition with me, and by early 1989, Tim Castle had stepped in to edit six editions per year. In 1984, there was a need for a forward-planning committee to anticipate the continued growth of the organization. Ted served with me on the committee, and we were joined by the new kid, Dan Cox, then with Green Mountain Coffee, who stepped up so that I could retire from leadership and go back to giving my full attention to my company, Gillies Coffee Co.

Ted came to the meeting anticipating very aggressive membership growth. My own ideas were much more conservative, but SCAA surpassed even Ted’s projections, and it soon became clear that we needed to have a central office someplace. In June of 1983, SCAA and the National Coffee Service Association (NCSA) were signatories to an Agreement with ICO as supporters of an ICO program to work toward increased coffee consumption in the U.S. You could see that specialty coffee, and SCAA, was making a mark on the wider coffee world, as in April of that year, General Foods Maxwell House division introduced, Gevalia Kaffe, roasted in Sweden, as a retail mail-order line in the United States

To keep you focused on how much things have changed in the past 30 years, in 1983 New York handled 25% of all coffee imported to the US. New Orleans was second, with 19%, followed by San Francisco and Miami.

In the last quarter of 1987, International Management Group Inc. (IMG) was hired to be the association’s management. The association’s offices were moved to IMG’s Washington, D.C., address, and IMG co-founder Jon Cassidy became SCAA’s first executive director.  In 1988, SCAA held its first conference and trade show (now called The Event) in New Orleans. There were 349 attendees, and 55 exhibitors. It was a big success. With membership growth, and a growing treasury from the yearly trade show, the association’s leadership began to think of breaking our ties with the management company, setting up our own office, and hiring an in-house executive director.

In January of 1991, membership was at 347, a 27% increase over the prior year. That year, at the conference held at the Buena Vista Hotel in Orlando, Florida, the back alley talk was all about becoming independent of the management group, and opening our own office. This was going to mean a physical premises, lease obligations, a true operating budget covering overhead, employee salaries and benefits, furniture, equipment and supplies, telephones and all else that it takes to establish a working premises. Most of all, it was going to require a manager and a plan to operate as a professional enterprise. The feeling among many was that the new executive director should be someone with management skills, and at the very least possess a general knowledge of coffee and the coffee industry, as well as a bias toward specialty coffee. That person was Ted Lingle.

 

SCAA co-founder and Lifetime Achievement Laureate, Donald Schoenholt, also founded Roasters Guild in the decade after this story ends. In the 50 years since he entered the trade, he has written hundreds of published articles on coffee related subjects. Mr. Schoenholt can be found at Gillies Coffee Co. New York. coffeeman@gilliescoffee.com.

 

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