The Rise of the Roasters: Meet Jersey City’s Kings of Caffeine
After graduating from Saint Peter’s Prep in 1956, Jersey City native James Reilly, like many locals, went to work at one of Hudson County’s many factories. As was common in that post-war era of robust, well-paid manufacturing jobs, Reilly spent his entire adult life working for one company, as a millwright mechanic at Maxwell House’s coffee plant in Hoboken, just down the Palisade from his home in the Heights.
“I remember when almost everyone in the neighborhood worked in the Maxwell House plant,” Reilly’s widow Regina says (James Reilly died in 2003). “It was a good job … it was a wonderful place.” The company, she says, would host family picnics for the workers each year, and it treated its employees well.
“When they worked there, they felt like they belonged to the Maxwell House family,” she says. “It was almost like a betrayal when the plant closed.”
In June 1990, Maxwell House parent company Kraft Foods (which at the time was owned by an even larger multinational, Phillip Morris) told the more than 600 Hoboken workers that their services would no longer be needed, citing lower labor costs in Florida (many of the Hoboken workers were nearing retirement age and close to receiving lifelong – and expensive – benefits packages) and the potentially valuable 22 acres of waterfront land with Manhattan vistas. (Not surprisingly, the factory site was later purchased by Toll Brothers and has been developed into luxury condominiums.)
“Closing the plant made a lot of economic sense for the company,” Reilly’s widow Regina says. “But it didn’t make much sense for the workers.”
As the plant wound down operations in 1992, James Reilly told the New York Times that his final year there had been the worst of his life.
“It’s like we had a disease and have been wasting away,” he said. “It would have [been] better if they shot us in the head.”
The closing of the plant, which opened in 1939, was at the time just the latest example of manufacturing’s diminished role on the Hudson County waterfront, as the job base continued to shift from blue-collar, coffee-dependent factory work of one kind to white-collar, coffee-dependent work of another.
But despite the broad and widespread transformation in what drives the local economy, coffee manufacturing continues to exist in Jersey City, although on a very different scale, as two specialty roasters thrive in an industry that’s changed quite a bit in the past two decades.
As the 1980s drew to a close, Maxwell House wasn’t the only coffee company thinking about cutting costs. Oren Bloostein had launched the New York City-based coffee roaster Oren’s Daily Roast just three years prior, and his nascent business, citing the familiar need for more space and cheaper rent, moved its roasting facility to Jersey City’s Communipaw Avenue. It’s fair to say that the relocation went mostly unnoticed among the food industry’s movers and shakers.
“We were, and are, in the specialty end of the coffee business,” says Bloostein. “Maxwell House, in total nationwide, used to roast in a day what it now, after 25 years, takes me about 18 months to roast.”
Of course, Oren’s produces far less coffee, for a far different clientele, than Maxwell House, whose easily recognizable large blue plastic containers line the shelves of sprawling supermarkets. In comparison, most of Oren’s Daily Roast is destined for upscale restaurants and delis, bagel makers, and bakers – places where, Bloostein says, there’s an expectation for a more refined roast.
Oren’s was unable to fill the vacancy of Maxwell House in another respect: employment. Bloostein interviewed at least a few former Maxwell House workers after the factory’s closure. They were, he says, skilled and knowledgeable of the industry, and most had worked more years in the coffee industry than Oren’s Daily Roast had even existed. But as a small business struggling to grow, Bloostein’s small shop couldn’t afford to hire the experienced workers.
“I only had one part-time employee to start,” Bloostein recalls. “I think when I moved the roaster [to Jersey City] I had two stores and two full-time and a couple of part-time employees only.”
What’s more, he adds, workers trained in mass coffee manufacturing weren’t exactly the best fit for a specialty gourmet roaster.
“There was a really different philosophy as far as coffee goes,” Bloostein says, adding that even though economics drove his decision, he’s not sure the workers “would have fit in my slightly different – let’s say uncorporate – company.”
As Maxwell House departed from Hudson County, the coffee industry itself was changing in drastic ways. A small Seattle company known as Starbucks was just beginning to sell coffee drinks in addition to beans and supplies. In 1987, it opened its first locations outside of the Emerald City; today it boasts more than 15,000 locations in over 50 countries. Perhaps more than any other factor, Starbucks has helped bring the idea of boutique coffee from the fringes to the mainstream, turning coffee from mere workplace crutch to specialty beverage, complete with plenty of jargon and an endless stream of new product variations (mocha coolattas, iced lattes, frappuccinos, bottled and canned coffee drinks, etc).
Along with this market explosion has come a widespread acknowledgment – both from the consumer and many companies – of the harsh economic realities of coffee farming, which has led many companies large and small to pursue the now-common Fair Trade certification.
“We’ve been Fair Trade certified for nearly a decade,” says Steven Kobrick, chief operating officer and vice president of Jersey City-based Kobricks Coffee Company. “It’s something we knew our customers would appreciate.”
Kobrick has been personally involved in the family business, which dates back to 1920, since the mid-1980s, giving him a prime vantage point with which to observe the industry’s transformation.
“It used to be that you’d have to go to coffee specialty stores to find certain roasts,” he says, but that changed in the ‘80s and ‘90s, he says, as gourmet markets became more common and consumer sophistication increased.
“Coffee roasters at the time saw an opportunity to offer single origin specific coffees due to the increased interest,” Kobrick says. “That’s when you started to see roasts like mocha Java blends where you’d once see generic coffee pots.”
Located at the northernmost end of Marin Boulevard, Kobricks more or less straddles the line between Jersey City and Hoboken. The open, high-ceilinged ground floor of the large two-story brick building is dedicated to the production side, with a large garage door for truck deliveries and pickups and, through a door, the coffee processing area. It’s here that both the industrial-sized coffee bean roaster (capable of roasting up to 500 lbs of beans at a time) and the special-order small roaster are housed, and from where the coffee aroma has seeped into everything from the walls to the workers. (I can’t shake the smell of coffee long after leaving the factory.)
In another part of the room, a conveyor belt carries vacuum-sealed bag after vacuum-sealed bag of ground- and whole-bean coffee being prepared for delivery. Much of the specialized machinery looks distinctly industrial-age, an increasingly rare sight in a 21st century American economy that often outsources manufacturing to other countries, or at least the poorer parts of this one. Against a far wall sit still-green coffee beans in burlap sacks bearing the names of Guatemala, Papua New Guinea, and other coffee-growing countries from which the beans came.
Both Kobricks and Oren’s still send representatives to many of these countries, often entering into Direct Trade agreements with individual farms and farm-collectives. These direct manufacturer-farmer relations cut out the middlemen who once pocketed much of the money that could – and should – have been going to the farmers.
Kobrick says his customers, many of whom are high-end restaurants, have found the changes in his business approach appealing. They are also increasingly interested in the higher-quality beans often produced in some of the more remote South American or east African villages. With the world’s coffee berries often derived from just a few strains of the plant, taste is usually dictated by a region’s climate, water and soil. Some of the tastiest coffee, Kobrick says, comes from farms accessible only by long winding paths, often traversed by men leading donkeys bearing fifty-pound bags of coffee beans.
Kobricks’ Jersey City facility stands in stark contrast to the technologies available to the developing nations’ farmers. Upstairs from where the coffee is prepared is a room designed to look like a cafe, which is where new coffee roasts are cupped – that is, where the roasts can be sampled for taste and aroma.
In the process of cupping, the company’s expert tasters – Kobrick, principal coffee buyer Stuart Bander Shauw and roaster Michael Calabrese – sample the product, observing the tastes and aromas to ensure a new roast’s quality. The procedure involves first smelling the coffee and then tasting just a sip – called a mouthfeel – for its body, texture, sweetness, acidity and, more generally, its flavor.
Off to the side in the cupping room is one of the company’s original roasters from the early 20th century, essentially a smaller and more worn version of the larger roasters used a floor below. Across the room sits a newer machine that shines near-infrared light to help ensure that there is an even roast to the coffee (it looks kind of like an open-faced Xerox). Next to that is another vestige from the company’s earliest days, an old wooden cupping table on which tasters still sample the roasts. Many of the roasts to be cupped are prepared in various coffee brewing apparatus, from standard to pseudo-space age. It’s an interesting mix of old methods and new technologies for a company that has survived as family owned and operated throughout the coffee industry’s explosion.
“We used to be located in Lower Manhattan when my grandfather started the company back in 1920,” says Lee Kobrick, Steven’s older brother and the company’s president and chief executive officer. “But we had to move because of the rising cost of real estate.”
If this sounds familiar, it should. Kobricks’ 20th century moves run parallel to the recent history of New York City manufacturing. In 1950, the company relocated to Tribeca, which was then still home to many large manufacturing buildings, and more importantly, still affordable. But by the 1980s, Kobricks once again found itself squeezed, and the company relocated again, to its present location in Jersey City.
The family thought it had found a secure long-term location in an industrial part of New Jersey, an area easily accessible to ports, highways and New York City, where their trucks would be able to make deliveries unencumbered by the traffic more associated with present day Jersey City. But as both Hoboken and Jersey City’s development exploded in the early aughts, the Kobricks – who own the Jersey City building – once again faced the lure of decamping for more affordable digs, though they opted to stay put for the time being.
The success of both Kobricks and Oren’s suggests a sustainable – though smaller-scale – future for local manufacturing jobs, although it’s clear that small manufacturing alone will not be enough to replace the mass production jobs that have departed the area. (While more than 600 people worked at Maxwell House when it was announced the plant would close, Kobricks and Oren’s together employ less than 40 in Jersey City.)
Meanwhile, in the broader coffee context, the future suggested by both Jersey City’s two small roasters is one in which more refined palates go hand-in-hand with more ethical business practices. In many ways this means local roasters are poised to do well, as they can work closely with small farms and smaller profit margins, unlike big-name manufacturers. Ironically, however, the very hip, urban and sophisticated culture that has helped these small roasters grow could force them to move once again, as local development priorities continue to follow the money, shifting to office-based commercial and high-end residential from manufacturing.
“We briefly talked about moving to Kearny,” home to many of Hudson County’s big manufacturers, Steven Kobrick says. “But right now we’re happy where we are.”
This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of NEW (now JCI Magazine). © Harmony Media, NJ. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without written permission.
Photos: Melanie McLean, © Jersey City Independent