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A Century of Firsts,
From First Colony Coffee & Tea

BY SUZANNE J. BROWN

A century ago, after people had adjusted to writing “19” instead of “18” as the date prefix, and before the U.S. had gotten involved in the first World War, new inventions made the news. It was 1902, a year that established many “firsts,” which became not only historical references, but laid the foundation for future advances. Theodore Roosevelt was President and was the inspiration for the Teddy Bear - stuffed animals that are still as comfy to cuddle in this century as last. Henry Ford founded Ford Motor Company; Beatrix Potter wrote her first Peter Rabbit story; Cuba gained independence from Spain and Macy’s department store moved to Herald Square.

In the coffee industry, the first International Coffee Conference was held in October 1902 at the New York Coffee Exchange. During that same time, in the warehouse district of Norfolk, Virginia, James G. Gill, an established purveyor of imported European teas and foods, decided to sell coffee. With the purchase of a two-bag coffee roaster, the James G. Gill Company was formed and began supplying grocery stores in the area with freshly roasted coffee.

Today, 100 years later, the James G. Gill Company has evolved into First Colony Coffee & Tea, and is co-owned and operated by descendents of the Gill family. Thomas (Tom) Brockenbrough, great grandson of the founder, is president/c.e.o.. Tom and his older brother, J. Gill Brockenbrough (who passed away two years ago), bought the Gill Company in 1970.

The original mission of bringing quality coffees and teas to the region is still a priority, along with customer service that nurtures a culture of commitment to long-term relationships.

Bob Meskin, who has spent 25 years with First Colony, starting as national sales manager and now national accounts director, sums up the company personality, “We have no customers; we have friends…no customer is too small… we work as a family and everyone knows one another by first name.” Meskin established the broker network, most of which continue to sell First Colony products.

Bill Fitzgerald, a broker in Boulder, Colorado, has been a part of the family team since 1978. When asked about the ties that have bound his relationship to First Colony, he responded, “The on-going personal relationship I have with the family has made it possible for this relationship to last.”

Whether is was the Scottish heritage of its founder, or the European values of tradition and respect for history, the basic premise for building lasting relationships through marketing quality products with customer service still prevails.

Never boastful in its business outlook, First Colony has never tried to convert average coffee drinkers. Their purpose is to introduce sophisticated tastes that come with offering quality products.

Another strength prevalent within the company is in hiring and developing long-term relationships with employees, brokers, vendors and distributors. Warren Campbell began working with the James G. Gill Company a month after Tom Brockenbrough was born. Today, 53 years later, Campbell is still a working broker for First Colony and is based in Lynchburg, Virginia. “In 1949, when I started working for the Gill Company, they were already an established brand. There was a grocery store on every corner and each one bought Gill branded coffee,” he said. “I’ve had a delightful career and still enjoy selling products from First Colony,” he added.

During its 100-year heritage, a big change occurred in 1970, when Tom and Gill bought the James G. Gill Company. At that time, the company had an established clientele in grocery stores, restaurants and hospitals, but the “gourmet” coffee movement was beginning to migrate from the northwest to the east.

The Brockenbrough brothers saw an opportunity to provide a new dimension of quality supported by customer service through gourmet food and specialty store channels. Already the James G. Gill Company had established brands for institutional accounts and supermarkets, so Gill and Tom realized that a gourmet product must be marketed through separate channels. In 1977, they formed First Colony Coffee & Tea Company.

Still, the launch of First Colony Coffee & Tea had its roots through the experimentation and hobby of J. Gill Brockenbrough, Jr., who used to create exotic blends for friends and personal use. This hobby led to sourcing Arabian Mocha from Yemen, authentic Mocha Java, Colombian Supremo, Fancy Bourbon Santos and Kilimanjaro from Tanzania. Gill started test marketing these coffees through a mail order catalog. Meeting this growing demand for specialty coffees, the Brockenbroughs added one of the first specialty tea lines, which included new flavors such as peach and raspberry. They named the line “Susan’s Tea’s,” after a life-long childhood friend, Susan Denny.

What is interesting about this period is that New York is never mentioned when we talk about the history of the specialty coffee from west to east. Yet, New York’s specialty retailers had already been supplying a demand for freshly roasted whole beans and imported foods. Some of these retailers became the foundation for First Colony’s foray into creating programs for upscale department stores.



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