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A Century Of Firsts,
From First Colony Coffee & Tea

By 1976, New York was experiencing a boom of gourmet stores. Stu London of Long Island became First Colony’s first broker. “First Colony wanted to develop something new for the gourmet stores so they started developing coffee programs for department stores,” said London. He continued, “You know they were the leaders in gift sets… people never bought coffee as a gift and still found these assorted coffees perfect for all holidays.” When the flavored coffees became popular, London loved using them in gift sets. “Flavored coffees made all the gifts fun; people wanted to try something new and these really took off.”

Also in 1976, J. Gill Brockenbrough, Jr. and Peter Coe, owner of Taste Unlimited wrote one of the first little consumer coffee books called, “Coffee.” Commenting on that publication, Peter Coe, who now owns six specialty food stores throughout Norfolk, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, reflected on the collaboration, “I still have a couple of those little books published by Potpourri Press. Amazingly, most of the information and recipes are still current.” When Coe opened his first Taste Unlimited in 1973, coffee was still warm from the roaster when it was delivered. “First Colony helped set us apart and helped position us as a gourmet retailer,” said Coe.

Seeing a demand beyond the reach of an inside sales staff and mail order catalog, First Colony established a broker/distributor network in key cities along the Eastern seaboard and the Midwest. As gourmet retail stores sprung up, First Colony was there to provide a line of coffees, teas and specialty foods like to stores like Sutton Place and Fresh Fields in the Washington D.C. area. With Elaine Hanson of Macy’s Cellar, First Colony developed a coffee program that gave “The Cellar” distinction, recognition and innovation. Whole beans, ground coffee, Susan’s Teas and related accoutrements were so popular that First Colony became the vendor that created coffee programs that appealed to the upscale shopper.

Department stores followed Macy’s lead and First Colony became the coffee/tea supplier to upscale chains such as Bloomingdale’s, Marshall Fields, Davisons, Richs, Lazarus, Burdines Bullock-Wilshire, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Not only did these stores carry the First Colony brand, but private label coffees under the store name as well. Under the direction of then national sales manager, Bob Meskin, Signature Packaging, a line of coffee gifts for each and every holiday and their entire gift program positioned First Colony Coffee & Tea as the forerunner of creativity and development of distribution channels for the specialty coffee industry.

Will Hellemeyer, v.p.-operations for Bloomingdale’s in-house restaurants started a working relationship with the Brockenbroughs 35 years ago. Hellemeyer’s loyalty comes from years of depending on quality coffee, excellent customer service and a working relationship that provided consulting and support. “First Colony has always provided the best in coffee and equipment. We’re putting in new coffee bars in our stores using their recommendation of Cimbali espresso machines and so far, the two we’ve opened… one in Willow Brook, New Jersey, and the other in Orlando, are running successfully. First Colony helped us early on to develop a system of cross-merchandising coffee. If customers enjoyed our coffee in our restaurants, we wanted to be able to sell it to them. Today, we’re offering 22 skus of First Colony coffee.”

In south Florida, Bill Perl, owner of Gourmet Foods International, has been buying coffee from First Colony for 21 years. “We have stayed customers, working with Tom and Bob all these years because they have been steadfast in providing quality coffee and on-going support…you can pick up the phone and call anyone from the president on down and be assured you’ll get a returned call.”

Private label has always been a niche that provided retailers with their own brand. With an in-house graphics department and machinery that filled bags or another that built bags with film, First Colony became the supplier for companies like Dansk and Lenox.

Throughout the 1980’s and most of the 1990’s, First Colony led the industry with creative advertising in trade and some consumer publications. One of the most memorable was a series on the people who worked for First Colony. Harvey Groome, the roaster for 47 years was one who was featured. I distinctly remember that picture. Wearing a plaid shirt with rolled up sleeves, he was sitting on burlap sacks of green coffee in the warehouse. Now retired and still living in the Norfolk area, Groome’s response to being asked about his long roasting career was, “Well dear, I don’t know how to put it into words. I really don’t.” Well Harvey, let me try. Harvey Groome was a roastmaster before that title was in vogue. He is responsible for eliciting tastes that characterize the subtleties inherent within each bean. Like an uncle to Tom and Gill, Groome’s legacy is sealed in every bean that is bought and his roast specifications were founded on the three “S’s”… sight, smell and sound.

Today, Charlie Cortellini, chief operations officer continues that tradition and adds his expertise as overseer of all plant operations. Having worked a number of years for large institutional coffee companies, Cortellini believed First Colony’s smaller operation would provide an opportunity to contribute his expertise in a bigger way. Today, Cortellini has boosted plant operations to include certified organic coffee and sustainable selections from all over the world.

Until recently, First Colony Coffee & Tea has been quietly continuing to manage business, provide new products and diversify into new channels. When talking to Tom Brockenbrough about how quiet First Colony has been about its many developments over the past decade, he responded, “That’s a part of our culture that is going to change. We have always been reticent about speaking out on our programs and contributions to the industry; that’s all changing now.”

The 1990’s brought a lot of change to First Colony - some positive, some not. Gill decided to leave the company and was replaced by a non-family member. Tom remained in his long-time position of secretary-treasurer. The Company took a different direction and lost focus. Two years ago, the First Colony family was further saddened by the untimely, sudden death of Gill.

Today, as president/c.e.o., Tom is moving the company back to its original focus and is moving forward with its solid tradition of selling quality products supported by excellent customer service. Leading the sales team is Jeff Cryans, vice president sales/marketing. Cryans brings specialty coffee experience to the team, having been in the business for many years. He is developing new products and programs for existing and new distribution channels.

With all the changes that occurred in the 1990’s, the most positive was a partnership with a Coop of coffee growers in Colombia. Since 1995, First Colony has been productively working in an environmentally grounded, socially beneficial partnership with the Federacion de Cooperativas de Caficultores de Antioquia, Colombia’s largest coffee producing cooperative. This Coop represents 17,000 coffee growers who work together for their families and contribute to the coffee industry in Colombia and to consuming countries.

Culturally, Colombians are people rich in formality and protocol, entrenched in a nation of deep-rooted tradition and value. When the Coops were researching a North American roaster for a partnership, they found these same qualities and characteristics in the operations and culture inherent at First Colony Coffee & Tea. As a result, the partnership has created a symbiotic relationship. Criteria in seeking this relationship from the Coop’s perspective were to learn the operations of a roasting company, and then cultivate a coffee to accommodate specialty roasters. The investment by the Coops was also important beyond its financial commitment. They wanted a closer tie with the end consumer and to produce a product with added value. Through this partnership, the Coops have learned about distribution channels and in developing specialty coffees for them.

Additionally, the Coop has developed a training program at the farm level that includes the latest information on production, creating a specialty quality product that guarantees prices at the specialty grade level, and learning about the worldwide commercialization of coffee. With the guaranteed price regardless of the “C” market, the Coop provides various social programs such as health programs, schools, food stores and jobs for farmers’ wives. All coffee that First Colony buys from Colombia is from the Coops.

The partnership has also invested in exporting companies and has established entrepreneurial businesses without assistance or support from a non-government or government agency. Everyone benefits from this partnership: First Colony, the Coops, distributors and consumers.

As with any family or company, there will always be change. Met as a challenge, change is positive, brings people closer and builds strength. Facing and moving through change requires solid relationships built with time.

Suzanne J. Brown is a global food and beverage consultant. She is currently making connections that move ideas to market as senior marketing consultant with Hope-Beckham, Inc., a marketing/public relations firm in the U.S. She is a veteran marketing correspondent for Tea & Coffee Trade Journal and active in the Specialty Coffee Association of America. She can be reached in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, at brownsuz@bellsouth.net

Tea & Coffee - July/August 2002
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