Community Coffee: A Century of Celebrating the ‘Community’

With a foundation based on family, Southern values and a strong commitment to giving back to the community – both local and beyond – fourth-generation owned and operated Community Coffee Company celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019, proud of its Louisiana heritage and keenly focused on a future of strategic growth. By Anne-Marie Hardie

In this era of takeovers and shut downs, generationally-owned family companies are increasingly scarce. According to the Family Business Institute, 30 percent survive until the second generation, 12 percent into the third and a mere three percent survive into the fourth and beyond. Amid this, fourth-generation owned and operated Community Coffee Company is one of those rare gems whose innovation, strong values and commitment to the community has ensured that it survives the test of time and competition. Deeply rooted in Louisiana, the company has established itself as one of the leading brands in the retail, hospitality and office segments, while its entry into e-commerce has further developed the brand throughout the country.

This year marks Community Coffee Company’s 100th anniversary, a milestone that the family modestly states is in large part due to the continued support from its loyal community. “We knew we wanted to be the best coffee company in America,” said Donna Saurage, third-generation owner and Citizen chair of the Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based company. “The community is a vital part of what made our company who we are today. It’s simply part of our DNA.”

Early Beginnings in Dixie

The story begins in 1910 when brothers Frank Laymon Saurage and Henry Norman Saurage (nicknamed Captain (Cap) by his employees) opened the FL and HN Saurage General Merchandise Store in Baton Rouge, in a region known by the locals as Dixie. Their goal was to carry only the best products, which included grinding and blending their coffee according to their own secret recipe. However, instead of simply offering the product on the shelf, the brothers brewed the coffee in-house providing free cups to shoppers as they perused the store. These impromptu product demonstrations not only transformed their shop into a gathering place but cultivated a love for their coffee recipe, ensuring that their paper bagged products moved from the shelf into their consumers’ homes.

From the beginning, the brothers realized the vital role that their Baton Rouge community had in developing their business. In fact, the iconic Community Coffee blend, which was named in 1919, was chosen to acknowledge this support. The coffee business expanded resulting in the sale of the grocery business in 1924 so that the family could focus fully on coffee. The new company was named Baton Rouge Coffee Mills after the town that had made this dream possible. “It was truly humble beginnings,” said Donna.

Today, Community Coffee’s product portfolio is diverse offering multiple formats across three beverage lines: Community Coffee, Private Reserve and Porch Breeze teas.

Each Generation Shaped the Business

A family business through and through, each generation has helped to shape the business into the success that it is today. From Cap’s son Henry Norman (HN) and his wife Alma, who expanded the market outside of Baton Rouge to his great grandson, Matt Saurage’s commitment to developing and strengthening producer relationships. “Everything we do has to be as good as our coffee,” said Matt, a fourth-generation family member and chairman of Community Coffee. “We are not just a product but a promise.”

Historically, Community Coffee had focused its platform on developing the business-to-business (B2B) segment targeting foodservice, grocery, office and hospitality. However, with the increased awareness of specialty coffee in the mid 1990s, it recognized the need to foster a deeper connection with their consumer. Community Coffee’s Coffee House (known as CC’s Coffee House) division launched in 1995 with four fully operational outlets in 10 months, all based in Louisiana.

“The coffee houses have become a physical representation of the values of Community Coffee,” said Celton Hayden Jr, president and CEO, Community Coffee House, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. These spaces became a central gathering place helping further develop the brand throughout the region.

“Our core consumer demands more and expects more in terms of experience,” said Hayden. “They want it to be personable and memorable. We have become a common part in the lives and lifestyles of our guests —it becomes rote memory that they stop by Community Coffee. Our guests don’t give us money, they give us value.”

In 1995, Matt, Donna and the late chairman, president and CEO H Norman Saurage III’s son, returned to the family business and focused on strengthening the company’s position as a leader in the industry. Extremely interested in green coffee, Matt ventured to Brazil where he was exposed to the agricultural side of coffee and the nuances of doing business in a foreign country. The journey resulted in a commitment to foster relationships with coffee growers to help develop a quality product and make a positive social impact.

Fostering Strong Values

More than 20 years later, Community Coffee continues to work with the growers, and the greater coffee community, to enhance not only the quality of coffee, but the social and economic well being of these regions. One of the more memorable examples for Matt was a joint project with USAID in Rwanda to help the women improve their coffee and bring it to market. “Most of the population was lost, many men had been killed in the situation, leaving the women and children,” said Matt. “We worked with USAID to improve their coffee and were one of the first roasters to sell Rwandan coffee after the genocide.”

When asked about the challenges of direct trade, Matt shared that the concept is often overcomplicated. “Companies need to speak with the growers to understand what their needs are and then determine how their company can support them,” said Matt.

Working directly with the growers is just one of the values that the company has fostered over the years. In fact, it is its value system that has facilitated a strong network of loyal employees — employees who not only stay with the business until their retirement but also share their passion with the next generation of their own family. “The family has done a great job with managing the succession planning of the company and understanding what it takes to pass the business on from one generation to the next,” said David Belanger, president and CEO.

Belanger, who joined the company 20 years ago, shared that he immediately saw how genuine everyone was. “It was a different company,” said Belanger. “Everyone was extremely autonomous in how they did their job. There was a care and ownership that they demonstrated in their business, and a personal commitment.” Belanger, who was appointed president and CEO in 2012, succeeding Matt Saurage, is the first non-family member to hold the position.

Hayden had a similar experience – in fact, from the moment he received his recruitment letter, he knew that there was something different about Community Coffee. “Attached to the recruitment letter was a letter from the family – it touched me,” said Hayden. “I felt a kinship, one, that I still feel to this day. It felt like home from the moment I joined the Coffee House until today.”

These values have not only formed the heart and soul of the company, but helped continue to build their success. This includes a strong core of lifelong employees, a large customer base, and fostering external relationships with other partners who share their beliefs. The recent partnership with Southwest Airlines was one such company. “They put out a bid for coffee and had their employees conduct a blind taste test to see which coffee tasted better,” said Donna. “But then they wanted to know what our values were and whether it matched with theirs.”

Community Coffee shared both their internal values and the initiatives that they were involved in both at home and abroad. This included presenting a potential project where a portion of the proceeds could be used to provide education through technology in Chiapas, Mexico, a remote coffee-growing region. Southwest loved the idea and made the decision to both partner with Community Coffee and collaborate on the Mexico initiative.

Beyond the Coffee

Community is not only in the name of the company — it is a philosophy that each member of the team embodies. Over the years, they’ve been confronted by several challenges but perhaps none more profound than Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “The entire region [Gulfcoast of the US] was impacted by it,” shared Belanger. “We put employees up in temporary houses and tried to conduct business as usual. We didn’t want anyone to worry about getting their paychecks during this time of crisis. Sometimes this meant locating them elsewhere in the country to ensure that their money was received.” Hurricane Rita followed shortly thereafter, further impacting southwest Louisiana.

Despite CC’s Coffee Houses being shut down and New Orleans being flooded, Community Coffee employees were out with their backpacks, giving out free coffee. “We make coffee,” said Donna. “It’s just a small way that we can help. I can’t even imagine how many cups we’ve given away over the years.” These disasters had a profound impact on Community Coffee, with a clear focus that the actions that they take must always be not only in the best interest of the company, but of the community as well.

On a local level, the company is involved with several education and environmental initiatives. “We wanted to be the best coffee company in America,” said Donna. “And to become the best company, we needed to give back locally, including the wetlands and education.” Over the years, Community Coffee has donated millions of dollars towards education, both through their education recognition program and the Community Cash for School Program. “Last year, 800 local schools participated in the Cash for School Program, where they collect UPS codes from Community Coffee products and turn them in for cash,” she explained. “Some of these schools earn thousands of dollars each year.”

Nationally, Community Coffee launched the Military Match program supporting troops who are abroad. “When somebody orders coffee to send to them, we automatically double the order,” said Donna. “This is just one thing that we can do say thank you.”

Focusing on the Future

In 2014, CC’s Coffee House separated from Community Coffee. Still owned by the Saurage family, this streamlined focus has enabled expansion into new markets, increasing the coffee houses’ reach across Louisiana. “The competitive landscape has only increased since we left Community Coffee,” said Hayden. “We continue to hold our dominance in the marketplace, and we are extremely confident about our future.” To date there are 46 locations, 45 which are in Louisiana, one in Mississippi, with plans to open three additional Louisiana locations in 2019.

Community Coffee’s retail division distributes across 22 states in the southeastern US. However, e-commerce continues to present an opportunity to develop brand awareness across the nation. In fact, top online sales distribution includes California and New York.

As the fifth generation enters the operation, Matt shared that he is excited to hear the aspirations of the millennial point of view and observe the continued growth of the company.

Donna agreed emphasizing the need for the company to continue to look forward. “We are so excited about what the years ahead are going to bring for Community Coffee,” she said. “It’s the employees who have really built this company and the partnerships with our customers. The Saurage family is a part of it, but it’s a tiny part.”

Anne-Marie Hardie is a freelance writer, professor and speaker based in Barrie, Ontario. She may be reached at: [email protected].

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