For someone who happens upon this site and column for the first time to read this, I am a writer about coffee who also created a consumer coffee festival. I say it both as a boast and a caution. I’m sure I’m unable to be neutral. That said, for as many years as I’ve been running CoffeeCon, I’ve also been telling everyone that the age of getting together to enjoy and learn more about the brew has come. I’m sure there are those in the industry who regard me as incessant about this, who are even tired of my ongoing remarks attempting to encourage the industry to back and promote any and all efforts, including, but not limited to, my own.
About three weeks ago I was online and discovered the New York Coffee Festival. Until that time, I’d never heard of it. It’s a new event in New York, but basically the London Coffee Festival happening in the US for the first time. That event has been around for several years. I knew it attempted both trade and consumer goals. Remember, there are several trade shows, but really other than CoffeeCon, nothing here in the US so far as I know that attempts to speak directly to consumers and their needs. Was I intimidated? Worried? In a panic? Yes, absolutely. Was I intrigued? Fascinated? Interested in attending? Absolutely I was as well. Within a few minutes, I’d scouted around to find a contact and emailed her openly with a media request. I even sent it openly from my CoffeeCon address with my byline about its being a consumer coffee event, just to be completely candid. I wanted to write about it. I knew I could be fair and reckoned as long as I told the truth and stayed true to my goal to look at coffee from a consumer’s point of view, I could do a good job.
Within another few minutes, Rebecca of their staff sent me a warm invitation to attend and even extended it to the pre-CEO forum, which was quite beyond my means to afford otherwise. Here is my report on it all, intermixed with what I hope is a neutral commentary.
The CEO forum is really a direct business-to-business assembly of industry executives listening to each other. To be fair, it is clearly delineated as such in any promotion materials. I think some, but likely not all of it, would be very interesting to consumers as well. Perhaps this would affect the presentations, which seemed very open and forthcoming about a number of issues, but I also could see geek types really soaking it all up. Todd Carmichael from La Colombe, Gregory Zamfotis of Gregory’s Coffee, Cliff Burrows, Starbucks Group President, U.S., Americas, and Teavana, all had plenty of juicy content. Todd extolled the new cold brews, predicting that cold brew is going to be the Fourth Wave. Gregory talked about seeing coffee differently. Cliff talked about Starbucks’ international diversity. I didn’t hear anything I thought would hurt the industry. None of it sounded conspiratorial, but rather it was a mix of leadership and an urging each other to listen to consumers. One of my favorite lines was Gregory urging everyone to read Yelp reviews, not just theirs, but in general to learn what’s important to consumers. They weren’t all in agreement either. Gregory talked of a shifting model away from wholesaling, which (my imagination?) seemed to paint incredulous looks on both Todd and Cliff. Evidently, there is diversity in how the leadership sees the future.
I particularly liked Tracy Ging sustainability expert from S&D Coffee saying that sustainability is a hard subject to communicate and sometimes even she doesn’t always feel she understands its full scope. We heard from Karla Gichard, CEO of Ozone, New Zealand roaster who spoke about to expanding to the UK market and the adjustment to a new counties culture. Jason Cotta, Managing Director Costa International was a speaker as well talking about Costa Coffee experiences in the market. We learned from Angus Thruwell of Hotel Chocolat about a trying to market a specialty chocolate on par with coffee. Would you find it interesting to know that sugar and vanilla help mask low cocoa percentages in mass-consumption chocolate? Sound familiar?
James Hoffman, not a household word among mainstream coffee drinkers, but certainly highly respected among the coffee literati… George Howell fairly begged me to reach out to him as a presenter for CoffeeCon. Hoffman gave us an interesting perspective that there can be no fourth wave of coffee until the third recedes and he sees little sign of that. He did, however speak of a lull in coffee right now as he feels consumers are overwhelmed and confused by too many good options, instead of just a few years back when there were fewer outstanding roasters and shops. Sounds like the music business to me. Finally, the National Coffee Association’s Bill Murray gave a short, but powerful pep talk, pointing out that values matter most to under age 39 coffee drinkers. That might have excited the gen x and baby boomer execs, but his other claim, that statistically convenience trumps quality among under 39-ers was dampening to me. Hoffman had also suggested that in the UK he sees younger folks mostly in mass-specialty (isn’t that an oxymoron?) cafes.
Along the way we also heard from Caribou Coffee V.P. Darren Miles, who seems to be learning to go global with their brand, finding that their fireplace is crucial even in desert heat locations. Extensive front patio seating works in the around the world but not so well in the US. Scandinavian roaster Joe & The Juice seemed to mildly shock the crowd when showing a video (the sound didn’t get working until mid-afternoon) featuring male baristas, with not a female in sight, shown with matching tattoos as an example of their corporate culture of teamwork
A few isolated observations: Many of these presenters were non-US, but to me it made the whole proceedings more exotic, but never at the cost of relevance. At worst, the presenters painted stories that were analogies for our own scene. Also, my attempts to interject at-home consumer markets into the conversation were roundly ignored. This was a café crowd. What the industry descriptively calls “liquid sales” was a fore drawn conclusion.
The highlight of it all was a talk given by Jeffrey Young, Managing Director – Allegra Strategies and CEO of the event. To be absolutely honest, I wasn’t sure if I could like him. Here is the guy who’s doing what I’m doing. Can Jobs appreciate Gates? From the moment he spoke I loved him. He’s got so many things he’s working on they can’t all possibly succeed, but somehow it doesn’t matter. He’s developing coffee art, coffee music, trade show, consumer show, and a charity water project for those without access. What’s not to like? He’s passionate and he’s even got a personal journey connected with finding his birth mother, all genuine and touching. Also accolades go to Jay Lijewski of Espresso Parts who kept the event moving as emcee. The CEO event was a joy and well worth the trip, if that’s all I saw. But, wait there’s more.
New York Coffee Festival Day 2 Trade Show I went into detail in the CEO section because I actually think it’s of interested to what I’ll term, coffee hobbyists. In some ways, hobbyists are trade members as well. Think of us as micro investors. We want to know trends, even if, like entrepreneurs, we ignore them. The next day was the trade event and it began rather late, at 2 pm. I suspect the late start was so they could use the morning to set up. But, as someone said to me in line outside, most of the folks waiting to get in have already had 20 cups of coffee today. But, speaking as a show runner, I can empathize. Setup days are expensive.
The layout is pipe and drape. The location, the Armory near the Brooklyn Bridge, is convenient, but just a large rather plain building. It’s what’s inside that counts at a trade show. I found a lot of commercial espresso machines inside, as well as sixteen roasters. Starbucks had a large booth space, although nothing near as grand as they have at the Specialty Coffee Association’s conference. I was curious about the music. We’ve had music at most of our CoffeeCon events, and finally decided to limit or eliminate it depending upon the venue and our ability to isolate it from the classes and exhibit floor. Here too, I found the music more than occasionally caused that pained expression when one person cannot hear another.
It’s a spacious venue. The show was well attended, but not jammed. Jeffrey Young and I had a chance to talk together for around ten minutes, a long time when you consider how vital he is, and how many questions any showrunner gets during the event. He told me in great detail what he’d said in yesterday’s presentation. He was adopted. He’s a market researcher in the UK and started around six years ago to do a coffee festival in London. He’s had 40,000 attendees there and has also done an Amsterdam version with 12,000. He’s hoping New York will eventually match the London numbers. I told him we were alike but my event has much more modest numbers, but also no trade element. “I didn’t want trade either,” he responded. “My exhibitors insisted”.
He really seemed to jump around a lot, not a problem for me, but it renders a standardized Q and A interview format useless. I asked him what brewers he had at home and he told me he has a Rocket ($$$) and an AeroPress. I asked him his AeroPress brewing formula and he told me he was a casual brewer.
New York Coffee Festival Day 3 Consumer Show I’m sorry it’s taken 1600 words to get to this. It’s really what perked my ears up about it to begin with. Let’s go right to the heart of it: Jeffrey has done it. He broke up the day into three ticket slots. He had 1200 or more consumers at his morning slot and another 1000+ entered for the afternoon session. He ended the day with a late afternoon session though I had ducked out by then but I’m sure he had another fresh group of attendees then. I’m sure he will do well and increase his number. The venue is less important to this event. It was spacious and did the job. It has the ability to try a lot of coffees and that is the number one necessity of a coffee event. Remember, it is not nearly as easy at a coffee event as at a wine or beer event, where equipment, expertise and power requirements are much more modest. In order to taste that many coffees you need separate brewing equipment for each company, expert baristas, not just sales people, to brew the samples or make the espresso. It was all being done right at the New York Coffee Festival.
There was a good mix of young single hipsters, slightly more settled families and enough mature adults that no one would feel out of place. The music was very enjoyable, even if it was occasionally too loud in the swimmy acoustics. There was one classroom downstairs. Classes continued throughout, and the sound was isolated enough so that I doubt it was a problem for anyone. There were no hands-on classes, but a few exhibitors had some form of hands-on tryouts, not a training class, but at least a sensory approach that I think is good.
Is There Room For Both of Us? In New York? In the World? I’m sure this key question has occurred to you. Of course it did to me. My answer is I hope so. I really liked this event. But, its size and scope means it can only happen once per year, same as ours. Can we schedule ourselves in collusion in both our own and the consumers’ interests? I would hope so. I think we genuinely offer differences that are better off to remain. Considering consumers who drink beer are likely to attend two or more of the beer festivals per year, this should not be a problem. We both like sharing our genuine enthusiasm. The New York Coffee Festival reflects Jeffrey and CoffeeCon reflects Kevin. Jeffrey celebrates the music and art that he brings in and auctions while you’re drinking. He lets exhibitors sell, even if they don’t sample. We celebrate the joy of learning how to taste and brew, even roast. We have six classrooms, and special presentations about sustainability, the future of coffee and technical things like grinding. We also allow sales, but only if they also sample. A big part of our art is our location. Both of us are mavericks and loose canons.
Regardless of the comparison, I wish the New York Coffee Festival well in the future and very much enjoyed my time there.