La Colombe is one of the original independent roasters that were born after the juggernaut Starbucks started buying up and dismantling coffee companies in the 90’s. The two founders, Todd Carmichael and Jean Philippe Iberti both lived in Seattle at the time and worked in coffee. Starbucks purchased both the companies they worked for so they set sight to build a company together in Philadelphia.
Nicolas O’Connell started working for La Colombe as a barista when they first opened their flagship café in Rittenhouse Square. Today Nico is a partner in the company and runs sales nationwide. Nico is the visionary that first targeted NYC 15 years ago by partnering with Jean-Georges and Manhattans top chefs.
La Colombe’s growth over the past 5 years has been tremendous and Nico has been responsible for a large part, though Todd’s television show, Dangerous Grounds, hasn’t hurt business either.
I had the great experience of working with La Colombe for over three years, helping to open their Lafayette street café and then running the wholesale for their NY office and learning a tremendous amount from Nico, Todd and JP.
Nico was kind enough to take a moment for me from his heavy travel schedule, which includes sales and support around the states but also, regular visits to Haiti where he and La Colombe are heavily invested in rebuilding the coffee trade.
We sat down and discussed La Colombe’s sales strategy, core values and how the industry and the food landscape has changed over the years. Pieces of this original interview where included in my article for Fresh Cup, “Strategizing Your Way to Brand Boosting Accounts”
F+B: What are the Core Values of La Colombe?
Nicolas O’Connell: Great question, a company has to have core values. When you design a new company, everything is based on what you want to bring to the world and your clients, your contribution.
Then you pair it with your market and all the people that come into your world. The company becomes the people that join from the bottom up.
It is an individual without a body.
La Colombe has always been the premier coffee company in the US, even when we didn’t have any wholesale customers.
When we first started, I thought that was kind of pretentious because we hadn’t done anything yet.
In the beginning Todd was always saying over and over, “what’s our mission, what’s our mission?” Now we don’t even say it anymore because it is so ingrained in us the same way that you know your own name.
We have set high standards and though it has gone through an evolution it has always been about quality, the high level of service and the kitchen.
La Colombe works the way that a kitchen works; chef, sous chef and the only way to earn respect is through the work that you put into it. That was hard for me to understand at first. There is such a dedication to our craft that everything takes a certain amount of time. Like when I first started in the cafe and I could not touch the espresso machine for 6 months. That was café policy.
It starts with a very strong coffee culture, which came from our culture in the 90’s starting with Torrefazione Italia and the Tuscan model. It’s funny because no one cares about Italian espresso anymore. People know now that there is better espresso in the US than there is in Italy.
F+B: When it comes to sales strategy, do you employ the Lighthouse Customer method of targeting top name restaurants and cafes with widespread name recognition to help build La Colombe’s brand through these partnerships?
Nico: Absolutely. We started with Le Bec-Fin, Striped Bass, Daniel, Jean-Georges. We made a point to work with the best people in the culinary world. This environment has shaped who I am in the professional world.
F+B: You were one of the first to try to tackle NY, which was primarily Illy territory at the time, what was that like?
Nico: At that time, everything was much more up-tight. You had to be dressed up: tie, suit. That is why I always wore the suit because I knew it was easier to access high-end places. Then the suit became my signature. When the NY Times article in 2001 came out about me, that shaped what I did with the wholesale.
I was lucky to work with Todd and JP as they let me do what I wanted and go after the big names and the big chefs. I think it changed the direction of what we originally wanted to do. When I came to NY the food scene was all white glove and we specialized in luxury. After 9/11 and then later the crash, everything changed.
All these other companies popped up with other ideas. No longer culinary centric but more about origin and pushing it to the extreme. They began comparing coffee to wine in early 2000 and now it’s more about sustainability and micro lots.
That market that we had in luxury, we viewed as our prime market and it shrank. I remember the opening of Ducasse at the Essex house. It was the most impressive opening I have attended. You could choose your knife for each dish; everything was shipped from Japan, France, etc. now it is all about local. This was the height of decadent dining in NY.
We were in competition neck and neck with Illy. They were the first company that made coffee something special. We were just the new kids.
Everyone was gathered into the room and Ducasse did the tasting personally to select the coffee for his restaurants.
La Colombe was up against Illy while Dr. Illy was there in the room with us. Ducasse chose La Colombe.
I looked around at who was number one in the market at the time and I targeted them. When I moved to NY I took all their clients. And now you look at Illy and it doesn’t really have any presence in New York anymore.
F+B: Since the market has changed a bit, are you targeting different customers?
Nico: Gigantic restaurants still exist they just changed forms. We still have Ducasse, just relaxed. Peels or Freeman’s are restos that have influenced hundreds of other restaurants. How many places can you go and see something that looks like Freemans? They started a whole style. It is more down to earth with vintage, reclaimed wood. Like stepping back into time. Now everything has to be chill and cool.
La Colombe is still focused on the top segment of the market. The form has changed but we are still going for the BEST. Il Buco Alimentari is a great example, fresh, incredible quality. You can taste every ingredient. Yet, it’s comfortable, you can walk in, look around without getting bad looks.
What was glossy in the 90’s is now a matte finish.
Something in our core values has been to be flexible and to make things special to each restaurant we work with.
Quality, exclusivity, rare, support. It’s the same thing, over and over again. Consistency and freshness.
To read more from Nico O’Connell about the evolving coffee palate of America, check out the continued interview exclusive to F+B Therapy Facebook.