Master Moments: George Howell

George Howell, of course, is the brilliant entrepreneur that first created the Coffee Connection in 1970’s Boston and was one of the original proponents of Specialty Coffee. His chain of 24 stores was the dominant retailer in Boston, which lead to its eventual purchase by Starbucks in 1994. Along with the sale of the cafes – the Frappuccino – which George invented, became part of Starbucks’ nation-wide menu.

The Cup of Excellence, whose primary purpose is to highlight the craftsmanship of farmers and encourage quality and price increases worldwide, was created by George and Susie Spindler. This incredible organization continues today and brings more and more awareness to people of the quality possible in coffee and the value that should be attached to it.

Today, George is navigating the pandemic like the rest of us, so I wanted to connect with him and see his approach with his current company George Howell Coffee in Boston, MA.

George Howell Cafe Downtown Crossing, Boston, MA. A beautiful cafe providing the most haute in coffee beverage.

One of the significant consequences of the pandemic and its macro-economic impact has been on green coffee, coffee futures, and the funds that were meant to find their way to the farmers. The consumption of coffee has dramatically decreased in restaurants, cafes, and offices. Though it has increased in-home use, there is still an incredible void, and most roasters have not needed as much coffee as they anticipate annually. This ripples down the supply chain. So, naturally, there is a lack of demand this year, so we end up with a coffee surplus.

So I asked George what advice you can give on how to handle this delicate relationship with partners at source? George is reluctant to give advice without knowing an individual company’s circumstances as they are all unique in their challenges. He simply told me what GHC is doing – “We are honoring all of our contracts we have in place. We are not purchasing anything new at the moment or going into long term buys, but we are committed to completing any contracts we already have.”

The farmer is always first in his mind, and that is still the story he wants to highlight before anything else, which is reflected in his commitment. It also doesn’t hurt that George is the innovator at the forefront of freezing his green coffee stock. That’s right, they take the green coffee from a chosen lot and store it in a deep freeze to preserve its structure and flavor for as long as they see fit.. years even.

George adopted this method years ago, and it has multiple benefits. The primary perk is preserving the flavor, and the unique value adds of creating a vintage from your coffee. Part of highlighting the farmer’s work is creating value to increase what is paid for coffee. By creating a coffee of superior quality from a time that can no longer be replicated by anyone, you have inevitably added value through scarcity. This unique value is akin to wine and Champaign, which is precisely the point.
The ancillary benefit at this moment is that any surplus of green coffee they may be experiencing due to a slow down in business is mitigated by the ability to preserve their supply without compromising on quality.

There were four GHC cafes in Boston in March, and now there are three. When March (2020) hit, the city of Boston shut down for three months, and no doors were open. Even now, with doors open, the urban locations are down to 20% of what they would make in a typical month.

“The business community is part of the trade, and they are not working. Our Washington Street location is our beached whale. The most beautiful of creatures left lifeless. We put everything into that location. (pause) We are learning to deal with it.”
The pandemic toll is evident; however, George and his team remain optimistic as web sales have quadrupled, and their wholesale business started to come back.
Even as we discuss these challenges, George can’t help but continuously discuss his true passion for highlighting the farmer and his abhorrence of cold brew coffee. “It does nothing for the farmer,” George says. And I can see why he would say that. Cold-brew tends to work best with a blend, does not require the highest grown or finest of coffees to make a great product, and can even be made from aging coffees. None of these factors can help highlight the craftsmanship of the farmer. In opposition, cold brew allows roasters to sell greater volumes of lower grade coffee at a higher markup.

“Our Washington Street location is our beached whale. The most beautiful of creatures left lifeless.”

What I admire most about George Howell and what I took away from our conversation is this: even amid a global economic crisis that is taxing his business and creating financial stress, he remains much more concerned with the lifetime goal of highlighting the coffee farmer and elevating our perception of the farmer and thus the value of coffee.
This is the kind of integrity and genuine commitment to quality and the improvement of the coffee business’s inequalities that we need more of.

George Howell, of course, is the brilliant entrepreneur that first created the Coffee Connection in 1970’s Boston and was one of the original proponents of Specialty Coffee. His chain of 24 stores was the dominant retailer in Boston, which lead to its eventual purchase by Starbucks in 1994. Along with the sale of the cafes – the Frappuccino – which George invented, became part of Starbucks’ nation-wide menu.

The Cup of Excellence, whose primary purpose is to highlight the craftsmanship of farmers and encourage quality and price increases worldwide, was created by George and Susie Spindler. This incredible organization continues today and brings more and more awareness to people of the quality possible in coffee and the value that should be attached to it.

Today, George is navigating the pandemic like the rest of us, so I wanted to connect with him and see his approach with his current company George Howell Coffee in Boston, MA.

One of the significant consequences of the pandemic and its macro-economic impact has been on green coffee, coffee futures, and the funds that were meant to find their way to the farmers. The consumption of coffee has dramatically decreased in restaurants, cafes, and offices. Though it has increased in-home use, there is still an incredible void, and most roasters have not needed as much coffee as they anticipate annually. This ripples down the supply chain. So, naturally, there is a lack of demand this year, so we end up with a coffee surplus.

So I asked George what advice you can give on how to handle this delicate relationship with partners at source? George is reluctant to give advice without knowing an individual company’s circumstances as they are all unique in their challenges. He simply told me what GHC is doing – “We are honoring all of our contracts we have in place. We are not purchasing anything new at the moment or going into long term buys, but we are committed to completing any contracts we already have.”

The farmer is always first in his mind, and that is still the story he wants to highlight before anything else, which is reflected in his commitment. It also doesn’t hurt that George is the innovator at the forefront of freezing his green coffee stock. That’s right, they take the green coffee from a chosen lot and store it in a deep freeze to preserve its structure and flavor for as long as they see fit.. years even.

George adopted this method years ago, and it has multiple benefits. The primary perk is preserving the flavor, and the unique value adds of creating a vintage from your coffee. Part of highlighting the farmer’s work is creating value to increase what is paid for coffee. By creating a coffee of superior quality from a time that can no longer be replicated by anyone, you have inevitably added value through scarcity. This unique value is akin to wine and Champaign, which is precisely the point.
The ancillary benefit at this moment is that any surplus of green coffee they may be experiencing due to a slow down in business is mitigated by the ability to preserve their supply without compromising on quality.

There were four GHC cafes in Boston in March, and now there are three. When March (2020) hit, the city of Boston shut down for three months, and no doors were open. Even now, with doors open, the urban locations are down to 20% of what they would make in a typical month.

“The business community is part of the trade, and they are not working. Our Washington Street location is our beached whale. The most beautiful of creatures left lifeless. We put everything into that location. (pause) We are learning to deal with it.”
The pandemic toll is evident; however, George and his team remain optimistic as web sales have quadrupled, and their wholesale business started to come back.
Even as we discuss these challenges, George can’t help but continuously discuss his true passion for highlighting the farmer and his abhorrence of cold brew coffee. “It does nothing for the farmer,” George says. And I can see why he would say that. Cold-brew tends to work best with a blend, does not require the highest grown or finest of coffees to make a great product, and can even be made from aging coffees. None of these factors can help highlight the craftsmanship of the farmer. In opposition, cold brew allows roasters to sell greater volumes of lower grade coffee at a higher markup.

What I admire most about George Howell and what I took away from our conversation is this: even amid a global economic crisis that is taxing his business and creating financial stress, he remains much more concerned with the lifetime goal of highlighting the coffee farmer and elevating our perception of the farmer and thus the value of coffee.
This is the kind of integrity and genuine commitment to quality and the improvement of the coffee business’s inequalities that we need more of.

What I admire most about George Howell and what I took away from our conversation is this: even amid a global economic crisis that is taxing his business and creating financial stress, he remains much more concerned with the lifetime goal of highlighting the coffee farmer and elevating our perception of the farmer and thus the value of coffee.
This is the kind of integrity and genuine commitment to quality and the improvement of the coffee business’s inequalities that we need more of.

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