Ellis Coffee Company: Blending Proud Tradition and Personalized Service

Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love, but don’t test that theory until after everyone has had some morning coffee. And there’s a good chance that coffee drinkers throughout the Mid-Atlantic enjoy a cup brewed from beans roasted by the Ellis Coffee Company (Ellis Coffee) to start the day off right.

Ellis Coffee isn’t some newly launched microroaster trying to distinguish itself through an organic blend or roasted-to-order gimmick, but often putting its customers in a difficult position when product changes on an irregular schedule. No, Ellis Coffee remains conscious of best practices for both its suppliers and customers, but first and foremost the company focuses on delivering the consistent quality and full-bodied flavor that have been associated with the company’s name for over a century and a half of tradition. This has made Ellis Coffee a preferred vendor to the finest hotels, restaurants, foodservice distributors, convenience and retail stores, as well as vending and office coffee service operators.

Opened for business in 1854, Ellis Coffee was purchased by the Harry Strauss and his son Bud in 1952. Gene Kestenbaum, the grandson-in-law of Harry, is now CEO and chairman of the board, while Adam Kestenbaum, Gene’s son, is president. Adam marks the fourth generation of the family, and he works alongside his uncle, aunt and father.

The Strauss-Kestenbaum family has grown Ellis Coffee into a company with over 100 employees that roast and package coffee for distribution partners and private-label customers, as well as offer allied products (sweetener- and tea-related items) and coffee-brewing equipment. All of this activity takes place from the company’s 35,000-square foot headquarters in the Port Richmond neighborhood of northeast Philadelphia, as well as another 30,000-square foot warehouse space down the road.

Trucks distribute Ellis Coffee products direct to doors throughout eastern Pennsylvania, western and southern New York, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. Through larger strategic partners, such as Aramark and Canteen and other family-owned private businesses, the company’s reach has extended nationwide, though 90 percent remains in the territory east of the Mississippi River. The values that fuel its operations, however, have never been diluted.

“I came in to the business in 1998 after working at Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Company for six months, but I realized I didn’t want to do that long term,” reflects Adam. “So right out of college I started helping with inventory and accounting, some other odd jobs, and here I am still. I was lucky enough to be here when my grandfather was alive, and he filled me with enthusiasm by teaching me the process to properly cup coffee.

“It’s an art, and a passion, and something we still do to assure quality,” continues Adam. “We bring in coffees from all over the world, but before we commit to 40,000 pounds of something you’ll always find us sitting around a table with a spittoon, slurping coffees and spitting them out, making sure we’re buying the right beans with the right balance. It’s like wine tasting: a skill that comes with experience. Once you know what you are looking for, it’s amazing what you can distinguish.”

In addition, Adam feels very fortunate to have the opportunity to work alongside his father, who teaches him about business and coffee, and who is assuring that the transition of leadership is a smooth one.

The Taste of Success

Ellis Coffee sources beans from all over the world, including major growing regions such as Columbia, Brazil, many of the countries of Latin America and producers throughout Africa. With each grower being considered, Adam and the rest of the management team will roast a selection, grind it up and sample a round of six cups to assure the taste and smell remain consistent from cup to cup. This process allows for everyone to get a sense of both the crop and the shipping process to assure there is no weak link in the supply chain. Every bean used at Ellis Coffee has to fit both a flavor profile and a standard of quality.

“We look for different characteristics, such as a coffee that is acidic, but in a good way,” says Adam. “Not only do different coffees from different countries and farms have different flavors, but even coffee from the same farm can have a different taste depending on the time of year, or if the crop has been sitting. There are times of the year when coffee from Peru might taste better than Guatemala, or vice versa, and we use our mini-roasts to make sure we get the right lot.

“We have blends that we’ve offered for 50, 60 years, and we work very hard to assure the consistency of their flavor and body,” continues Adam emphatically. “We won’t look to lower-grade coffee to cut costs. The end taste of the blend is what we want to secure, not the best bulk price.”

Two of the company’s most popular blends are the William Penn and Presidential, and Adam is proud of the long heritage behind these. One of the key initiatives in 2013 has been focusing on marketing and relaunching these products, as well as a half-dozen other long-standing labels, focusing more on end users as well as the resellers who know the product well.

In addition, Ellis Coffee has been further developing its Mezzaroma line, which offers everything from specialty to high-end every-day coffees for the discerning coffee lover. Spicy, silky, earthy and winy are just some of the characteristics of this wide range of one-dozen roasts available in various sizes. Rainforest Alliance Certified coffees associated with the Mezzaroma line have also seen a push. The end goal of all this activity is to offer customers a rich, full-bodied taste and aroma, as well as a greater understanding and appreciation for the premium sourcing and roasting commitment that remains at the core of Ellis Coffee.

Never Watered Down

Beyond what they taste and smell, Ellis Coffee is investing in what customers see, as well. In 2012 the company initiated the installment of a $750,000 system to more efficiently deliver raw coffee to the roaster, and this system allows visitors come to the plant a more transparent view into the relationship between green coffee bean producers, the roaster and the customer.

Directness is a hallmark of all operations at Ellis Coffee. “There are a lot more small competitors emerging for the coffee shop market, but we occupy a special niche,” says Adam. “Clients want someone that can deliver the volume they need, but also someone who is small enough that there isn’t a lot of red tape and they can talk to the owners. We are in that middle ground; we have the corporate resources and established structure where we can go against small regional companies or bigger national ones, and still give personal service to both.”

The Ellis Coffee management team continues to bring in talented people from both the grassroots and corporate coffee movements in order to strengthen the business. No matter their background, however, all new employees become part of a single unit focused on continuing a heritage of professionalism and excellence. Customers have come to trust Ellis Coffee Company to deliver a strong cup of no nonsense, seriously good coffee, and the company’s ever-widening client base can look forward to whatever the Strauss-Kestenbaum family is brewing up next.