White Coffee’s Legacy Full Of Beans
Gregory, Carole and Jonathan White carry on the family business.
By James J. Parziale
The next time you sip that anonymous cup of Joe – whether you’re munching some morning breakfast on a business trip or just grabbing a quick fix at your local corner store – take a second to ponder what truly birthed your brew. It was likely an eventful, tenuous journey, which brought a cluster of little black beans from an exotic country to your mug or Styrofoam cup.
More than likely its origins began in South America or Africa. The coffee beans were picked off the stem of a tree when their outer casing turned a ripe red and then were thrown into a straw basket en route to cleansing. Out of the red, womb-like shells came the coffee beans we all know and admire, which are then washed in water-filled buckets and sun-dried in fields with thousands of their brothers and sisters.
Only then are they shipped to factories and companies in the United States, which the purification and scientific process is further elongated. That’s where the White Coffee Corp. enters the fold, and that is where the production of coffee as a consumer product begins.
A commercial granulator dates back to the company’s early years.
White Coffee, a family-owned business since its creation nearly 70 years ago, has transcended the coffee industry while growing from local distributor to international supplier. Based in Long Island City, the company swelled from a handful of workers – fewer than 10, according to President Carole White – to 115. If there is one enduring societal trait that coffee has clung to since White Coffee ground its first bean in the late 1930s it is that our culture is still saturated with caffeine-crazed consumers who need to get through the work day.
The demand is ever present with revenue-churning chains sprouting on what sometimes seems like every other street corner. Call it a renaissance for the little black bean and a 65-year period that has seen White Coffee transform from fish-in-the-pond to national powerhouse.
When it was first introduced to the Arabic culture in the late 16 th century, coffee was referred to as wine of the bean. Most wouldn’t attribute such reverence to a $2 cup of brew these days, but to the Whites’ coffee is a passion and life’s work.
“We are continuing a legacy,” Carole White, 70, said.
A White Coffee worker operates a bagging machine.
White Coffee was originally founded as White-Kobrick Coffee in 1939 by David White, Carole White’s father-in-law. Five years later it truly became a family-owned business with the namesake it still holds today.
Presently, Carole White’s two sons, Jonathan (Executive Vice President) and Gregory (Vice President), also steer the company in the new millennium and cultivate new ways to expand the family empire. They are continually trying to reinvent their approach while maintaining the company’s biggest seller: coffee.
It was Irwin White, Carole’s late husband, who put White Coffee on the map in the early 1970s. He brainstormed a way to make coffee a widespread phenomenon, much the way it is today, by implementing gourmet coffees, or specialized coffee.
“People weren’t aware of that types of coffee existed,” Carole White said. “They went to the supermarket, bought a can and went home.”
It was coffee with a higher quality with unique origins and preparations. Some beans were screened differently, washed a certain way, and roasted to manipulate much of the different flavors we see today.
“What happened in the 1970s was that we branched out into the gourmet coffee industry,” said 40-year-old Gregory White, who has been working at the family business for almost 14 years. “We started selling coffee by the whole bean and the pound. That took off with specialty shops. Our father was one of the first to market and sell coffee in that niche. The company really grew with that market segment then.
Alvaro Gaviria, one of the heads of quality control, samples a fresh cup.
“In the 1970s is when the growth came in the type of coffees that we offered. In the past you had your basic coffees: Columbian, blend and decaf,” he continued. “With gourmet coffee come all these exotic items that you can make available to the masses. Dad believed in selling coffee from unique origins as well as the highest quality and best preparations and care so that it would be the most uniform and consistent each time you roasted it. You’re checking the size, taste, color and everything else. There are so many things you look for when you judge coffee.”
Not Just Beans
Irwin White was the visionary of the coffee service industry. White Coffee provides coffee, breakfast and food products to third parties such as delis, restaurants, hotels, hospitals and more. It’s unlikely you’ll catch a glimpse of White Coffee at your local supermarket, but national chains like International House of Pancakes serve as a shining example of a company that utilizes the service provided.
The 1970s expansion allowed White Coffee to become more than just coffee providers. White Coffee went from “local to national to international,” Gregory White explained. It branched out and even began advertising. White Coffee can create a label, prepare, bag and ship coffee to an array of businesses.
“You walk into Joe’s Deli and he may be selling Joe’s coffee or he might be selling White Coffee,” Jonathan White said. “We package it and he does what he wants to it. We help him market it, too. If he is doing by the cup or in a retail bag, it may be under the private label.”
And that’s part of the next step. Instead of just providing bagged beans, White Coffee has for some time been providing the full-service plan. In the truest sense it has become a full-fledged business with a dynamic function of behind-the-scenes coffee production and distribution assistance.
In addition, White Coffee has a lot of different products in its arsenal. Hot chocolate, tea, beverage mixers, Italian syrups, juice, cereal, and more have been implemented over the company’s life span to accommodate a changing market place.
Jonathan White gets a good whiff of some tasty Joe.
Hotels, for instance, now want to offer the complete package to their clients. White Coffee provides products to hotel chains (Holiday Inn Express, Comfort Inn and Marriott, to name a few). Jonathan White knows that if these chains, in addition to other companies falter so does White Coffee.
“All of them are offering breakfast plans for their customers who are value-conscious,” he said. “We offer the hotel a branded approach where they can market themselves. They don’t want the customers going outside to get a cup of coffee. It used to be enough to just to provide the product. Now, you really have to be a partner with them.”
“Unless they are there, neither of us exists,” Gregory White said. “If we help them make money, we succeed. It’s opened a whole broader range of markets and revenue to us. Coffee and breakfast go together. We have a full program to complement to coffee.”
But coffee remains the bread and butter, the home run hitter. The Whites treat it with as much regard as wineries with their vintages. There is a standard that each flavor or spin off must meet before being incorporated into the White Coffee family.
Each day, at least twice a day, the Whites and Alvaro Gaviria and Sury Kothari, who are both at the head of quality control at White Coffee, are summoned to their “lab” for a tasting session. This is an intricate part of the business because it is where new coffees are implemented or thrown to the wayside.
they each taste 7.5 grams of coffee, starting with the aroma inspection, followed by the first crucial sip. After swirling it in their mouths for several seconds, they don’t swallow. Rather, dispose of the remnants and move on to the next cup.
It is tedious process because once the coffee passes inspection, there is no turning back. The beans are processed 500 pounds at a time in the plant, so “when you make a mistake, you make a big mistake,” Carole White said.
“It’s like going wine tasting; you examine everything,” Jonathan White said.
White Coffee’s ascent came from humble roots. In its onset, the company had one man manually bagging the coffee. They didn’t even have a machine in which to roast the beans.
“It was a very different coffee,” Carole White said. “They didn’t even roast the coffee themselves back then. We do everything now.”
That modest start helped White Coffee’s popularity and established relationships that still exist today. “What’s neat too is that we know customers for many generations,” Jonathan White said. “There’s a nice continuity with them. We’ve had many customers for 30, 35 years.”
And though the latest coffee boom, which has been spearheaded by Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, has put coffee back on the map in the last half decade, according to Jonathan White, don’t expect to see White Coffee get involved with that side of the industry. The Whites like what they do and take tremendous satisfaction in their product.
“It’s a service business,” White continued. “When it’s yours you set a whole different mentality to it. You add a measure of pride to it.”
“If the product isn’t good enough, then we fail.”
Given White Coffee’s history, don’t expect that to happen.