How Hampton Roads is becoming coffee capital of East Coast
SUFFOLK, Va. (AP) — Like clockwork, the burlap sacks of coffee beans arrive by the container full. Hundreds at a time, stacked neat and high inside the 20-foot steel bins that took them across oceans from places like Colombia, Brazil and Vietnam.
In their raw, green form, the beans exude no aroma — but they carry much importance when they arrive by ship at the Port of Virginia.
Here in Hampton Roads caffeine is king, at least to some.
Towns up and down the East Coast and in the Gulf are better-known coffee hubs — think New York, Houston and New Orleans. But more and more, those in the local coffee and tea industry say, Hampton Roads is becoming a major player.
There’s good reason.
Last month, about 377,000 bags of raw beans, most weighing around 150 pounds, sat in warehouses across Hampton Roads, according to the Green Coffee Association, a trade group based in New York. That’s about 57.3 million pounds of coffee, enough to brew around 2 billion cups of joe.
Those beans flowing in must have somewhere to go once they arrive. And there’s plenty of space for that. Three warehouses — Continental Terminals, Pacorini and RPM Warehouse — store beans at the port until they are sent off for roasting or distribution.
One of the country’s biggest such roasters, Massimo Zanetti Beverage, calls Suffolk its home. They roast a couple million pounds of coffee on average each week for companies like Chock Full o’Nuts, Hills Bros. and Kauai.
There are much smaller roasters in the area, too. Three Ships in Virginia Beach’s ViBe District, for example, roasts its own beans.
The region has the third-highest concentration of people employed in coffee and tea processing in the country, according to data from Harvard Business School. Number one is the Charlotte, N.C., metro area, while number two is New York.
It’s a big reason why Suffolk gave itself the now-familiar marketing moniker that graces the backs of T-shirts and sides of coffee mugs inside City Hall: Virginia’s Caffeine Capital.
Port officials want to take it a step further.
“We want to become the caffeine capital of the East Coast,” Tom Capozzi, chief sales officer of the Port of Virginia, said last month during a board meeting.
Already they’re making progress. Two years ago, West Coast’s Peet’s Coffee, a major roaster, announced it had chosen Suffolk for its East Coast facility. The company has begun initial steps on construction of a 21-acre site.
Meanwhile, port and local officials continue to try to attract more business. The port said in 2016 it is the second-largest coffee port on the East Coast and a recent designation, which allows more beans to be stored locally, seems to be pushing the port forward to number one.
They hold Coffee Day each year, bringing java industry insiders to tour the port and local coffee facilities.
“When you need this much raw product from all over the globe, it makes a lot of sense to begin the process, if not complete the process, very close to where you receive it,” said Kevin Hughes, Suffolk’s director of economic development. “Because freshness matters in this world.”
As Charlie Cortellini walked around Massimo Zanetti Beverage’s 355,000-square foot roasting facility one recent week, hundreds of coffee cans whirred along automatic conveyor belts around him.
The building takes up six times the real estate of a football field.
Not far away, coffee beans arriving by truck were weighed, cleaned and blended. The beans eventually were moved by air through pipes into one of nine roasters. Roaster operators worked on computer stations to monitor moisture levels.
Each roaster has its own heat source, like a huge convection oven cooking the beans into that familiar black color. It takes anywhere from 90 seconds to 12 minutes. Roasting temperatures reach 500 degrees.
The work of the giant roasters — a forest of churning, industrial machines — was loud enough to drown out the sound of Cortellini’s voice.
“This is what I call commercial coffee,” said Cortellini, Massimo Zanetti’s vice president of research and development and food safety. The plant can package and seal 250 cans of grounds a minute.
But the industry wasn’t always such a huge production.
In the late 1800s, most American cities, big and small, had their own coffee roasters. That’s because the product couldn’t be transported far before losing its freshness.
By the early 1900s, though, the advent of vacuum packaging changed the game. The packaging, which R.W. Hills of Hills Bros. Coffee has some credit for “stumbling upon,” according to the company’s website, allowed companies like Maxwell House, Folgers and Hills Bros. to go national, Cortellini said, as the product could have a longer shelf life.
Not until years later did coffee become big in Virginia.
In the mid 1980s, Cortellini worked for the Hills Bros. coffee plant in northern New Jersey. Around that time, the company decided to look for a different site.
“We needed a plant with more manufacturing flexibility,” he said.
The team found Suffolk had certain qualities they were looking for: a good education system, which meant better recruiting, and solid transportation, meaning it was easy to get the coffee in and the finished product back out.
At that time, the port wasn’t importing any coffee, according to Cortellini. Hills Bros. wanted to make sure port leaders were amenable to receiving coffee before the company relocated the plant here. They were.
“If they would have said, ‘We’re not doing it,’ we would have walked away,” Cortellini said. By about 1985, the plant in Suffolk was under construction. Today, after a couple changes in ownership, Hills Bros. is owned by Massimo Zanetti.
The decision to move the coffee plant to Hampton Roads “led the way” for the coffee industry, kick starting a movement over the last 30 years to import more and have warehouses surround the area, Cortellini said.
The local coffee industry got a huge boost in 2016 when Peet’s announced their East Coast facility would be in Suffolk. Then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe made the announcement at the city’s cultural arts center to the applause of a crowd.
The West Coast-based Peet’s said it planned to invest $58 million in the Suffolk roasting facility, bringing in 135 new jobs. Today, construction crews have laid the foundation of the building.
One of the biggest considerations in the company’s search for a location was how the site would fit into their supply chain, said Scott Kupperman, a national site consultant who worked on the deal with Peet’s. The company was roasting and packaging all of its coffee in California but was becoming more popular on the East Coast.
Virginia made sense not only because of the port, but because it is centrally located along the I-95 corridor to serve both northern cities like Boston and New York as well as southeastern states.
Kupperman named the search for another Peet’s facility Project Tomahawk. He put the word out in the economic development world that a food and beverage company was looking for a 21-acre site, figured out what localities might be interested and began narrowing down the options.
Without knowing they were talking to a coffee company, Suffolk used its caffeine scene to impress. At the Hilton Garden Inn, Hughes’ team laid out Lipton Tea, which is brewed down the road, and fresh coffee from Massimo Zanetti alongside chocolate candy bars made with local peanuts.
“We wanted to be in their face, that food and beverage is our thing,” Hughes said of the meeting with Peet’s. “This is what we do.”
A city that had already named itself the caffeine capital was on its way to getting another major coffee company.
As Peet’s works on moving in, Hughes said he continues to look for new coffee players to come into town.
“There’s a reason to be here,” Hughes said. “There’s a reason to do something. The closer you can do that to the port gates, the better.”
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com