Thoughts on Culinary Pioneering and the World of Specialty Coffee

New Coffee Offerings at Di Bruno Bros. Italian Market
How Did We Get Here and Where Are We Going?

One of the marks of a great retailer is that he or she is constantly on an endless search for new and interesting products. Here at Di Bruno Bros., we fully embrace the spirit of Culinary Pioneering, a concept developed by our founders Danny and Joe. Danny and Joe were always on the hunt for the next great product and, as a result, were always ahead of the trend. This concept was handed down to Billy, Emilio and Billy and it is the very same concept that has been instilled in each and every one of us who work at Di Bruno Brothers. The concept of culinary pioneering is a hinge pin of our business and it is culinary pioneering along with our philosophy toward customer service that has built longstanding relationships with our customers; customers who trust us and look to us for the next great thing to bring to the table.

When I was commissioned to redevelop 9th Street’s coffee category and roll out a new gourmet coffee program, I knew that it would be no ordinary journey, but rather, I would be following in the footsteps of our owners and carry with me the weight of the trust they had in me as well as the trust of all our customers. I found myself with 73 years of tradition to uphold and knowing many would be eyeballing my work; I had to do everyone proud and failure would not be an option.

Luckily, I had been introduced to the world of specialty coffee in 2001 by a dear friend who worked for a café/roaster in the Princeton area. It was that introduction that set my ship a sail and since then, there had been no looking back. I trolled the cafés and better restaurants for that next great cup, sometimes disappointed but generally impressed as I discovered what was out there. Soon after, I found myself brewing only the best at home through a variety of methods. I was cut out for just this kind of challenge and I graciously accepted.

Now what?

If we were to go down this road we would need samples to taste. But more importantly, I really felt that we needed to outline our philosophy toward the product. I knew that we would need to take a fresh approach to putting specialty coffee on our shelves. We would have to stray far from the typical grocery operator’s mentality, embrace the seasonality of the product and treat it as the artisanal produce that it is. Coffee as a non-perishable is so ‘second wave.’

My first phone calls were to the obvious giants of the industry: Stumptown, Intelligentsia, and Counter Culture. After talking with their reps and explaining what we were up to, it was revealed that we were just the kind of partner that they were looking for. Samples were on the way. Next, I would dive into some internet research for a check of the ‘best of’ lists, blogs and articles, as well as some calls to friends that went something like this: “Remember that coffee we had that one time from that little place we visited once?  Yeah that’s the one!  Do you remember who the roaster was?” I compiled a healthy list and made some more phone calls followed by more explanations, more stories, more phone calls, more introductions, more questions, more answers, and more hellos, goodbyes, and thank yous with more samples to be roasted and sent. It was a dizziying affair.

I remember one of my managers asking me just a few days later, “Did you place any orders, yet?”  My response was, “it’s not that simple” (as I was discovering). I had ordered, but I had only ordered samples. The samples were to be roasted fresh then packed and shipped. I wouldn’t see them for yet another couple days. All we could do was wait for the samples to be shipped in from the far corners of these United States.

Di Bruno Bros. Gourmet Coffee Offerings

All in all, I had contacted 20 different roasters and each had sent about 4 or so samples. You do the math. We were up to our earballs in freshly roasted coffee. I unwrapped every package as if it were my first. Like a kid on Christmas, my eyes lit up as each sample bag came out of its box – each one more beautiful than the last. These coffees originated in places I could only dream of visiting:  Ethiopia, Huehuetenango, Papua New Guinea – and here they were piled all over the back counter of our 9th Street shop. Where to begin?

Let the tasting begin!

I live around the corner from the shop and darted home to retrieve some equipment: a kettle, a press pot, my chemex, filters, gram scale and thermometer. “Let the tasting begin!” I thought. We had some serious work to do. I brewed up a few, in between waiting on customers, and passed them around to the guys. We all took notes. Our utility staff took notice of the commotion and watched what I was doing. Shortly after, I would frequently turn around to find these guys weighing beans, grinding, rinsing filters, blooming, waiting, brewing. It was amazing! Within a few days, they had abandoned the local donut shop’s over-sweetened, over-whitened coffee beverage which they had been drinking for years. They were drinking great coffee which they were brewing themselves. And, best of all, they were drinking it black!

Grinding Fresh Roasted Coffee Beans

Meanwhile, at home, my kitchen had become a lab, a proving ground, a meeting place of fire and water and fruit. I spent my off-hours pulling shots, aero-pressing, toddy-ing, French-pressing, chemexing, auto-dripping and taking notes the entire way. What I wasn’t doing was sleeping much – but that was OK. I had plenty of coffee.

Brewing Fresh Coffee

Days had turned into weeks which had turned into months, but decisions had been made and the orders finally placed. Ultimately, we ended up kicking off the program with 7 roasters with 3-4 facings each. I now had to make room on the shelves for 22 new facings of product, compile a menu complete with tasting notes and further educate the staff. After an exhausting 2 months of tasting – it was time for the real work to begin.

I remember stocking the shelves with all of these new products. I was somewhat proud but also a bit nervous. I thought to myself, “How am I going to get rid of all of this fresh product? What would the customers think? What will my manager say when he sees this?” Typically we introduce a few products in any given week. I was introducing 22 new products in just one day.

Di Bruno Bros. Italian Market Gourmet Coffee

The program was met with great success; gaining the approval from customers and management. We added a few of the Philly coffee roasters. Other roasters took notice and we even grabbed a nod from the local newspaper. It’s been a fast 6 months since we started down this road.

The Future of Specialty Coffee at Di Bruno Bros.

Now to answer the question, “Where are we going?” We are staying the course with the Saturday Morning Breakfast Club (every week at our Italian Market store 9am – 12 noon) and will be introducing some new roasters such as MadCap (Grand Rapids, MI), Zoka (Seattle, WA), Bird Rock (La Jolla, CA) and Rojo’s Roastery (more on that next week).

New Coffee Offerings at Di Bruno Bros. Italian Market

We are always on the lookout for great new roasters to add to our menu and will be rotating our offerings as the months roll on. 2013 is set to hold some interesting developments, as well. So stay tuned here to the blog, our Facebook page and Twitter for more details.

We welcome your thoughts and suggestions. What are your favorite roasters?