The coffee business has changed a lot since Warren E. Emblidge Jr. bought McCullagh Coffee Roasters back in 1986.
“Back then, coffee was a hot, black drink,” Emblidge said. “Today, it’s an experience, driven by brand imagery, different flavors and technology, such as K-Cups.”
Even more changes came to the business this year, when Emblidge passed the reins of McCullagh on to his son, Warren E. Emblidge III, who left a career as a banker to take over the family enterprise. The company supplies coffee to restaurants and institutional customers, such as businesses and health care facilities.
Warren E. Emblidge III talked about the coffee business and his vision for McCullagh.
David Robinson: What changes do you see happening at the company?
Warren E. Emblidge III: We’ve been roasting coffee in Buffalo since 1867, and we want people to know it.
One of the things I’m focused on is building brand awareness in the markets we directly serve. That’s Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse – essentially upstate New York, northern Pennsylvania and into Ohio, as well as into our Canadian market, where we have an operation in Toronto.
The other focus is a continued focus on manufacturing excellence. As I look ahead, I want to make sure we’re positioning ourselves for success in the future. That means reinvesting in our plant and the equipment, whether it’s a roasting facility, packaging equipment or investing in people.
DR: You’re spending $300,000 on a new roaster. What’s that going to do for the company and the kind of products you can make?
WE: It will allow us to make more distinct coffee products for a market that is becoming increasingly interested in upscale coffees. Today, you can do a lot of unique things through better roaster controls and more technologically advanced roasters. That roaster will allow us to create very unique blends in a more consistent fashion than we’ve done historically.
DR: Because coffee isn’t just coffee anymore?
WE: People expect a lot more. People like coffee with flavor, and we want to provide that to them.
DR: How can you build the brand locally?
WE: It’s partnering with others in the community to get our name out there. We’ve partnered with the Buffalo Zoo to help them raise funds for the polar bear exhibit. We did a retail coffee offering with Tops Markets to raise proceeds for that effort. We’ve supported their Wines in the Wild event, their Polar Bites event, things that help their customer base and increase our visibility.
DR: Can you see McCullagh Coffee being available in stores?
WE: At a retail level, I don’t see that happening, just because it’s not our area of focus.
DR: So it’s more about building a brand at the institutional level?
WE: We want people to know that when they go to Sweet_ness 7 Cafe for a cup of coffee, that coffee is McCullagh’s.
DR: What impact has the rise of the K-Cup had on your business?
WE: It’s interesting. The whole single-cup world continues to grow exponentially. It’s really been more impactful to date in the retail sector. If you look at a grocery store, you’ll see that fewer and fewer stores are providing whole bean options, where you can get fresh roast bean coffee that you grind up in the store. Those are being removed. They’re being replaced by single-serve capsules. And the growth in that market has been double-digit for a number of years now and is forecast to grow by in excess of 20 percent annually for the next several years.
DR: How does that affect McCullagh?
WE: In our space, which is restaurants, offices, hospitality and food service, it’s less impactful because the way that those systems brew don’t provide the capacity that most folks need in order to provide their coffee program. That said, in the office space, we do see adoption and we will continue to see adoption. So as more customers move toward single-serve systems in the office space, we need to be able to respond to that.
DR: What makes good coffee? What do you have to do to stand out as a quality provider?
WE: It starts with having the right people, and it goes through the manufacturing process. But frankly, one of the most important things is buying a quality bean. You can buy Colombian coffees that are excellent or you can buy Colombian coffees that are very bad. So your ability to create relationships at origin that allow you to procure top-notch quality coffees is essential to providing a great cup of coffee.
DR: How does that dovetail with the company’s sustainability efforts?
WE: I think that coffees that are sustainable also are generally high-quality coffees. To the extent that you can purchase high-quality coffees, you should be purchasing them with that sustainability mark on it. You can buy high-grade coffees that aren’t Fair Trade, aren’t organic or aren’t Rain Forest Alliance certified. But for the same price you can buy some that are. When you can add the social and environmental benefits to that great cup of coffee without adding to the cost, why wouldn’t you do it?
DR: What kind of new products are in the works?
WE: We’re continuing to build out our gourmet line. We just completed a new Colombian Supremo roast, which has a very unique taste profile compared with what we’ve done in the past and we think is an interesting and flavorful coffee. We’re working on Tanzanian Peaberry coffees. We use some of those beans in some of our blends today.
It just allows you to create some very interesting coffees that are fun, and people like variety.
DR: You spent 15 years as a banker at M&T Bank. Now you’re coming back to the family company. Why the career switch?
WE: I’ve always enjoyed small business and personal relationships. I feel much more embedded with the local community working for a small company like this, and I’ve had a lot of fun.
DR: Does it help having been away from the business?
WE: It’s not entirely new to me. I was in the business as a teenager. I started off in the service department, where I managed to shock myself and burn myself on various pieces of equipment. I learned some good lessons along the way. But I cut my teeth there. So I’ve always kind of known the business and been interested in it, but I wanted to go out and prove myself. That’s why I didn’t join the company straight out of school.
Now I’m back, and it’s fun.