Caroline Bell: Our East Coast Artisan POV

Co-Founder / Co-Owner, Café Grumpy

Our following insight comes from the Co-Founder and Co-Owner of Café Grumpy, a coffee roaster and retailer based in Brooklyn, NY. Grumpy is celebrating its 15th anniversary, having expanded from NYC to Miami with a total of 12 locations.  

Jake: Everyone panicked for a minute when the frost was announced in Brazil again this year. Did this affect you at all, and do you believe this is going to become a recurring issue? 

Caroline: Climate and social challenges affect all who buy green coffee. Everything that happens in the world is related, especially in the coffee industry. We don’t buy too many Brazilian coffees specifically, so it hasn’t affected us too directly though I know they impact the industry as a whole. 


Jake: Given the conditions of the climate, do you feel growing coffee in Cali is a reasonable response to climate change? 

Caroline: I think we could do a little better to support more research on the ground and the agronomist that work with the farmers. We must accept paying higher prices and do our part to communicate to customers and retailers the challenges that producers are facing and why they will be paying a little bit more for their coffee. 


Jake: With what essential origins are you working?

Caroline: We work with El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Burundi. We also have coffee right now from Ethiopia. Primarily Central Americans, though, our Heartbreaker Espresso blend is a Colombia and Ethiopia blend. They are all washed coffees. Our customer base likes really clean, washed coffees. 


Jake: Have you seen any emerging origins in coffee? Either as a result of climate change or simply new opportunities in different countries?

Caroline: No, not really. What I have seen more of is people getting more experimental with varietals. Also, people are putting more effort into making better Robusta. We work with the same producers every year, so I don’t have as much exposure to this. 


Jake: What about working with Robustas? Are you open to this? 

Caroline: We have talked about trying them. I’m always open to trying things to learn and understand what is going on. I’m open to trying things; you never know where this life will take you. 


Jake: Shifting gears to political impacts. There is a war in Ethiopia, one of the origins you work with heavily. Has this impacted your supply or pricing? 

Caroline: Pricing has gone up quite dramatically with our Ethiopian coffee. I think it went up two dollars a pound, which is significant. We try to be aware of what’s happening and maintain our commitments. Sometimes we might buy less of one producer’s offerings just to keep the relationship so we can return to it next year. The amounts we purchase aren’t massive, so we haven’t had any trouble receiving our coffee. They have been a little late, but the pandemic made us slow down as we were closed for a little while, so it has worked itself out.  

We were actually ok with coffees coming in late this year. Because of the pandemic, we didn’t need as much volume. Some of our producers produced smaller amounts this year as well, in Honduras, for instance, and we were ok with that because we usually buy their entire lots, and we wanted to continue to do that, so it alleviated some of the pressure.  


Jake: Now let’s bring it to a more cultural impact. Do you feel that TikTok and Instagram are changing the way customers consume coffee? 

Caroline: I am actually in charge of our social media channels. We focus more on Instagram, and I do not have any personal accounts, but I do watch TikTok; it’s a powerful platform. People will come into the shops and say, ‘I saw this drink on Instagram. Do you have it? ‘or ‘can you make this drink?’ Thankfully, we are not Starbucks, so people were not requesting the drinks with ten thousand ingredients that don’t fit into a cup, so we avoided that. However, people do ask, ‘I heard this is good for you. Do you have a coffee for that? I saw it online.


Jake: Grumpy’s has been around a while. Do you find it refreshing that people are not ordering Starbucks drinks at your shops but are instead ordering Instagram drinks? 

Caroline: We actually still get a mix of both. For example, one of our shops opened in Grand Central Terminal in an old Starbucks location, and some customers didn’t even realized it was a different company. They just came in and ordered the usual.  

I can’t blame them. They hadn’t had their coffee yet, so…


Jake: Is there a way that Specialty coffee can cash in on some of these trends while maintaining our identity? 

Caroline: This is a good question and something that we think about a lot. We used to only offer pour-over coffees and espresso, and now we have batch brew coffees, and we’ve started offering pumpkin spice lattes and more light-hearted drinks. I think that because of the pandemic and how much stress everyone went through that, we need to offer more light-hearted drinks to people.  

Another small thing that felt huge for us was offering to grind coffee for people’s online orders. We never did that before, but we thought about everyone working from home, and they likely didn’t have grinders that we needed to do that. It seems silly that we didn’t do it before, but that is one example. 


Jake: Do you think that sustainability will ever win over convenience? 

Caroline: As a coffee shop, we think about that a lot. We are selling an agricultural product that is picked by hand, and we think about the impact of what we do.  

I’m not really sure how to answer that. It’s a human nature question. We are trying to do things where we can. We offer discounts to people who bring in reusable cups, and we converted our cold brew packaging to tetra paks, so we are trying where we can. Our hot cup sleeves don’t fit our small-size cups, so we end up double cupping them, which isn’t great. We try where we can, but I’m not sure how it all plays out. 


Jake: Will robot baristas overrule humans?

Caroline: Coming into a coffee shop, people really appreciate the interaction with the barista and the crafting of the drink. They appreciate talking and that someone is caring about what they’re making, and maybe they have a favorite drink or favorite alternate milk, and they want it custom. I do think there is something special about watching someone make something. During the pandemic, when we had all the plexiglass up, or we were closed, or you ordered online or even having-to order with your mask on, there was a lot lost, and people really miss that interaction and the visuals and the smells. With coffee, yeah, we want things to be consistent, and we want it to be good, and some machines can help with that. There are better grinders now than when we started. I think for us it would be bringing in equipment that makes it easier for the baristas on their wrists or standing all the time or things that can make the job less physically stressful but still has that interaction and that handcrafted aspect to it.  

That said, for our roastery, we think about it all the time, like having a loader or automation to make production smoother and faster and less taxing on the people that are working. 


Jake: In 2022, there has also been a rise in the unionization of the barista. Is this something you worry about? 

Caroline: There have been some coffee shops that have had some baristas unionize there. We do think about it. I think for us, it’s about what the staff want to do, and we will work with whatever happens. If they feel that they need that as a structure, that’s for them to decide. As an owner, I feel we have been supportive through our journey in the coffee shops, and we are pretty hands-on and quick to respond and transparent. Ultimately it is up to the employees to decide, and whatever happens, I will accept it. I know I sound like a hippy (laughs). Things will pretty much go where they go, and we’ll work through it.

Listen to the whole interview here:

by Jake Leonti

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