Empire Coffee, a Port Chester-based company, has been roasting coffee for 28 years. Yet until Jason Richter joined the business as director of Marketing and Online Sales in 2012, the company’s brand was relatively unknown.
Before Richter arrived, Empire Coffee was mostly a wholesale and private-label business. That means it would make unique coffees upon request from clients, and clients would sell the coffees under their own branding. With that business model, Empire Coffee was forced to stay in the background, letting its clients’ brands shine and not promoting its own name or product. “In many cases, you drank our coffee, but you never really knew where it came from,” explains Richter.
While Empire Coffee sustained itself as a private-label business, it struggled to grow. Because it made financial sense to do business only with very large clients who could order coffee in bulk, it was hard to find new clients. And while existing clients sometimes did increase their orders, getting them to do so was a slow and arduous process that reaped few immediate rewards.
For Richter, who at 35 is being groomed to take over Empire Coffee from his father (Richter had previously spent 12 years in LA working as a movie trailer editor before deciding to join the family firm), the logical way to grow the company was to expand into retail markets and sell its own brands. As a coffee lover himself, he knew there was a strong demand out there for new and well-made coffees. “My father owns Empire Coffee, so for me to encourage him to delve into a business or in an area that he was not really familiar with wasn’t accepted immediately,” says Richter. “But he understands that this is out there and people want this and they are interested in this type of product. Is it a mass market? No, it’s not. But it’s new; it’s growing.”
At the end of 2012, Richter launched the company’s first brand of gourmet coffee: Waterfront Roasters. Although it is less than a year old, more than 20 cafes, restaurants, and clubs across the tri-state area (including the Westchester and Fairfield Country Clubs; The Iron Tomato; The Goose American Bistro & Bar in Darien, Connecticut; Tarry Market; and the d’Vida Health Bar in Manhattan) already serve the coffee, and it is available for anybody to buy online. Richter, along with Director of Specialty Coffee Johnny Steverson, released a second brand, Path Coffee Roasters, a much more high-end specialty coffee (“I’m talking about the 1 percent, the upper echelon of coffees,” he says), in early 2013 and it is currently being sold to gourmet stores including Fairfield Cheese Company in Connecticut and Local Seasonal Kitchen in Ramsey, New Jersey.
Richter is very clear about the fact that he has brought Empire Coffee into a much different realm with Path. “It’s not a private label business where you have a company that’s buying thousands and thousands of pounds of coffee every quarter; it’s a lot smaller, going after the individual restaurant or coffee shop or things like that,” he says—but both he and his father are pleased with the markets it is has opened up to the company. “We’re slowly getting it out there into the retail space, and hopefully people will realize we exist, and they will have a chance to try our products. And hopefully they’ll like it, and it will help us to continue entering new establishments.”
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