Back to the Grind
Nearly two decades after selling his iconic Coffee Connection chain to Starbucks, George Howell is about to attempt a comeback. Can the café visionary retake the coffee world, or has his time passed?
Howell looks a bit like the actor Chevy Chase. His sideburns are graying and his hair is thinning on top, and his teeth have a patina that comes from a lifetime of drinking coffee. On this September afternoon, as he prepares to conduct a cupping in the hip Brooklyn shop Marlow & Sons, he’s wearing a light khaki jacket and pants, with a button-down shirt the color of orange sherbet.
It’s Howell’s first-ever “road” cupping, a demonstration for the baristas at the shop, which has been serving coffee from Howell’s roastery for the past year. The event was arranged by members of his sales team, part of the effort to relaunch the roastery under the George Howell Coffee brand, but for Howell, it’s also a scouting mission. Marlow & Sons and its adjoining sister establishment, Diner, are, together, a restaurant, a bar, a coffee shop, and a dry-goods store that sell both grass-fed beef and $425 bespoke leather handbags with tags boasting that they were “handmade in NYC with the tanned hide of a cow we served here last fall.” The place, in other words, is representative of a new generation of coffee retailers, the sort that Howell expects to compete against with his new cafés.
Howell, who looks to have about four decades on the rest of the room, begins the tasting with a slide show about the provenance of today’s beans, which he sourced from several independent farms in Guatemala. Howell is big on slide shows, and his PowerPoints involve the sort of detail you find in an Al Gore presentation on the dangers of global warming. While he spends the next 45 minutes clicking through photos of volcanic cones, rows of coffee plants, and close-ups of “cherries”—the cranberry-looking fruit from which the coffee bean is extracted—the baristas remain silent. Howell at last clicks off the projector and walks to an orange table in the back of the room, where 40 glasses have been arranged for the cupping. The baristas, looking less than excited, join him, and Howell begins the tasting. For a few minutes, the only sounds are the clinking of spoons hitting glasses, a chorus of slurps, and subway trains rattling over the Williamsburg Bridge. The new rules of the coffee cupping, Howell explains later, dictate that people stay silent as they taste, in order to have a pure experience that doesn’t influence anyone else’s opinion. “I like a more informal approach,” he says.
Howell begins to prod the group, encouraging them to identify the flavors they detect in the coffees. “I don’t care if you taste rubber tires,” he says. “I want to hear from you.” Finally, the baristas begin to engage. Someone named Dillon Edwards, who looks a bit like Van Gogh in a blue painter’s jacket and a straw hat, tells Howell that he has plans to operate a pop-up coffee shop in the barber shop up the street. He’s been working with a gypsy roaster. Soon, everyone is discussing the subtle notes that reveal themselves in Howell’s coffees: currant, cashew, caramel, even hints of blueberry and strawberry. The baristas begin snapping Instagram photos of the table and uploading them to Twitter.
The growing similarities between the coffee and wine experiences are hard to miss—the ceremony of the tasting, the emphasis on flavor profiles from regions and even individual farms, the snobbery. None of this, of course, is lost on Howell, who at one point warns the baristas that “there’s a lot of pretense in this industry, but I have no doubt that your taste can be equal to that of professional cuppers”—and who later describes the plans for his new flagship café this way: “What we envision down the road is ultimately being like a wine store. You go to a really great wine store, they’ll have thousand-dollar bottles of wine, but they’ll also have great values. That’s where I want our company to go.” He also anticipates lots of seminars, cuppings, and tastings, the kinds of events that will make his place a center of coffee exploration and celebration rather than just another café.
“The Frappuccino,” George Howell says, “wasn’t my life goal.”
Raised in New Jersey, Howell moved with his family to Mexico City at age 13. In 1964 he landed at Yale, where he studied art history and modern French and Spanish literature, but soon found himself more taken with New York City’s jazz clubs. In 1967 he dropped out. That same year, he met his future wife, Laurie, and in 1968 the couple moved to Berkeley, California, where Howell, working as an art dealer, staged exhibitions of swirling, psychedelic Huichol Indian yarn paintings.
At the time, Berkeley was just beginning to establish its reputation as California’s “gourmet ghetto,” a development that was aided in part by the Dutch entrepreneur Alfred Peet, who was attracting throngs to his café by selling freshly roasted beans. In time, the Bay Area café culture started to thrive, and shops became havens for young, turtleneck-clad bohemians. Eventually Howell decided to move back East, and, having developed a taste for high-quality brews, packed up his pregnant wife, their two children, and several bags of beans. (Howell now has six children.) As the family drove across the country, he would insist on using his own grinder and French press at diners, asking the waitresses to pour him some hot water so he could brew his own coffee, lest he be forced to drink the place’s sludge.
In 1974 Howell arrived in Boston and found himself in a coffee wasteland. The post-war convenience of instant brands like Maxwell House and Taster’s Choice had dulled American taste buds, and coffee was considered nothing more than a cheap commodity (it remains the second-most-traded commodity on the planet, after petroleum). Dunkin’ Donuts was selling its own brew, of course, but most of its sales came from baked goods. No one was providing quality, freshly roasted coffee to the city of Boston.
Howell’s motivation for moving here was to get a foothold in the art world. And in his newly developed coffee passion, he saw an opportunity to do just that. “Creating the Coffee Connection in Harvard Square was a way of putting up an art gallery and doing the coffee simultaneously,” he recalls. “Only we didn’t know anything about coffee.”
In 1975 Howell opened the Coffee Connection in the Garage, sourcing his beans from Zabar’s in New York while waiting on the delivery of his own coffee roaster. The shop was an immediate success. “I did not drink much coffee prior to becoming almost infatuated with Coffee Connection,” says Gus Rancatore, who has owned Toscanini’s ice cream in Cambridge for three decades. “I have immensely fond memories of that place. It was the best people-watching spot in the history of Cambridge. I think half of what I know is because of George—a lot of what I tried to reproduce in retailing was because of that store.”