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?
On a recent Friday afternoon, Howell and his wife, Laurie, are crammed into an SUV along with Fitzgerald, his COO, and his real estate agents, Adam and Jim Conviser. The agents are on their iPads, scouting locations for Howell’s new flagship. The vehicle weaves through Central Square, past the 1369 Coffee House, and makes its way into Kendall Square, where Voltage Coffee & Art is serving pour-over coffees and staging gallery exhibits. From there it’s across the river to Boston. As they approach the North End, the group begins discussing the Thinking Cup, which just opened a Hanover Street location, and at Government Center, Howell points out the steaming kettle that marks just one of several former Coffee Connection sites that are now Starbucks. They cross the bridge into Fort Point, where Barrington Coffee Roasting Company just opened its shop last winter, and head into Southie, which gets everyone talking about the biggest coffee news of the week: A Starbucks will soon open outside the Broadway T stop, just the latest display of the neighborhood’s gentrification.
The trip seems to make one thing very clear: Boston is no longer suffering from a lack of places that serve good coffee. According to Howell, though, that’s not true at all. Here in Boston, he informs the car, a full-fledged third-wave café—the kind he has in mind—“has yet to be done.” He’s recently visited stores in San Francisco, New York, and Portland, Oregon, and he wants to create a more interactive “statement café” with a strong retail component, along the lines of what he saw during his travels. Now, he says, he needs to find a “miracle space.”
And that space will have to cater to that most coveted of coffee-shop demographics: the hipster. “What the hell is a hipster?” Howell asks. “I mean, other than tattoos?” Everyone starts offering up definitions. Hipsters are young creatives. They’re excited about hands-on, authentic experiences. They’re do-it-yourselfers who want to build their own fixed-gear bikes and talk to the people who butcher their cows and make their cheese—that is, if they’re not aging their own Gruyère in their basements.
“George, you’d probably be a hipster if you were their age,” Laurie says. That seems to satisfy Howell. “I get it, they’re the café workers, and it suits their lifestyle,” he says. “But they don’t understand coffee the way I understand it.”
Howell almost certainly does understand coffee better than the people who will buy it from him once he opens his café. That’s to be expected, actually, but even his supporters wonder what that might mean for his prospects. Can the drip-coffee purist ever truly embrace the more complex—and profitable—drinks preferred by many café regulars? Will the cuppings he’s so excited to offer be fun and compelling, or will they look like the professorial PowerPoints he presented at Marlow & Sons? “The problem with him is that he can’t shut up,” Dan Cox says. “I’ll critique him: ‘Let me tell you as a friend and a peer: You’ve got to cut this shit out.’” And what of Howell’s plan to get back into retail? “I think the time has passed,” Cox says.
Howell rejects the critique. “Dan’s always been on the periphery of it, never in the heart of it,” he says. “But I have no trouble going into a scene and causing havoc. There’s always a new spin and always a way to do it better.”
For his part, Intelligentsia’s Geoff Watts believes Howell has what it takes to succeed. “I think there’s a huge audience waiting for him to make a splash,” Watts says. “The industry knows he’s been doing quality work for years. But it’s important to have a face to your coffee company, and that’s what your retail environment can do. You have to show off the product the way it’s intended.”
Howell’s coffee is being poured in some of the city’s top restaurants, like L’Espalier, Troquet, and Bergamot. That’s just the start, he insists. The world of coffee is still so young, and there’s still so much to learn. “I come back to that,” he says. “And I think that’s why people come back to us.”
Learn more about coffee: Check out The Frappuccino: By the Numbers.