George Howell Coffee: 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?

To do so, Howell will have to compete against a new generation of roasters and retailers, commonly referred to as the “third wave,” who fetishize coffee the way oenophiles do a grand cru—and whom Howell himself is largely responsible for inspiring. There was a time when coffee was simply coffee and no one really cared where it came from. This was the first wave, exemplified by Folgers and Maxwell House. Then came the second wave, the independent operators intent on sourcing their beans from specific countries and roasting them by themselves. Suddenly, chains like Peet’s, the Coffee Connection, and Starbucks were heralding the distinct flavor profiles of Kenyan, Ethiopian, and Costa Rican coffees. In the third wave, people like Howell began sourcing their beans not just from particular countries, but individual farms.

Many of today’s largest third-wave coffee companies—Blue Bottle in Oakland, Intelligentsia in Chicago, Stumptown in Oregon, and Counter Culture in North Carolina, to name a few—source from single estates. These outfits began by roasting and wholesaling beans in the late ’90s, then progressed to operating retail stores as they expanded their national distribution. Along the way, they’ve raised tens of millions in venture capital. Even right here in Boston, Howell has tough third-wave competition, including the Arlington company Barismo, which bills itself as “a small-batch roaster focused on estate coffees and manual brewing methods,” and which now provides beans to many of Howell’s old accounts.

Howell finds himself “in the odd position of competing with people who followed his ideas,” says Toscanini’s Rancatore, who sells a lot of quality coffee (Barismo’s, by the way, not Howell’s). “He’s a gray eminence to a bunch of younger guys who are almost disrespectful.”

Trish Rothgeb, a roaster who is often credited with articulating the third-wave concept, agrees. “In terms of third-wave kids out there, a lot of them aren’t sure if they’ve heard his name,” Rothgeb says. “They might write him off.”

Over at Barismo, Silas Moulton, the company’s 25-year-old green-coffee buyer, says that “from a quality standpoint, George, more than any single person, has been the biggest advocate for really high-quality coffee.” In fact, Moulton says, Howell is Barismo’s biggest competition. Then again, he says, even Howell’s longtime fans seem to have lost track of him. “I think George had his moment. We get customers in here who say, ‘I used to go to this great place called the Coffee Connection.’ I’ve told people that George has a roastery now. He’s not as widely known as he once was.”

Moulton’s boss, Jaime van Schyndel, says he founded Barismo in part because of dissatisfaction with Howell’s roastery. The biggest complaint from the coffee shops that buy Howell’s beans has been that he cares more about the quality of his coffee than he does about trying to get people to buy it. In the kinds of shops that sell high-quality coffees produced by roasters like Howell, the relationship between the roaster and the baristas—the people who actually make and serve the coffee to the public—is crucial. Most roasters go out of their way to foster relationships with them, to keep them updated on their latest offerings. The impression among some local café owners, though, is that Howell holds himself in higher regard than he does the baristas.

“We opened our roastery four years ago because we didn’t feel like there was a local roastery we could work with that actually was focused on baristas,” says van Schyndel, who in April opened his first retail location, Dwelltime, in Cambridge. “We’re baristas. He’s the green sourcer. He wants a perfect, pristine, repeatable product presented and he believes that he can take the barista out of the equation. And we really believe that the baristas are the salespeople. You really have to stick your neck out there if you’re doing wholesale to train your shops or to tell them how to serve better coffee.”

Simon Yu, who’s operated Simon’s Coffee Shop in Porter Square for a decade and recently opened his second shop near Central Square, describes Howell’s relationship with baristas this way: “It’s as if you’re the student and it’s 9 p.m. on Friday and you want to learn, but your professor isn’t available on the weekend.” Yu, who felt that Howell simply wasn’t making the effort to connect with his baristas, no longer serves Howell’s coffees. “I feel bad that the quality he brings isn’t delivered to his customers,” Yu says.

Howell, though, has been busy making a series of improvements to his eight-year-old roastery, and he insists that he’s ready, even eager, for a fight. The roastery posted a profit for the first time last year, which Howell says reflects his renewed focus. He’s brought in a new COO, Rebecca Fitzgerald, who pushed him to design more modern-looking bags, change his company’s name, and hire a barista to work as a trainer to his accounts, assuring that they’ll now get the service they need. And as his trip to Marlow & Sons shows, he’s been working to develop his own relationships with his clients’ baristas. He says he’s poised for victory and that his competition knows it. “I think there are a lot of people afraid of Coffee Connection coming back,” he says.

Simon Yu is one of them. “From a business perspective, he has both the capital and the resources,” Yu says. “And that’s what makes us scared.”

Then again, Howell had all the same advantages back in 2003 when he opened Copacafé in Lexington…and promptly closed it less than a year later. Though his roastery did grow out of the project, in general, “they couldn’t decide whether it was a coffee shop or a restaurant,” says Arnett, the former Globe food critic. “It was half counter orders and half seated. It was a mess.” For his part, Howell describes the failure as a “huge loss, but it was the best damn dinner party Lexington ever had.”