Canadian Vending

Features Coffee Service
reflections in a cup: Farmer Reaps A Large Coffee Harvest

Wishing them well in their new, expanded business


February 3, 2009
By Stuart Daw

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When I first got into the coffee business, there was a plethora of companies specializing in supplying the foodservice industry in Canada and the U.S.

When I first got into the coffee business, there was a plethora of companies specializing in supplying the foodservice industry in Canada and the U.S.

But in terms of national distribution there were really none in either country, for distribution was handled on a regional basis, with one or two companies leading in each area.

In the U.S. it was essentially four companies that dominated. East of the Continental Divide it was Continental and Superior, both headquartered in Chicago, and Wechsler out of New York. West of the Continental Divide it was Farmer Brothers of Torrance (Los Angeles), Ca.

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A recent acquisition in the U.S. has caused me to feel a bit nostalgic regarding the history of the consolidations that have taken place, often causing famous old names to completely disappear. Perhaps that’s because in many such cases I have memories of things, often only little incidents that took place in which I was personally involved.

The most recent large acquisition is that of Farmer Brothers buying the foodservice coffee brands of Sara Lee, both companies with which I have had some connection.

On the news in the media of the purchase, and the rather negative reference made regarding the late Roy Farmer, son of the original owner who started the business in 1912, I immediately thought of some of the dealings I had with Farmer Brothers, and in particular of the one time I got to meet personally with him.

Our involvement with that company started in the early 1970s, when we were expanding rapidly in coffee service, especially in the U.S.

With up to four full-time trainers travelling the country helping coffee service people find new private label accounts on behalf of our roasting operation, we of course were involved in acquiring a lot of brewing equipment, directly or on behalf of rapidly growing clients.

It wasn’t until many years later that we found we were, for some time, the largest buyers of brewers from Brewmatic, a wholly-owned sub of Farmer’s. That was because, with four trainers on the road, each one requiring 100 brewers at the beginning of a two-week program, one can imagine that the ordering of several hundred brewers in a given month would be quite welcome news to Roy Farmer.

On one occasion, when visiting the Farmer Brothers plant, and being impressed with the lack of fractional packaging equipment (Farmer provided restaurants with ground coffee dispensers so that all plant packaging was in five-pound bags; very efficient), the sales manger for Brewmatic, Chuck Cole, and the controller, Bob Forrester, suggested they take a minute to introduce me to Roy Farmer.
 
On entering the cupping room, I saw two men sitting at the traditional round table, heads down, only moving slightly to spit each new spoonful of coffee into the equally traditional brass cuspidor. Obviously this was Roy and son, neither of whom looked up to see who it was that was being introduced to them.

After a few perfunctory words, but still with no eye contact, we exited the room. Next day on returning to my home office, the long distance telephone rang with Chuck Cole on the line. His first words: “Mr. Farmer doesn’t like you.” I was surprised, and said to Chuck that I had tried to be as nice as possible to Mr. Farmer. But Chuck quickly added, “Oh don’t worry, he doesn’t like anybody.” I found that reassuring.

But Farmer’s success in achieving customers for his coffee service division in its market is undeniable.

The trouble for his competitors, however, from a coffee service operator’s standpoint, was that in the beginning of that industry Farmer saw the potential coffee poundage for his roasting company, but didn’t grasp that coffee service was not the business of selling by the pound, but selling coffee “priced by the cup before it was even brewed.”

It was thus that the new business of selling coffee for “five cents per cup,” as pioneered by the Cory Corporation, was such as success. But Farmer must have thought, “what the heck, if calling it five cents a cup coffee sells so well, why not the equivalent of three cents a cup, and sell to customers priced by the pound, just like I do to restaurants?”

And so he flooded the office market with his own Brewmatic brewers and bulk coffee dispensers, driving regular operators to distraction.

For many of our Western clients this was tough price competition. But those that grasped the true nature of coffee service did just fine.

And our dealings with Farmer Brothers and Brewmatic over those early years were very productive and most pleasant. They even included assembling Brewmatic equipment in Canada in response to constrictive legislation against outsourcing at the time.

We wish them well in their new, expanded foodservice marketplace.