Part 1: The Man that Grew Coffee Culture
With George Howell
If you walk down any American main street, you’ll find a coffee shop or three. If you love coffee, you can thank George Howell: The man that grew the culture behind coffee consumption in the United States and beyond.
George Howell is a renowned entrepreneur and the Founder of George Howell Coffee. He has been expanding the art, appreciation and knowledge of fine coffee roasting since the 1970’s.
George is a powerful storyteller, telling us how he spent the past 50+ years spreading unbridled enthusiasm for coffee, art and fair trade practices. George Howell was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Specialty Coffee Association of America in 1996, for having raised specialty coffee quality standards to a new level through his Massachusetts-based company The Coffee Connection (1974 – 1994). He had grown The Coffee Connection into 24 company-owned stores in the Northeast and sold his high-quality popular coffee company to Starbucks in 1994. He returned to coffee-traveling worldwide, and in 1997 worked on models of economic sustainability for coffee farmers under the United Nations and the International Coffee Organization. This led directly to the founding of the precedent-setting Cup Of Excellence program in 1999; it established the world’s first international estate coffee competition and international internet auction that mightily contributed to breaking the commodity/price cycle for craftsman farmers in the specialty coffee industry.
George Howell is a pioneer of the fair trade system. While founding George Howell Coffee, he sought quality producers that were just as passionate about outstanding coffee as he was. To this day, George Howell Coffee pays these farms top prices for green coffees, far exceeding Fair Trade pricing. In order to assure mutual education and trust, George and his daughter Jenny visit the farmers they work with and form lasting partnerships.
Enjoy Part One of this Two-part series with entrepreneur, connoisseur and compelling storyteller George Howell.
Great entrepreneurs lead with passion and purpose
George grew up in New Jersey then Mexico City, raised with a love of language, art and culture. Before George began roasting coffee, he discovered Mexican indigenous Huichol artists.
Quickly realizing that their work was unappreciated, he sought to help Huichol artisans show their work on the national stage. He was met with condescension. Defined as ‘folk artists’, the Huichol peoples’ work was devalued and discarded. But George saw what we see today – that these artists produced work that was every bit as thoughtful, unique and important as European painters and muralists.
Meanwhile, George developed a love for coffee – which he did not yet see as a business opportunity. George was determined to bring Huichol art into museums on the East coast. He and his pregnant wife, Laurie packed their two children into the car and headed East. He packed his french press and coffee grinder.
The family stopped at Howard Johnson’s motor lodges along their route and George would grind their coffee in the mens’ restrooms, leaving behind a captivating aroma most Americans had never smelled before. After using hot water to brew their coffee right there in diners and parking lots, people would come up to them and ask, “What are you doing?”
Big things begin with simple ideas
Showing art wasn’t paying the rent. George and Laurie got to work thinking of things they could do to make money, help artists and make an impact. This led to the creation of The Coffee Connection – named by Laurie Howell.
The Coffee Connection was a simple idea: The Howell’s wanted to share their love of art and coffee with the world. It combined two things they cared about, paid the bills and built community. They never could have hypothesized the growth and scale their dream would take over the next few decades.
After an initial press boom and surviving the coffee freeze that hit Brazil in 1975, The Coffee Connection continued to expand. During the height of the espresso obsession of the 1980’s and 90’s, they were adding a new café every two years. After rebuffing Starbucks’ advances multiple times, The Coffee Connection was successfully acquired by Starbucks in 1994, led by CEO Howard Schultz.
An exciting coffee comeback
After The Coffee Connection was sold to Starbucks, George devoted himself to transforming the coffee industry for the better. He worked on sustainable farming and coffee production policies at the United Nations and the International Coffee Organization. He was making the impact he always wanted to make – but he found himself longing to return to the formation of new cafés.
Be sure to tune into Part Two of our conversation with George Howell to hear how George Howell launched his signature East-coast cafés, further developing coffee culture and nurturing a love for quality coffee unlike any other.
“It became a ritual to wake up to a great cup of coffee – no milk, no sugar because it was good just the way it was.”
“We moved East, by car with two kids and number three on the way. It was February or March 1974. I brought coffee with me, and a little french press and grinder, just for Laurie and me. We stopped at the Howard Johnson’s along the way. I would grind the coffee in the mens’ rooms, always leaving the bathrooms smelling a lot better after we left. And we would order hot water…like, for tea. We’d brew our coffee right there at the Howard Johnson’s. We’d always have two or three people who were having breakfast there who would come up and say, ‘what are you doing! What’s that!’”
“We realized that we could win on both sides by opening up a café where we could exhibit art and sell great coffee.”
“The enthusiasm was so incredible. Literally within the first three months, we were overwhelmed with customers coming in there. The media was coming in. The locals were coming and filming us!”
“We were successful with the people we were hiring because they were so enthused. We learned very quickly that the best salespeople were the people who spread the excitement by contagion. That was the best you could ask for!”
“I’d rather go broke selling great coffee than make a fortune selling garbage.”
Links mentioned in this episode:
Visit the website for George Howell Coffee at https://georgehowellcoffee.com/
Follow George Howell Coffee on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/ghowellcoffee/?hl=en and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GHowellCoffee/
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