by Chad Umble, originally seen at LancasterOnline.com
It’s been 135 years since Paul Gerhart founded the Lancaster coffee company that bears his name.For much of that time, Gerhart Coffee Co. was the only game in town, supplying coffee to local merchants in 35-pound drums.
In recent years, the coffee roasting business has gotten more crowded, with niche roasters popping up around Lancaster County. Gerhart Coffee Co. has been forced to respond to the new competitors as well as the changing tastes of coffee drinkers.
While it has been branching out into retail sales, Gerhart Coffee’s core business remains as a wholesale supplier to restaurants, hotels, schools and colleges within a 70-mile radius.
Gerhart Coffee Co. is now owned by Darrel Burns. Burns and Justin Smay, the company’s sales and marketing manager, recently discussed some of the issues the company faces.
Describe some of the ways the company has changed over the years?
Burns: My grandfather started at the company in 1955. He ended up buying the company in 1973 and ran it until 2010 when I bought it.
At the end of my grandfather’s tenure we started branching out into specialty coffee, but it wasn’t until I came on board and when Justin came along (two-and-a-half years ago) that we really started to emphasize the fact that we do the specialty coffee along with taking care of fine restaurants and hotels.
Why did you start offering those specialty blends and roasts?
Burns: The market went that direction. We kind of realized that we needed to follow suit. But we weren’t going to just follow suit and do what everyone else was doing, we wanted to do it with high quality stuff.
Smay: As a roaster, you need to start reacting to a different palate. However, we as the old roaster that we are, we still have a lot of people that say, “I just want a regular up of coffee.”
How do you satisfy both family restaurants and fine espresso bars:
Smay: The simple answer is relationship, meeting each customer or possible customer where they are and being careful and conscious to serve them well. And, from time to time, offering suggestions around how they can keep improving the coffee they serve their customers.
Your main business is supplying restaurants, but you recently added a consumer brand, Running Pump Roasting, which is sold at some grocery stores. Why?
Smay: We felt that having more of a retail and consumer presence would keep us relevant in the business-to-business restaurant service world.
When did you start noticing more coffee roasters?
Smay: Here in Lancaster we’re talking the past seven years.
How can you compete with new coffee roasters?
Burns: It is just kind of letting everybody know what all we can offer.
We’ve been around 135 years because we know what we’re doing. We do a big range of things, but we try to do them as well as we can.
Smay: We really feel like our heritage is a huge part of who we are as a company. Our signature coffees have stood the test of time — we have customers that have been using that blend for 120 years.
How important is your company’s long history in talking about Gerhart Coffee?
Smay: People are really looking for authenticity and history and heritage these days. We’ve always reminded people that we’ve been here and were the first people to bring fresh roasted coffee to Lancaster. That conversation has become more important.