A case of has-beans, or why the cof­fee’s off at Whole Foods

Ran­dom checks at stores in the D.C. area find stale bags

The Washington Post - - FOOD - BY TIM CAR­MAN

The bag of Peru­vian cof­fee from Toms Roast­ing says the beans are best used by Dec. 3. The bag of Kenyan beans from Al­le­gro Cof­fee Roast­ers in­di­cates they are good through Sept. 19, while the bag of Rwan­dan beans from One Vil­lage Cof­fee notes they were “roasted to per­fec­tion” on May 26.

Th­ese cof­fees were among dozens sit­ting on the shelves in mid-July at two ran­domly se­lected Whole Foods Mar­ket stores in the Wash­ing­ton area. The dates stamped on th­ese bags whis­per prom­ises to shop­pers: that the freshly roasted cof­fee beans, or at least some of them, will taste the same months from now, maybe even half a year from now.

The prom­ises are, in all like­li­hood, hol­low. Spe­cialty roast­ers — the peo­ple who buy and roast the high­est-grade beans in the world — will tell you that only cof­fees sold in special pack­ag­ing, such as ni­tro­gen-flushed bags that pre­vent ox­i­da­tion, can sur­vive on the shelf for months. Other­wise, af­ter about 30 days, those cof­fee beans will be about as fla­vor­ful as sum­mer­time peaches in Oc­to­ber.

“We con­tinue to give the ba­sic rec­om­men­da­tion that, if you re­ally want to en­joy the cof­fee, buy it within a week of the roast, buy it lo­cally and drink it within a week of pur­chas­ing it,” says Ric Rhine­hart, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Spe-

cialty Cof­fee As­so­ci­a­tion.

Su­per­mar­kets have his­tor­i­cally been poor places to find good beans. They tend to fa­vor blends, so cus­tomers can have a con­sis­tent cup every time. They lean to­ward darker roasts, so the cof­fee’s fla­vors won’t di­min­ish much as the beans de­grade. And they tend to treat their cof­fees more like canned goods than fresh pro­duce, some­times leav­ing bags on the shelves for weeks af­ter their “best by” dates.

But Whole Foods, the or­ganic gro­cer that Ama­zon is set to pur­chase later this year, raised the bar for supermarke­t cof­fee, es­pe­cially af­ter the chain bought the re­spected roaster Al­le­gro Cof­fee in 1997. (Ama­zon founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive Jef­frey P. Be­zos owns The Wash­ing­ton Post.) Colorado-based Al­le­gro be­came, for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses, the house roaster for Whole Foods, but re­gional stores also sup­ple­mented Al­le­gro prod­ucts with cof­fees from spe­cialty roast­ers in their area, of­fer­ing cus­tomers a ro­bust se­lec­tion of blends, sin­gle-ori­gin and es­presso beans. Whole Foods seemed to be mak­ing a pledge: We’ll be a friend to spe­cialty cof­fee.

To some in the trade, Whole Foods’ com­mit­ment to fresh­ness in other parts of the store — to sell­ing pro­duce at its peak, for ex­am­ple — ends at the cof­fee aisle. Ask Chris Vig­i­lante, founder of Vig­i­lante Cof­fee, a roaster based in Hy­attsville, Md. He says he stopped sell­ing to a pair of Whole Foods stores in the Wash­ing­ton area in late 2015 af­ter find­ing his beans on sale months af­ter their roast date. Vig­i­lante says his beans are best brewed within a 30-day win­dow af­ter the roast.

Vig­i­lante started sell­ing cof­fee to the Friend­ship Heights Whole Foods in Chevy Chase in March 2015. The store’s ini­tial pur­chase was 120 bags, a large or­der from a roaster still rel­a­tively un­known out­side spe­cialty cir­cles. “Over the course of four or five months, the same cof­fees were still sit­ting there,” Vig­i­lante says.

One day, Vig­i­lante took mat­ters into his own hands. He walked into the Friend­ship Heights store, grabbed a cart and bought all the re­main­ing stale cof­fee on the shelf. “I cleared like 50 bags,” he says. He fig­ured tak­ing a bath on the cof­fee was bet­ter than tak­ing a hit to his young com­pany’s rep­u­ta­tion.

Vig­i­lante sold only about 330 bags be­fore pulling the plug on his re­la­tion­ship with Whole Foods stores in Friend­ship Heights and Tysons Cor­ner. But then last year, out of nowhere, he got an or­der from a Whole Foods store in Chicago. He turned down the re­quest, but then felt com­pelled to write a blog post about his brief, frus­trat­ing time with Whole Foods. He never pub­lished the piece, but he shared it with The Post. Among other com­plaints, he wrote, “their or­der­ing tech­niques are de­signed to sell prod­ucts over a span of months, not weeks or days.”

Whole Foods de­clined to com­ment for this story, other than to pro­vide back­ground in­for­ma­tion about its com­mit­ment to lo­cal sup­pli­ers in gen­eral, not cof­fee roast­ers in par­tic­u­lar. Whole Foods has a low-in­ter­est loan pro­gram to help in­no­va­tive sup­pli­ers grow, and the chain will pro­vide the tools and feed­back to help sup­pli­ers suc­ceed. If they do suc­ceed and have am­ple ca­pac­ity, sup­pli­ers can ex­pand from a sin­gle store to na­tional dis­tri­bu­tion, a plum for just about any pro­ducer.

Rhine­hart of the Special Cof­fee As­so­ci­a­tion is sym­pa­thetic to roast­ers’ con­cerns about fresh­ness, but he says there’s al­ways a trade-off when sell­ing to large gro­cery chains, even Whole Foods. For the con­ve­nience of of­fer­ing prod­ucts in the same place where shop­pers can buy dozens of other house­hold items, Rhine­hart says, roast­ers should ex­pect cer­tain sac­ri­fices in qual­ity.

“I don’t think that roast­ers that sell cof­fee to Whole Foods can have it both ways,” Rhine­hart says. “They’re like, ‘I’d like you to pay me a premium price, give me great dis­tri­bu­tion, give me ac­cess to your cus­tomers, pro­mote my prod­uct, and, oh, by the way, if it doesn’t sell, it’s your prob­lem.’ This is not a way to have a long-term re­la­tion­ship with Whole Foods or any gro­cery store, frankly.”

None­the­less, the gro­cery chain aims high with so many of its foods — or­ganic pro­duce, sus­tain­able seafood, nat­u­rally raised meat — that its com­mit­ment to spe­cialty cof­fee can strike roast­ers as luke­warm. A July walk through the Whole Foods in Sil­ver Spring con­ducted sev­eral days af­ter the afore­men­tioned ran­dom trips, would ap­pear to val­i­date this no­tion: At least three bags were avail­able af­ter their best-by dates had ex­pired. One bag of Funky Chicken, a cer­ti­fied or­ganic de­caf blend from Red Rooster Cof­fee in Floyd, Va., said it was roasted on April 12. It wasn’t pack­aged in a ni­tro­gen­flushed bag.

This is an or­der­ing issue, says Haden Polseno-Hens­ley, co-owner of Red Rooster. Buy­ers at in­di­vid­ual Whole Foods stores will some­times place or­ders for cof­fee that Polseno-Hens­ley knows will sit on the shelves for months, like that de­caf blend. “I’m never re­ally sure how to ad­dress it when a com­pany might or­der a cof­fee that doesn’t sell as well as the other cof­fees.”

One ar­gu­ment among spe­cialty roast­ers goes some­thing like this: Their beans are an agri­cul­tural prod­uct that de­grades in qual­ity in a mat­ter of weeks, not un­like heartier fruits and veg­eta­bles, such as ap­ples and onions. So why doesn’t a place like Whole Foods treat cof­fee beans more like pro­duce and ro­tate out the older beans?

The prob­lem with this logic, says SCA’s Rhine­hart, is that cof­fee beans can still be con­sumed well past their best-by date. Un­like some pro­duce and meats, old cof­fee beans don’t grow mold or be­come con­tam­i­nated with bac­te­ria, which could lead to ill­ness or even death. The beans may not even smell bad, un­less they were roasted so dark their sur­face oils have turned rancid.

In many gro­cery stores, cof­fee is more akin to dried legumes, Rhine­hart says. At su­per­mar­kets, con­sumers don’t ex­pect man­agers to toss, say, dried kid­ney beans that have been on the shelf for a year be­cause ev­ery­one knows those beans are still edi­ble when re­hy­drated, sea­soned and slowly cooked.

“That, in some sense, is the same with cof­fee,” Rhine­hart says. “There’s a marked dif­fer­ence in qual­ity between freshly roasted and four months old, but it won’t kill you. It’s con­sum­able. It will taste like cof­fee, prob­a­bly not great cof­fee.”

Some spe­cialty roast­ers, such as One Vil­lage Cof­fee, have de­vel­oped ways of work­ing within the Whole Foods sys­tem. The Soud­er­ton, Pa., roaster, for in­stance, has em­ploy­ees who man­u­ally fill each bag with ni­tro­gen, which flushes out most of the oxy­gen and ex­tends the shelf life of the cof­fee. Vic­to­ria Perez, direc­tor of sales and mar­ket­ing for One Vil­lage, says Whole Foods al­lows ni­tro­gen-flushed bags to re­main on the shelves for 120 days vs. 30 days for those with­out the gas.

Then again, One Vil­lage has the mo­ti­va­tion to find so­lu­tions. The com­pany has no re­tail stores or cafes of its own and re­lies ex­clu­sively on su­per­mar­kets for sales. “The gro­cery is our fo­cus, and it’s not the fo­cus of many spe­cialty roast­ers,” Perez says.

The Alexandria-based Swing’s Cof­fee also has found ways to work with Whole Foods that ben­e­fit the roaster. For starters, says owner Mark War­muth, Swing’s sells small quan­ti­ties to each of 20-plus Whole Foods stores that offer its cof­fee, “to make sure it’s turn­ing over.” The roaster will then con­duct in-store brew­ing demon­stra­tions two to three times a week to mar­ket its prod­ucts. And, lastly, Swing’s doesn’t push its sea­sonal, sin­gle-ori­gin cof­fees on Whole Foods, to bet­ter dif­fer­en­ti­ate it­self from the Al­le­gro prod­ucts. Some Wash­ing­to­ni­ans, af­ter all, may have a life­long re­la­tion­ship with Swing’s blends, some of which date back decades.

“We shy away from sin­gle-ori­gins,” War­muth says. “That’s in­ten­tional, just know­ing what the Al­le­gro brand is try­ing to rep­re­sent and what’s go­ing to move for us.”

No one seems to have a clue whether Ama­zon’s own­er­ship will change the cof­fee pro­gram at Whole Foods, even though the on­line be­he­moth is based in Seat­tle, the un­of­fi­cial cof­fee cap­i­tal of the United States. Polseno-Hens­ley of Red Rooster says he al­ready thinks Whole Foods is “al­ways try­ing to adapt to a chang­ing mar­ket in cof­fee,” while Vig­i­lante says it won’t mat­ter to him what Ama­zon does. He doesn’t plan to sell to gro­cery stores again. They can never treat his prod­uct as well as he does.

Rhine­hart says he hopes Ama­zon lets Al­le­gro, the Whole Foods sub­sidiary, fo­cus on what it does best: source, roast and pack­age great cof­fee. “They’ve un­der­uti­lized this in­cred­i­ble re­source that they’ve owned for all th­ese years,” he says. “They’ve never man­aged to cap­i­tal­ize on what could be the value of that.”

Beyond that, Rhine­hart says he hopes Ama­zon will im­prove fresh­ness in the cof­fee aisles at Whole Foods.

“Ama­zon is ex­traor­di­nar­ily good at dis­tri­bu­tion, and I don’t know if that will trans­late into some­thing very pos­i­tive for the con­sumer, a chance to use those dis­tri­bu­tion skills to move very good, very fresh cof­fee out very quickly,” Rhine­hart says. “Or whether cof­fee will not rise to the level of im­por­tance for Ama­zon that it should.”

“If you re­ally want to en­joy the cof­fee, buy it within a week of the roast, buy it lo­cally and drink it within a week. . . . There’s a marked dif­fer­ence in qual­ity between freshly roasted and four months old, but it won’t kill you.” Ric Rhine­hart, of the Spe­cialty Cof­fee As­so­ci­a­tion

GORAN KOSANOVIC FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

MARK KAUZLARICH/BLOOMBERG NEWS

A Whole Foods em­ployee makes a cof­fee drink for a cus­tomer at a cafe in­side a store in New York City.

AMANDA VOISARD FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Chris Vig­i­lante, owner of Vig­i­lante Cof­fee in Hy­attsville, says he stopped sell­ing to lo­cal Whole Foods stores af­ter he found some of his cof­fee on the shelves long af­ter it was roasted.

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