Café Olé: How Counter Culture Took Over D.C. Coffee
On a recent Friday morning, Bryan Duggan is asking the dozen or so people assembled in front of him what they think the grounds of an Ecuadorian roast smell like.
Self-professed coffee philistines and scruffy, plaid-bedecked twentysomethings I recognize as baristas at Filter Coffeehouse and Big Bear Café offer up “tamarind,” “sweet potatoes,” and “moss” to describe the coffee, dubbed El Gavilan. The weirder the descriptor, the more pleased Duggan seems.
We are in the light-filled, Ikea-furnished Counter Culture training center in Adams Morgan, where Duggan and his fellow customer service representative, Alex Brown, run free “cuppings” every week. Tiny clipboards with sheets of paper to mark down tasting notes have been distributed, and Duggan and Brown explain the various ways to understand coffee: the fragrance and aroma of the grounds, as well as the flavor, body, and aftertaste of the brew.
Don’t be fooled by the local address: Counter Culture’s headquarters are way out of town in Durham, N.C. Yet given the dearth of local roasters to compete with, the company has become the District’s dominant upscale coffee distributor.
A cursory examination of Counter Culture’s business model helps explains why: As long as a shop sells Counter Culture coffee exclusively, the company will provide that place with extra service—at no extra charge. Want your baristas trained in espresso-making and milk-frothing? How about your espresso machines installed or serviced? What about a course instilling staffers with the all-important fair-trade, single-origin, organic ethos? Sell Counter Culture, and only Counter Culture, and you get all that for free.
For so-called third-place businesses like cafés and coffee shops that encourage hanging out rather than rapid customer turnover, that package deal seems like a smart business decision. Rather than taking the time to close shop and train staff, operators can ship their charges off to Counter Culture for classes like “Beginner Espresso Lab” and “Brewing Science.”
For the customer, however, Counter Culture’s vast reach engenders a monochromatic coffee scene where two of every three cups from specialty java joints in the District taste the same. Even if you’re avoiding Starbucks, chances are you’re still supporting caffeine hegemony with every skinny latte you drink.
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Counter Culture, which first entered the D.C. market in 2004 with a single account at the now-defunct Murky Coffee, supplies beans to at least 25 different cafés and restaurants in the city. Its clients include tiny indie shops, such as Peregrine Espresso and Big Bear, the Tryst-Diner-Open City triumvirate, and a number of big-name D.C. restaurants like Komi, Zaytinya, and Rogue 24.
In D.C.’s tight-knit café society, the company’s tentacles run especially deep. Peregrine owner Ryan Jensen, for instance, is also a former Counter Culture customer service representative. Jensen describes the company’s sales strategy as seductive—and, ultimately, matrimonial. “The way we set up our approach is much like a marriage,” says Jensen. “By being faithful to them, we get certain benefits. There are very clear discounts that you get if you purchase a certain amount per week. The more any of their accounts buy from them, you can get more savings. That adds up pretty quickly.” Jensen points to 2-percent discounts on orders between 30 and 100 pounds and 7 percent off those over 100; he estimates that Peregrine’s two locations go through about 500 pounds of coffee per week.
And just like a love affair, the initial wooing comes easy. “I knew the whole deal, the way they do their training and their service,” says Mike Visser, proprietor of Mount Pleasant’s Flying Fish Coffee & Tea. Before opening his own shop last year, Visser worked at Tryst, a Counter Culture client, as well as Baked & Wired, which served the same beans before switching purveyors about two years ago. “Machines are expensive, training people is expensive,” Visser says. “If you want it in a nutshell, it’s good coffee and it’s an unbeatable relationship, like, ‘We’ll service your machine for free if you serve our coffee.’ It was easy enough as a starting point because I knew what they offered from the help side.”
And again like a marriage, the structure of the client-supplier relationship promotes dependency and makes breaking up difficult. “I would always love to bring something else in when I’m better off down the road financially,” says Visser. “I’ve considered bringing in other local roasters, but that voids the warranty.”
Full disclosure: I, too, once worked in a Counter Culture shop—Annapolis’ Hard Bean Coffee & Books. But I never loved the coffee (I find it a bit sour and watery) and, since moving to D.C., have actively sought out shops that serve other beans. This exercise has made me notice just how extensively Counter Culture has saturated the local market. And I’m not alone.
“D.C. has an interesting relationship with Counter Culture. It’s kind of bad in a couple of different ways,” says Jonathan Riethmaier, who blogs about the city’s coffee culture at District Bean. “Some of the coffee shops here wouldn’t be where they are without Counter Culture. To some degree, the level of consumership wouldn’t be where it is without Counter Culture because of their commitment to training and education. ”
The flip side: “If you’re someone that loves coffee and going to different cafés, do you really want to go to the coffee shop on the corner and have their featured coffee of the month, and go to the next one and have their featured coffee, and have it be the same coffee?” says Reithmaier. “That’s the kind of risk you run, that you see a lot of the same coffee in different shops.”
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As widespread as Counter Culture coffee might seem, there are alternatives. You just have to look for them.
There’s M.E. Swings, the 80-year-old roaster downtown. Qualia Coffee in Petworth also roasts its own. Illy, an Italian coffee purveyor, has a shop in Foggy Bottom and now supplies the recently opened Lot 38 near Nationals Park. Local start-up Vigilante Coffee Co. sells beans at Eastern Market and distributes to Smith Commons and Granville Moore’s.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to Counter Culture’s D.C. dominance could come from Ceremony, the rebranded roasting arm of Annapolis’ Caffé Pronto, which offers an exclusive contract that’s comparable in its perks to Counter Culture’s. Ceremony’s roasting operation is 225 miles closer to D.C. than Counter Culture’s Durham headquarters. There’s no training center here yet, but owner Vincent Iatesta says he’s considering it. In the meantime, Ceremony staffers travel to the D.C. area to train baristas at places like Filter and Restaurant Eve.
Ask the guys at Counter Culture about rivals encroaching on their turf and you’ll hear all about the benefits of competition—a position easily espoused by the dominant player in any industry. “If a coffee roaster comes here, and it’s good quality, it’s just going to push the bar up,” says Brown.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
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