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Characters in Coffee

Characters in Coffee

Peter Longo's Porto Rico inherits New York
By Julie Beals

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PORTO RICO COFFEE IMPORTERS
201 BLEECKER STREET
NEW YORK, N.Y.

One-hundred years ago, there were a dozen or more stores in New York’s Greenwich Village selling whole-bean coffee, tea and spices. The neighborhood was thoroughly Italian then, housing a concentrated contingent of espresso drinkers. They had brought their European provisioning sensibilities to New York, going one place for olive oil, another for bread and another for their weekly half-pound of coffee. But as rents rose, consolidation occurred, and the Italian families moved away. Today, Porto Rico Importing is the Village’s last standing coffee and tea store. The Longo family bought it in 1965, when current owner Peter Longo was 10 years old. He remembers riding in the car and his father telling him they were on their way to buy a coffee store, upon which he asked, “Can I work there, too?”

Cut to 1973. After attending college in rural Illinois, Longo, who by his own account was then a wild man, came home to run the family business. “I had hair down to my waist, and I was friendly with tourists,” he says. But long before, his parents had him involved, leaving him in charge when they would go on vacation. Gradually, he capitulated to the idea of taking over.

Today, there are three Porto Rico stores in Manhattan and one in Chicago (under the name Coffee and Tea Exchange), but the Village location is the oldest. It remains as it was: a coffee shop in the truest sense. There is no espresso machine front and center to perform the final act of the seed-to-cup play, but the one in the back offers a fine pull, if you need it. Here, the theater lies in presentation of product: beans from every coffee-growing continent and most of its countries are piled waist-high in canvas bags that take up much of the floor space, while tea tins and wares line the wall. Employees plunge giant scoops into your bag of choice and transfer orders to the counter, where the grand finale is played out on an antique scale.

Groups of tourists come in from time to time, some even wanting a picture taken with Longo. “I do advertise, but it’s mostly word of mouth,” he says. It’s not a touristy place, but it has been here long enough as an icon of quality—and Greenwich Village life—that it has made a far-reaching name for itself. Porto Rico has grown markedly in an era of brazen entrepreneurialism, where cafés and roasteries spring up as legions of caffeine lovers ditch first careers for a life dedicated to their daily fix. Says Longo, “We’re not a café, although we do service them. We’ve kept our focus, which is why we continue to do well.”

The pedigree of stores like this lie in a unique combination of factors that contribute to their success. The layout works in few areas of the country—dense urban neighborhoods with plenty of foot traffic. And at Porto Rico, the mail order and wholesale arms support the terrific advertising that is the storefronts.

Having grown up in coffee, Longo’s eye for the business is innate. “You meet people who’ve had a calling to get into the business,” says Eric Bass, co-owner of Sound Provisions in Seattle. “Peter’s perspective has more depth because he didn’t come at it from another place.”

Longo and his two older sisters were raised in an apartment above the shop. Their mother is still up there. “She was an integral part of the business, a pioneer in developing flavors and a constant presence around the store,” says Longo. He credits his father for his personality (“We banged heads a little, but we could walk down the street arm in arm”) and his mother for his marketing sense: “She started putting Sambuca in coffee, and orange peel and cinnamon. Suits would show up at the store, checking out what we were doing, and then it would show up in mass retail. We didn’t invent flavored coffee, but we helped it catch on.”

Longo’s personal contribution to trend setting may include his insistence on having a roaster in the Chicago store, rather than taking the simpler route of roasting everything in New York. “He saw that fresh coffee, and roasting it where customers could see it, would be the wave of the future,” says Stephen Siefer, Longo’s college roommate and business partner of 32 years. “This was at a time when people would come into the store and see coffee in barrels and say, ‘What is that?’ It didn’t register that it was coffee—the gourmet market was that new. He has the ability to see these things and put them into play. Even though half the time I’m saying, ‘You’re wacky, Longo,’ it works.”

People must relate to Longo’s brand of wackiness. He’s a surprisingly relaxed character, a picture of pastoral serenity on an urban island of cultured chaos. His stocky, teddy-bear build, generous moustache and warm brown eyes frame an affable accessibility that almost belie a lithe comportment and strong convictions that bubble toward the surface, influencing those around him. “He knows how to zing you when you need it, and he knows when to be quiet,” says Siefer.

And he did, after all, talk Siefer into pooling their student loan money to open the Chicago store. “This was the early ’70s, so we were dreamers,” says Siefer. But who would go in on such a risk with just any classmate? “Peter is a very vibrant character. He has an ability to see things that are going to happen. And of course he’s in the Village, seeing the trends before they reach the rest of the country.”

“We’re like husband and wife,” says Longo of he and Siefer’s partnership. He grew up in the business with a few others, too—people like Karen and David Gordon of Coffee Holding Company, a green supplier to Porto Rico. Karen attests to Longo’s foresight. “He always knows when it is time to bring on something new,” she says. “With the boom of organic and fair trade, Peter was right there. And now, with things like Rainforest Alliance gaining popularity, he is right there. … He appreciates quality and is not afraid to try anything. I’ll say, ‘Peter, I have this great new coffee,’ and he’ll say, ‘Send it on over.’”

Porto Rico has shockingly reasonable whole-bean prices for the Village, Chicago or anywhere. It helps that Longo owns the building. “If we didn’t, our rent here would be $15,000 a month,” he says.

But he doesn’t believe in making money by the pound, hand over fist. Longo used to play a sort of game with Saul Zabar, of the famous Zabar’s gourmet epicurean emporium. “If I was $4.99 [a pound], his coffee was $4.98. It’s a wacky thing, a New York thing. He’s an excellent retailer—he wrote the book on it. And he can be quite competitive. And cranky.”

Then in August, Longo raised his prices $1 per pound to cover increasing insurance and operating expenses. “It had been eight years since we’d raised prices. At the time, I was still two cents below Saul, but I bit the bullet, and now he’s a buck more than me!”

Retailing is one thing, but when it comes to wholesale accounts and mail-order customers, it may be Longo who wrote the book. “He recognizes it as a business,” says Bass. “So many food industries—wine, micro-brewed beers—it’s all about the science, the quality, and Peter can come at a coffee professional and say, ‘You can sell this coffee all day long, but how are you going to maintain the business, keep your costs in line?’” Bass counts conversations like these among his greatest exchanges with Longo. “Once, [Peter] said, ‘Oh, you actually want to talk about the business of coffee, not about the quality, but how to land accounts and how to maintain them.’ Of all the people I’ve met in coffee—and there have been hundreds—he was the first who didn’t need to lead with quality, because that was already implied.”

So, quality aside, what is Longo’s philosophy? “I hate to say it, but it’s customer service,” he says. “They always get a live person on the line here, someone who knows them. I’m very strict with my staff. I want them to treat customers like they want to be treated. To work hard and embrace these tenets, that’s part of the deal.”

The mail-order business was implemented for customers who were moving away, and it grew as word spread. Longo doesn’t buy lists. “People come in, see the store, have a nice experience, take a brochure, go back to Iowa, and we get a call three weeks later,” he says. “Then they get a little package from Greenwich Village with little bags in it that smell good, with a handwritten note, and the price is right.”

Between buying green, roasting, payroll and payables, Longo too answers phones. He offers a story about an irate customer who hadn’t received a package, calling the tracking number “a lie,” etc. “After 40 minutes on the phone with her, she was telling me her life story—her marriages and kids. She was lonely. Being patient is what it comes down to.”

Local wholesale customers attest to his hands-on approach. Ben Borgognone, owner of Buttercooky Bakery and Café (and a “crazy-man baker, bent on perfection, who loves me even though I’m scatterbrained,” says Longo), has been a Porto Rico customer for 12 years. Of a recent coffee tasting Longo conducted at one Buttercooky location, Borgognone says, “I tell you, the people loved him, and my staff loved working with him. And even as big as he is, he came personally,” says Borgognone. “He’s an all-around grounded person.”

“Peter seems highly involved in all aspects of his business,” says Jason Scherr, managing member of Think Coffee. “From procuring green coffee, to roasting, to distribution, to us, if I need anything, I’m often speaking with Peter himself to get it taken care of.

Greg Northrop, co-owner of Mud Truck LLC (which sells coffee from none other than mud trucks), has been a Porto Rico wholesale customer since 2000. “Peter is incredibly busy,” says Northrop. “The quality of our blends has never faltered, and I can’t believe he’s so hands-on after all these years. I give him a lot of credit for that.” Northrop vouches that Longo personally services his accounts, and each with equal energy. “Even if I wasn’t selling the amount of poundage I am right now, I think my relationship with him would be the same as a guy just starting up. There are people who come to me who are thinking about getting into the business and I refer them to Peter, and he always takes the time with them.”

Longo takes care of—and protects—his customers. George Fiala, who owns a direct mail business, computerized Porto Rico’s mail order and wholesale systems, which 20 years ago was a pretty new idea. Fiala says, “My favorite request of Peter’s—and he made lots—was to have a ‘secret screen’ available only by password, and only for people who would even know to look for it, which would reveal the custom blends he created for different restaurants. That taught me the honor of business, in which one knows a lot about his customers who are competitors, but keeps mum.”
It could be said that Longo treats wholesale accounts like his own business. “He’s always thinking of something, like iced coffees, chais, giving us ideas on what might work,” says Borgognone. “We’ve had a lot of success with his ideas.”

Though the list of Longo fans is long, he is quick to diffuse the praise onto the cast of characters that makes up his retail, wholesale, roasting and shipping staff. He attracts those who appreciate hard work in a relaxed environment, and they tend to stick around, with several department heads that have been with him a decade or more. “They are very good filters. I try to hire people smarter than myself,” he says.

Says Kate Reilly, who heads up retail operations, “If you are going to have real people who are not following a corporate model but living a real life, with parent-teacher meetings, you make it work. And then sometimes there are phones ringing at 5 o’clock, so you stay and answer them.”

“This business is a growing, live entity. You can’t starve it,” says Longo. “It tells you what it needs. That’s my job, to see the overall picture. I ask the staff to respond to that, and they do. They make me look good.”

And they’ve made it work without putting a four-foot-wide, three-ring binder on the shelf, filled with company policies. “Our culture is word of mouth, and consistent,” says Longo, and he credits Reilly with the tender heart. “She bends over backwards for her staff, and they love her for it. And she can therefore expect the same of them.”

I wonder if there would be more turnover if they didn’t take such good care of each other. “Yeah, you try to,” says Longo. “It’s a business, but there’s much more that makes it very rich.”

Jessica Caraballo has worked at the Bleecker store for several years. “I had a baby three years ago, and I came back,” she says. “It’s so family oriented, and I like that it’s a small company. Peter’s great. I’m sure he’s made you laugh a lot already.”

Longo is funny, often because he doesn’t shy away from exposing the fault line within. Occasionally erupting into streaks of self-deprecation or neighborhood gossip, he says, “I try to be secretive, and my wife laughs. I’m such a talker. So unmanly.” And sentimental. In the back of the Bleecker store, perhaps 50 photographs hang above his desk. “Here’s me out drinking with Stephen in Chicago. Here are my boys, Matthew and Peter. Oh my, they’re bigger now. And as they get older, their smells change. Teenage boys sweat and don’t use soap. It’s not a natural instinct for them.”

Longo’s older son, Peter, is 15. I ask if the next generation will take over the business. “I’m trying to work that out,” says Longo. “Peter [Jr.] works behind the counter, and he likes it here, and he’s very good with customers.”

“He’s a little wacky, just like his dad, and it works out well,” says Reilly. “People love seeing the generational thing happen. Real old timers watched Peter [Sr.] take over, saying, ‘Oh, Peter, he’s not so little anymore.’” At 55, he’s still known as the Longo boy. Proving the point, a spirited older woman approaches the shop. “I’m a big customer, Peter. Help me up,” she says. Longo takes her hand and guides her over the threshold, offering that his own mother is 95, to which she replies, “Well, I’m only 91, sonny.”

There is a modern history lesson here, as seen through the doors of a Village coffee store. Longo studied sociology and education in college, and he’s living it out beyond the classroom. He has seen generations pass through his stores, from hippies to punks to dot-com kids, all of which have been reflected in his staff. “Kids come here to go to college and work in our store, and they burst into flames, and it’s great. They might be shy and sheltered, and after six months they may get a tattoo or an earring, but they’re good, hard-working kids.”

Local Villagers, too, inquire about employment for their sons and daughters. “We do a lot of that,” says Longo. “It’s good for us, good for the neighborhood because they can feel a little bit free.” An extension of parental oversight for college kids inevitably bent on experimenting. “They start dating, and we have to say, ‘Be careful, do what you’re gonna do, but remember your mother asked me to hire you, so behave.’” Of course, Longo sees a bit of his former self in his staff. “Not too long ago, I was 18. “What happened?” he says. “It’s just a shock, I have to tell you. I turned around and here I am.”

Longo’s life as a whirlwind is unsurprising, having gone from one store with a loyal following and a few wholesale accounts, to four stores and nearly 500 wholesale accounts, with a mail-order business that has grown 20-fold. Yet taken over a few decades, the expansion has been organic, with Longo sagely tempering it. “Our growth is slow, but our momentum is great,” he says. “I get to spend the time I need with my wife and children. We all have lives, but we work hard, and we don’t have to wear ties. I sometimes say we’re existing in a gossamer bubble. This is like Porto Rico Fantasy Land, so as long as we can do it, we will. It’s working. We don’t need to have five stores. A few good stores are all we need.”

“He could have taken his franchise and expanded it exponentially,” says Fiala. “He has chosen to refine his business using incremental growth that provided a comfortable living while at the same time keeping his style to that of a craftsman. Mass production is not his style.”

Speaking of production, just over the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn is the warehouse, where the full scope of Porto Rico comes into view. From here, merchandise is trucked to the retail stores and wholesale accounts every afternoon, based on their daily inventory reports. Mail orders are packed and go out early the following morning. Green coffee is moved from the docks to the warehouse on a weekly basis, where Longo and Roberto Raez roast it.

It’s an operation that brings Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory to mind. For starters, there is the key component to business success in New York: efficient use of real estate. Tight spaces with machinery, tubing and conveyors are everywhere, with bags of green coffee and outgoing orders wedged neatly in between. And everything is in motion, primarily the 11 employees—15 during annual spring and fall sales— who get it all done in a day’s work. The mood among them is upbeat, and they make no secret of their dedication to Longo. “When I hit 50, I came out to unload a trailer with them and they shooed me away,” he says. “Very sweet of them.”

As if this weren’t enough, Longo is opening a coffee school this spring to train his staff and select others. Curriculum will include a crash-course primer (covering origins, roasts, brewing, handling and storage, producing and processing, decaf chemistry and processes, organic issues and organizations, and fair trade) as well as green selection, sample roasting and cupping, brewing and chemistry, espresso blending and roasting, and espresso drink preparation. “You’ll be able to cup coffee with a palatable memory,” says Longo. “It’s how I was trained, and it’s not magic. You sit down and taste a Colombian Supremo until you know what it tastes like. And you do it over and over again. We’re like monkeys that way. And that’s why our coffee is so good.”

Longo has a desk at the warehouse too, where he does payables alongside his wife, Kathryn, who handles receivables. “Kathryn’s been with us since last spring, now that the kids are older. She has her own domain, though there is a common energy. And of course, we lunch together.”

“I like it because it’s kind of quiet, behind the scenes,” says Kathryn. “Some couples try to be in the same place, but they bring their egos with them. I’m not interested in being Mrs. Porto Rico. He’s Mr. Porto Rico, and we’re all happy.”

So maybe the theater isn’t really theater at all. It’s hard work and enthusiasm and loyalty to customers and coworkers. It’s in the bearing of everyone who works at Porto Rico. They’re part of the fiber of New York and the business, and they know it. From Longo to his department heads, to the lifers and part-timers, there lies an artist’s malleability and a star student’s discipline.

In the same way that mountainsides in Central America produce some of the richest flavors to fill a coffee cup, and a Makibari Estate Darjeeling captures the aroma of India, the universe has conspired to make 201 Bleecker Street a microcosm that turns out exceptional coffees and teas—with the bonuses of uncommon ethos and steady evolution. “If you have the time, it’s the best way to do business,” says Longo. “I have people call and say we’re going to open two stores right away, and they don’t feel they have time to waste. Here, we’ve been able to evolve. We’re lucky in that regard. And I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Comments on this article may be sent to comments@freshcup.com.

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