Coffee goes upscale at work

Margaret Cellucci's workday just doesn't start unless it's with a steamy, rich cup of quality java -- emphasis on quality.

And for years, the last place she'd look for that was the coffee pot at her office, the Transplant Resource Center of Maryland in Baltimore.

"That," she said incredulously, was coffee "that those who don't drink coffee thought was coffee."

Sludge is actually how she describes it, a substance that sprung forth from a dastardly foil package, dumped unceremoniously into a behemoth percolator and then left to sit and stew for the rest of the day.

But that coffee service got canceled one fine day. And Cellucci, the company's manager of public relations, saw a window of fresh-roasted opportunity. She arranged for Key Coffee Co. in Baltimore, something of a boutique bean provider, to come to the office to preach the gospel of quality to the center's higher-ups.

Though Key Coffee was more expensive per pound, Cellucci said they decided to buy something the staff actually would drink rather than something cheaper they ultimately would flush down the drain.

Foil packets shunned

Once upon a time, an office like Cellucci's would have mindlessly sipped whatever dreary brew they found at the workplace kitchenette, blissfully unaware of double lattes or Arabian mocha javas or grande nonfat caramel whatevers.

No more.

What with a Starbucks Corp. outlet on nearly every corner, Americans now know better. Literally. They'd rather stop for something on the way to work than drink office swill. Rather than walking down the hall to fill their mug, they're cutting out midday to walk -- or even drive -- for something more palatable.

At the Transplant Resource Center, the foil packets are but a memory.

"Everyone was so happy -- it was like a black cloud lifted over the office," Cellucci said. Key now delivers beans to the office once a week, beans that are ground fresh each morning to become coffee that the staff of 60 really appreciates.

"I swear," Cellucci said, "they were all but kissing the coffee pot."

Designer beans catch on

This newfound coffee elitism has some workplaces stepping up to the challenge by offering employees upscale blends from Starbucks or Seattle's Best Co., supplanting old standards like Maxwell House and Folgers. The designer beans can cost an office that would pay $50 to $100 a month for regular coffee anywhere from $200 to $300.

And high-end roasters are noticing interest from the corporate world, a potential client base they wouldn't have even considered approaching just a few years ago.

"The impact of the specialty industry is spilling over to the office market," said Ted Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America in Long Beach, Calif. "I can see very definitely that this trend is coming -- it's quite significant."

In the 1960s, Lingle said, companies made a point of bringing in good coffee. It was the industry heyday for coffee services, which businesses hired to upgrade the office coffee -- hoping it would keep workers at their desks -- thereby increasing productivity.

All was good until the suppliers begin to cut the quality to raise profits. They put less coffee and poorer-quality coffee into the packets used to brew a typical 12-cup pot. That, according to Lingle, "produced a very thin, insipid kind of beverage.

"The office managers thought saving money was a good idea," he added, "but the people who were supposed to drink it thought it was lousy."

Evolving tastes

Because there were not many alternatives, and most people didn't know the difference, weak office coffee, until recently, was the industry standard. Actually, it probably still is the standard -- but at quite a few offices around the country, the daily grind is taking on a whole new meaning.

Joe Malebranche, owner of The Coffee Guys, a Westminster-based subsidiary of Maryland Coffee Service Inc., guesses that 15 percent of his corporate clients are now springing for Starbucks, the most high-end brand he carries.

"It has changed dramatically over the last couple of years," he said. "Taste has changed, and the expectation of customers has changed also."

But putting the good stuff in employees' cups can mean a few hundred dollars more a month out of the company's wallet, Malebranche said -- which is what's stopping even more firms from doing it.

For instance, Aileen McHugh said she and the rest of the electronic publishing staff at Johns Hopkins University Press in Baltimore would love good coffee in the office to spare them the never-ending treks to nearby Donna's. But considering that the staff chips in $7 each a month for the so-so brew they have, it's not going to happen.

"We're tight-strapped," she lamented.

'There's no going back'

Baltimore's Java Journey Coffee Roasting Co., according to its general manager Carla Bravo, is at "the upper end of the coffee realm," a realm the average company is not ready to enter. Though most of Java Journey's exclusive, fair-trade blends wind up in mugs at restaurants and bars in the Maryland, Washington, Virginia areas, Bravo delivers them to a smattering of offices.

Still, she said, quality is hardly the first thing on an office manager's mind when it comes to ordering coffee. And the fair-trade question isn't even in the picture. Price, she said, is the solitary consideration.

"Money's tight," she said matter-of-factly. "On a Ford or a Chrysler budget, who's going to listen if the staff says, 'Give me a Cadillac?' "

David Key, Key Coffee's owner, has one thing to say to that: Go for the Cadillac or don't bother driving. He can't stand when someone refers to his gourmet stock and trade as "product."

"If someone calls my coffee 'product,' " he said, "I don't talk to them anymore."

In Key's opinion, there's no point in coffee if the beans aren't freshly ground. Even if an office buys upscale coffee, he said, it probably will taste generic because it's been stored for eons in a foil packet.

Many Key Coffee clients agree. They're investing in pricey grinders to wring every drop of freshness from their beans -- beans that Key gets to them within a day or so of roasting.

The whir of a grinder and the aroma of upscale brew are now part of the morning buzz at the Baltimore architectural firm Ayers/Saint/Gross. Office Manager Melissa Lynch said that since the company switched to the premium coffee, consumption is up and that many of the people that used to stop at a nearby coffeehouse before work are waiting to instead drink the office bounty.

"Everyone's tried the good stuff," Lynch said. "And once you get a taste of the good stuff, there's no going back. ... There would be a revolt if we went back to the foil bags."