Coffee Bean Direct may sell one of the world's oldest commodities, but it's been using the newest of channels to make its name in the business.
The formula has helped power its perennial growth in recent years — especially during the recession — and, in 2009, it helped launch the company into the stratosphere of online retail. That was when Amazon came calling, asking to sell Coffee Bean Direct products though its online grocery service.
“It felt to me like a vote of confidence that we got their attention,” said Greg Shefler, the company's vice president. “We've been growing very well with them every single year since we've been doing this.”
Coffee Bean Direct now offers more than 100 coffee varieties and 70 types of tea, a far cry from its earliest days. CEO Andrew Esserman hatched the idea more than 10 years ago as an offshoot of his existing coffee business, where Shefler, then a graduate student, worked as a part-time packer.
The two launched the business soon thereafter, even with the risks involved. At the time, the public's wounds were still fresh from the dot-com bubble.
“This is the grand experiment because we didn't know if it was going to work,” Shefler said. “I think we got in when people were just beginning to trust the Internet again, so we hit the right wave at the right time.”
The team owes much of that success to its ability to keep its operations in-house, he said. That includes everything from roasting, blending and packing to administration, Web design and customer service.
The setup has helped Coffee Bean Direct be a flexible operation and handle its sometimes-unpredictable growth. While tactics such as Google AdWords have helped build sales systematically, the company has seen random bursts at times — such as around 2006, when a health fad linked to one of its tea varieties caused sales to skyrocket, driving “our biggest growth spurt to that point.”
And there were no signs of slowing down during the recession, when Shefler believes “people still wanted that gourmet coffee … (but) were looking for alternatives to their giant Starbucks bill every month.” Its revenue grew nearly 25 percent from 2007 to 2008 — only to shoot up by another 125 percent from 2008 to 2012.
These days, its Amazon sales account for “probably the fastest growing part of our business,” Shefler said. The company has also turned its focus toward building a distinct identity for its tea line, known as Tattle Tea, in part by launching a separate website late last year.
Meantime, Coffee Bean Direct is quickly outgrowing its facility in Hunterdon County, where it moved in 2008 from its original home in Jackson, he said. Finding new space and adding staff are key goals in the near term as Shefler and Esserman look to “make sure we stay ahead of our growth curve as it is.”
Another goal — investing in technology — is far more challenging and complex for the e-commerce company. The investment hinges largely on software, a critical asset to support “the sheer amounts of data” the company handles and the “liability — legal and moral — of looking out for your customers' information.”
“Software is probably as important, if not more important, than any amount of machinery you could have in the warehouse,” Shefler said.”
E-mail to: By Joshua Burd
On Twitter: @JoshBurdNJ