Coffee Talk: Family-owned W.B. Law Coffee tells how it stays one step ahead
Traveling around the world in search of the perfect coffee bean is just one part of David W. Mendez’s envious job description.
Mendez, the vice president and director of sales of the family-owned W.B. Law Coffee Co. in Newark, has made trips to Colombia, Brazil, Guatemala and Costa Rica, among other stops in Central and South America.
He’s now set his sights on a new market: Cuba.
But as is the case with all things involving the island nation, it’s complicated.
For starters, Mendez isn’t sure if he would export to or import coffee from Cuba.
“If and when the doors open up and our governments get on the same page, if we want to buy their coffee, there might not even be enough to ship here,” he said. “There’s not even enough coffee for domestic consumption there, so Cuba actually imports coffee from other countries just for their own people to drink.”
Toss in the nationalization of an agricultural industry, a strict coffee ration and the seemingly steadfast trade embargo, and you’d think Cuba would become a lost cause for W.B. Law Coffee.
But Mendez knows better than to give up.
That’s why Mendez thought it prudent to visit recently with the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture to discuss the possibilities.
He wonders: With some assistance, could Cuba dramatically grow its production?
“There are agricultural opportunities there — (but) they’re only producing a fraction of what they used to — are they addressing it? Are they planting more coffee?” Mendez said.
Those are the types of tough questions he and his father, David M. Mendez, are used to asking in their business every day.
It’s one of the reasons why the 106-year-old company continues to thrive.
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David M. Mendez — the elder Mendez — has seen the family business change with the times firsthand.
“If you had talked to me in 1978, I’d say to you, ‘We sell coffee and loan people machines,’” said the elder Mendez, who serves as CEO and president.
“Coffee, back then, was 98 percent of our sales. Now, fast-forward more than 30 years, and we’re a full-service business and consultant. We’re marketing; we’re branding; we’re doing it all.”
From roasting coffee in a barn in Dunellen to expanding distribution through the mid-Atlantic, W.B. Law Coffee has been out front on innovation.
But some might wonder whether providing café consulting, training and brand and store development services to fellow manufacturers and distributors might be too bold a move.
Not so, the elder Mendez said. With more than 2,500 customers and counting, W.B. Law Coffee is as profitable as ever.
“Everyone might not have the manufacturing capacity, but they still want to have their own brand,” the younger Mendez said.
This calculated shift toward collaboration is also indicative of the needs of the daily changing market, especially when it comes to younger demographics.
“Coffee has become much more specific, where people want to see its traceability, so as we’re building cafes, we’re teaching people more about coffee and bringing everyone’s game up,” the younger Mendez said.
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The elder Mendez knows his time at the top of the company is slowly reaching the finish line. But he has great confidence that the next generation will carry on.
In fact, he credits the company’s willingness to mix old and new for its success.
“We’re in a great position due to our combination of experience and youthful energy,” he said.
“Our company, being more than 106 years old, could’ve gotten tired — but our great group of young people here push me to take a harder look at what’s going on today.”
Sometimes, however, the trends of today are really the traditions of yesterday, as evidenced by the increased popularity of single-cup drip pour-overs that yield only one cup of coffee at a time.
“When I started dating my wife, this is how my father-in-law would make coffee — 40 years ago,” the elder Mendez said. “Now, people are lining up to pay $5 or $6 for one cup of coffee.”
Despite W.B. Law Coffee’s constant innovation and youthful spirit, the elder Mendez knows the future isn’t certain.
“You don’t get to the fourth generation without challenges,” he said. “So we brought in folks to work with us in terms of how we’re going to make that transition in about five years.”
Something about the younger Mendez’s charismatic dedication, however, makes that struggle seem implausible.
“You’re dealing with people who truly love their business and have their family’s name stamped on it — so we’re going to give you our all in everything,” he said.
True to Newark
David M. Mendez is loyal to New Jersey — but it’s only because his family-owned business, now more than a century old, has weathered the test of time.
“Newark is a great place to do business,” Mendez said. “But New Jersey isn’t for the weak. It’s a state that demands you to be the very best due to the competition here.”
It’s a market that Mendez said has demanded W.B. Law Coffee keep up with the changing times.
“We’re heavily invested in the infrastructure required to be competitive in this marketplace,” Mendez said. “You can’t survive here if you don’t pay attention to the changes you have to make to your business model.”
The biz in brief
Company: W.B. Law Coffee Co.
One More Thing: Beyond the different origins of coffee, there are also different ways to prepare it. “Turkish, Greek, Cuban, Italian — we’re experts, so we know how to prepare those coffees in many different ways,” David M. Mendez said. “We’re also going out on farms that don’t even have electricity sometimes, so we learn how people made coffee before fancy machines.”