Passion for a cup of joe makes success percolate at Law Coffee
In 1909, Walter B. Law hitched a horse to a wagon and traveled house to house with the coffee he roasted in his family barn and his favorite marketing tool: a pill crusher.
“Walter was really a door-to-door salesman,” said David M. Mendez, Walter’s grandson-in-law and president and CEO of Law Coffee Co. “He would go around to people and he would take some coffee beans and a coffee crusher — a mortar and pestle — and people would smell it and he would sell door to door that way.”
But Law had not always been churning out coffee in his family barn. He originally started out as a tea broker on Wall Street.
With the help of his father George, Law kept his dream alive and continued to make his coffee from Shadowbrook, the family home in Dunellen, later branching out into a wholesale business and selling his coffees and teas to markets and restaurants throughout New Jersey.
As Law worked to keep the company afloat through the Great Depression, Walter’s sons, Robert, Warren and Stanley, came on board to help their father roast and pack the coffees and teas.
“I remember from talking to my father-in-law, I remember him talking about his father Walter and how he withstood the Great Depression,” Mendez said. “There were years he wasn’t getting money out of the company. People learned how to get by with much less because that’s the way it was during the Depression.
“He would talk about how people would go into a diner with their own piece of bread and go over and put some ketchup on the bread and just get a cup of coffee for a nickel because that’s all they had. I guess he learned to tighten his belt and to make do with what he had.”
When the U.S. entered World War II, the three brothers chose to join the Navy and went off to war. Just one returned.
“His sons being killed — that had an effect on the business,” Mendez said. “When I go back and think about it, how often did people talk about it? Well, not much. Just that Robert and Stanley — well, one had been at sea and one was in the Pacific killed by a kamikaze pilot.”
Warren Law, the lone son to return from war, took the helm of the business, moved the company to Newark and expanded distribution throughout New Jersey and New York.
He later brought his son-in-law into the company along with his own son, Robert, and the team soon expanded its area of distribution throughout the mid-Atlantic states and into New England.
Law continued to expand — corporate contracts with Exxon proved to be a substantial boon — and the company opened two locations in Newark, three warehouses in the New York metropolitan area and a distribution center in Maryland.
“I will say to you in my 40 years here, we’ve had economic recessions or downturns and the fact is for the coffee industry we were always able to work our way through any type of downturn,” Mendez said. “But the Great Recession in 2007 — that really was an eye-opening scenario. Our company volume was really affected; volume was down 15 percent. We were adding more customers but everyone was buying less product. I know everyone talks that the economy has returned but a lot of Main Street America is still learning how to get by. Taking your business and actually growing it — it’s a tough nut.”
Mendez’s son, David W. Mendez, joined the business in 2004 and as vice president is leading the company into its second century.
Both father and son credit an unlikely entity for transforming the business of coffee.
“Coffee has become cool again thanks to Starbucks,” David W. said. “Even though they are a competitor, they’ve been a tremendous thing for the growth of the overall industry. A lot more industries as well as banking institutions have gotten their hands in the coffee industry.”
The elder Mendez concurs.
“I will agree that Starbucks opened up people’s eyes,” he said. “When we were selling a pound of coffee, customers were so much more sensitive to the cost of what a pound of coffee was — if you raised the coffee nickel a pound, it was like you were taking their first-born child. All of a sudden other people started to recognize that the consumer — because they actually taste the product — now they’ll actually be willing to pay a little bit more for that product if the quality is there.”
The company has been busy in recent years up grading facilities, installing new software and hardware, and building a cold-brew facility. Cold-brew coffee, a more recent endeavor for the company, has also brought increased food safety regulations to the forefront.
“The Food Safety Modernization Act was the first major update to food safety law in 70 years,” David W. said of legislation signed into law in 2011 by President Barack Obama. “That was one of the things we’ve really had to focus on over the last couple years. It kind of separated the people that are here for the long term versus those people that are there in the short term who kind of just sold their companies out.
“I think certainly with the lack of regulations so many years ago it was probably much easier to start a business. It’s been more difficult for people through the years with the complication of food safety and level of competition.”
But Law Coffee has managed to thrive, in part because of the company’s adherence to old-fashioned values like high standards and customer relationships while embracing the new and improved.
“I think back years ago to what my grandfather always said: ‘If you make a great cup of coffee, people will want to buy from you,’” David W. said. “To some extent that’s true, but now people want the story behind the coffee. We’ve had to become very fluid and understand the business has changed — we can’t just continue to do things a certain way. There has to be passion behind your coffee; if you’re taking the time to do all of those things, the passion kind of resonates. Practice makes perfect — we’ve been doing it for 109 years.”
Although David W. will soon take the helm of the company, his father isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
“I love the coffee business so I want to be somehow involved in it,” Mendez said. “I certainly know and love the business enough that I don’t want to be away from it. This is a business that always felt right for me. There’s something that my father-in-law always told me — if you really love what you do then the hardest thing a salesman does every day is get out of bed. If you love what you do, getting out of bed is the hardest thing you do all day long.”
David W. seconds that.
“Our job is to drink coffee and to talk to people all day long,” he said. “It’s a dream job.”