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Something Smells Rotten in New York City

Our Specialties editor and Specialty Coffee white night, Donald Schoenholt’s company, Gillies Coffee Co., was recently cited by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for smelling like coffee. Gillies roasts coffee in Brooklyn, New York in an industrial area set among printing plants, auto body shops and a sign making shop.

Last June, a New York City inspector issued him a summons for polluting the air around his plant. The problem: “Offensive coffee odors.” The potential fine: $400. Effects within the industry: Mind boggling and immeasurable.

Don is fighting the unjust violation and appeared in court this past December. The roasting pioneer is being threatened by the very city Gillies has called home for 162 years. But the DEP said it had little choice but to issue the violation, after receiving several complaints from a nearby resident. “Once it has been established that your are a polluter either through conviction or because you admit guilt by paying a fine,” Donald said, “you are on the slippery slope. It’s only a matter of time before you’re forced to move your business from New York City.”

In 1991, Donald re-located his business from Manhattan to Brooklyn in a city program that assisted businesses moving into the outer boroughs of New York City. The area, zoned for business, favors business establishments over residential housing and if there are any problems, the business’s interest will be more heavily weighed.

Don testified before the Court that his company has never violated a law in the past 162 years and that his company was among the first roasters to install smoke control equipment back in 1953. This is not a smokestack issue; Gillies had ceased roasting operations over 24 hours before the inspector’s visit.

The inspector, who had no formal training in identifying or measuring odors by an objective scale, testified that when he went to the complainant’s residence, he smelled coffee. He met with Don, walked through the roasting facility and observed the machinery turned off; however, he still stated that he smelled coffee and thus issued a violation.

Evidence from the National Weather Service showed that the wind that day was blowing at 18-30 knots (translation: windy day) from the north shore of Long Island toward the south Jersey shore. Gillies was downwind of whatever it was that the complainant and the inspector smelled.

Producing countries’ governments, competitors, and coffee producers have rallied around Don. Oren’s Daily Roast collected thousands of signatures on in-store petitions stating coffee is a pleasant smell, but letters and pleas for help sent to the Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s office have been unanswered.

Don sighs as he tells me the problem lies in badly written city regulations. The regulation is so general, vague and subjective that a heavily-perfumed woman whose fragrance might overpower those people standing nearby is in violation of this regulation.

In 1995, New York City effectively put Cooper’s Coffee Bar out of business. Donald, and the entire coffee industry, will hear the verdict in a few weeks when the Environmental Control Board of New York City will determine, yet again, if coffee is an offensive odor. Tough little Gillies vows to appeal if defeated in the city court.

The important question for the trade is if the City continues to categorize coffee aroma as a violation under its clean air regulations, will New York City’s 15, or so, roasters have to find homes outside the five boroughs? What about the jobs and tax revenues that are generated in New York by coffee related businesses? Where will they go? And what will the city do without a ready supply of fresh beans from some of the very best roasters in the land. The larger question is what are the implications for the trade globally should other municipalities follow New York’s strange ideas about air pollution and coffee.

Don’s frustrated and rightly so. He says Gillies Coffee smells fine, it’s NYC DEP that smells rotten.

Jane McCabe
Editor & Co-Publisher


Tea & Coffee - January/February, 2003

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