Things looked grim for New Orleans in the first weeks after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, with large areas of the city still flooded and virtually all of its residents displaced. But amid the city’s agony, a harbinger of future normalcy and an affirmation of one of the city’s enduring economic strengths quietly arrived at the Port of New Orleans.
Around sunset on Sept. 13, 2005, the Lykes Flyer container ship became the first vessel to call on the port after Katrina. Its cargo was primarily coffee beans – the raw material for a deeply rooted ritual of daily New Orleans life and the commodity fueling an important local industry.
While Louisiana is better known for its abundant local seafood and fine Creole cooking, coffee is also a major culinary pillar and has a special place on the local palate. Part of the explanation for this fascination comes from the long and rich history coffee has had here. The confluence of French and Spanish culture in the city’s early colonial days may have helped nourish a healthy coffee habit among residents but, more than anything else, the proximity to Latin American coffee growers and the access provided by the bustling port ensured that massive amounts of coffee beans would flow through New Orleans.
The average New Orleanian may not be aware of the port’s role in fostering the coffee industry, nor of the long history of some of the local companies in the business, but Jesyka Bartlett, a fourth generation member of the family that runs French Market Coffee, says there’s no doubt locals have a particularly strong love for the drink.
“It may be that most residents have a greater sense of the tradition of coffee in their family kitchens or after their favorite meals dining out than of the business that helped build those traditions,” says Bartlett.
French Market Coffee has been in business since 1890, and is still located in the Central Business District along what has long been the coffee corridor of local roasters, importers and other related firms. Among its various products is the traditional New Orleans coffee with chicory blend. Like many another New Orleans flavor, this one has a heritage and a history behind it.
In the mid-19th century, Brazil was the primary coffee supplier to America and by 1861, at the start of the Civil War, some 18 million pounds of Brazilian coffee passed through New Orleans, according to research by John McGill of the Historic New Orleans Collection. The following year, after the city fell to Union forces, those imports shriveled up to nothing and by 1864, had crept back up to a paltry 14,700 pounds.
Chicory, the roasted, ground endive root, had long been used as an additive in coffee but, faced with the sudden scarcity of imported beans, New Orleanians embraced chicory as never before to stretch their meager stocks. They could grow chicory locally and the blend provided a compelling flavor enhancement, adding mellow undertones and smooth texture to the coffee.
Despite the wartime interruption, New Orleans’ geographic position as the gateway to the huge American continental markets ensured that the industry would soon rebound and grow much larger in the years to come. While locals continued to drink their coffee with chicory and other blends, vast quantities of beans traveled through the Crescent City to consumers nationwide. In 1917, a report from the Hibernia Bank (later Hibernia National Bank, now merged into Capital One Bank) pegged New Orleans coffee imports at 396 million pounds. By 1966, some 523 million pounds had landed in New Orleans, making up one-third of the port’s total imports, according to McGill’s research.
Today, the Port of New Orleans reports there are more than 5.5 million square feet of storage space devoted to coffee in the city and six roasting facilities within a 20-mile radius of its docks. One company alone, Dupuy Storage & Forwarding Corp., has approximately one million square feet of coffee warehousing space and another company, Silocaf, operates the world’s largest coffee processing plant from eastern New Orleans. Meanwhile, Westfeldt Brothers, Inc., established in New Orleans in 1851, remains the oldest green coffee importer in the U.S., and today specializes in providing coffee to independent roasters across the nation.
The scale and tradition of the coffee trade here continues to inspire entrepreneurs to take a new approach to the business of getting people their daily cup of Joe.
“When you want to start a business you look around at the raw materials and at the opportunities you have. New Orleans being such a huge coffee port, it makes sense to be in the coffee business here,” says Adrian Simpson, marketing director for New Orleans Coffee Co.
This Mid-City-based company produces Cool Brew, a coffee concentrate created by New Orleans pharmacist Philip McCrory using a cold-brewing process to remove bitterness and acidity from the coffee. Consumers mix small amounts of the concentrate with water or milk to make hot or iced coffee. New Orleans Ice Cream Co., a separate firm started by Simpson and business partner Alan Dugas after Katrina, even uses Cool Brew to rev up its Coffee & Chicory flavor of ice cream.
The heady aroma of traditional coffee roasters at work is a familiar scent in the mornings in many New Orleans neighborhoods and the culture of the coffeehouse appears to be as strong as ever.
In Faubourg St. John, for instance, the Fair Grinds Coffee House gave away free coffee for more than a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina as the flood-damaged business was slowly rebuilt. In the process, owners Elizabeth and Robert Thompson gave their returning neighbors a place to come together and enjoy a small but symbolic ritual from pre-Katrina life. The shop is back to business-as-usual now and each morning locals queue up for coffee with chicory, café au lait and a daily dose of potable New Orleans heritage.