There have been many a day that I wished I had an IV of caffeine. A simple jolt to get me through the rest of my crazy day. Over the past – almost – two years of juggling a pandemic, hurricanes, work from home and more, we’re sure many have had this same thought (maybe more about vodka, but that’s not where our story leads). Every Oct. 1, the world celebrates this liquid gold, as it is International Coffee Day. New Orleans is filled with delicious, local coffee makers and purveyors and one of those at the top of his game is Felton Jones, Jr. Jones is the roastmaster and coffee buyer for PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans. Having learned under owner Phyllis Jordan and achieving roastmaster status in 2003, Jones truly treats coffee as a passion and work of art. This month, we catch up with the roastmaster to talk coffee, PJ’s and more.
Q: Who is Felton Jones? I’m a born and raised New Orleanian. I went to St. Augustine High School and was a member of the Marching 100, which were some fun times. I went to college at Xavier University and a few years into that, coffee just fell into my lap. It was supposed to be a part-time job for me, and I had no idea that it was going to afford me the opportunities to learn and grow the way that it did. And I lost interest in my pursuit of engineering, gained more interested in pursuit of learning more about coffee. Phyllis Jordan founded the company – wonderful lady to work with, I spoke with her yesterday and called her “mother” and she just cracked up because I always say I consider as my coffee mom. She took me under her wing and taught me everything that she could, you know, feed into me, even when I didn’t realize I was sort of in the making of becoming this. The rest was history. It’s just a matter of, I enjoyed it. It was interesting. Here I am 26 years later, and still learning. And I think that’s what really makes it interesting.
Q: How did you wind up in your current role as roastmaster and buyer for PJ’s? To get into the current position was really time and education. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. But there’s a lot of intricacies to coffee. It won’t all come to you at one time. For me, my start was in production. I spent enough time learning the do’s and don’ts and the how-tos, but I think that it really took off for me when I when I took over as the delivery driver. I consider myself as a people person, so interacting with our customers, whether it be our cafes or outside customers, it really resonated with me. I recognized through that process how much people really love this brand, product and what we did, and everybody knew Phyllis, everybody was so familiar with her, so it was really something that made you feel good about being connected with the company. I stayed with it, but I had a brief time away from the company with Phyllis’ blessing. It was an opportunity to go and learn more in depth about coffee beyond what the world of PJ’s, but when I did that and she said, “You know, I want you to do this, I want you to go and take that opportunity with the understanding that when we have a place to bring you back here, bring that knowledge that you would actually be willing to do”. So, I did. And then it was at that time, I came back in the capacity of warehouse manager and quality control. From that point, I think I recognized that with Phyllis retiring, and my predecessor recently passing away, Scott Reed (a very big icon in the coffee industry), that this whole PJ’s thing was in my lap, in my hands. I was good with that. I didn’t recognize what I was taking on at the time. And I’m kind of glad that I didn’t recognize the magnitude of it. Because it just all kind of happened organically. And then my colleagues, ownership, management, all started to really look to me and trust me with making the decisions on coffee and knowing everything that we needed to know, to know that we were doing the right things. And I relied heavily on everything that Phyllis instilled in me, knowing that she was there for me in the event that I needed to talk with her or consult with her. I think it made it easy for me. It was really all organic, to be honest.
Q: What exactly is a roastmaster? My job entails sourcing coffee for the company. I deal with the futures market, the commodities market. Coffee is so tremendous in size. As far as an industry, most people don’t have any idea it’s the second largest industry, commodity industry second only to oil. It’s a big, big industry. That’s a big part of the job. That’s an important part. And that can sometimes be a pressure part of the job for me. I make the decisions on how coffee needs to be roasted, ensuring quality and consistency, overseeing the warehouse. Everything that happens in the warehouse falls under my command and I’ve got a great team that helps make me look good in that aspect. But from a roastmaster’s perspective, obviously tasting coffee, understanding coffee, relationship building with importers and farmers. We do have two farms that we’ve adopted – one is in Honduras and one is in Nicaragua. For safety reasons, I’ve not visited the Nicaragua farm yet. That farm is owned by a Nicaraguan native and it was his family’s farm, but he happens to reside in New Orleans. So, that makes it pretty easy. As far as our Honduran farm, I have made it a point to visit that farm twice a year for the last five years, not including last year, obviously. And then for the company, there’s a tremendous aspect that has to do with the marketing side. I consider myself a big part of the marketing team, as well as our sales force in that way. I would tell anyone, I’m not a sales guy. I don’t like sales. I’m not good at sales, but they make it easy for me. They usually bring me to the table after they’ve made the introductions, and then I can just come in and talk about who we are and what we do and what sets us apart. And I do enjoy that part.
Q: Can you tell us how you came to partner with those farms and farmers? It’s very interesting, both of these guys are successful guys doing well for themselves. One resides in Atlanta, that’s the owner of the Honduran farm. And then the other resides here in New Orleans. But both of these guys have fantastic stories; they grew up on these farms, and then, over the years, one of the toughest things for farming families is to keep that going to maintain that for generation after generation. And of course, you always run the risk of generations losing interest in it. Both of these guys have a familiar kind of situation where their families were either on the verge of giving up the farm or maybe losing the farm. Because they were here in America and doing well enough for themselves, they both saw a bit to go back and get themselves back in line with the farm and ultimately take over the farms. Both farms needed a lot of work, and they put in that work. It’s easy to be in those origins and grow coffee. But there’s no certainty on having buyers for that coffee. A lot of times, you’re putting in a lot of work and a lot of effort and you might have to really struggle to get a sale for your harvest. With our commitment and our involvement, that allowed these guys to feel extremely comfortable, and putting that work in knowing that there was a return that they would get from it. And then that’s paid dividends for us, because as we continue to grow as a brand, that ensures that these guys are positioned to make sure that their forms can continue to grow with us. I think that our commitment also gives them a sense of security in that, you know, hey, as long as they continue to provide us the quality that we’re looking for, they know will come back year after year. Even for the people that live in work on the farm, the way that their lives have changed with that certainty has, has really been a big positive effect. Unfortunately, we can’t really figure out a way to tell that story to have the average PJ’s customer really understand it and take interest in it. But it just makes us feel good that we’re doing the right things for the right reasons. And although we’d benefit from it, the fact that we’re changing so many lives and improving lives outweighs any benefits that we get.
Q: Did the coffee industry see any impact from COVID-19 over the past year? We saw both positive and negative impacts. Obviously, the negative impacts had everything to do with food service. When restaurants and hotels were at their lowest point, obviously, you know, coffee not being the only thing, anything that these guys were dealing with what was really taking the hit from that aspect. From the perspective of daily tasks of what we’re here to do every day, we were deemed as essential. Obviously, everybody has to have their coffee. So from a from a roasting and manufacturing perspective, we never shut down. We did exceptionally well with not having any COVID-19 outbreaks within the facility. But all in all, what we learned was the same thing that I’m sure you’ve experienced personally, as we all have. Our lives have changed in how we shop, our usage of dot-com has really elevated to a whole different level. Some people now that things have kind of opened up going back to some of their old habits, but they retain those other habits. We saw multiple increase in our online business. I would say that was a huge thing for us and then grocery because although people were not really getting out during the year, groceries as well got very, very smart about home delivery, curbside pickup and that sort of thing. It was really, really helpful to us to absorb some of what we lost on the food service side, and to see the increase in the direct-to-consumer side.
What is your favorite PJs coffee or blend? Columbia. If I’m feeling like a medium roast or like a dark roast, I gotta go with our PJs French roast. And that’s 100% direct trade coffee with our farm. It’s not just because of the relationship, It’s a great coffee.
What drink are you ordering at PJs? I am ordering a velvet ice with old milk and whipped cream. And more specifically, this is kind of a somber time of year for me, because my favorite velvet ice is the wedding cake velvet ice. So, we’re tapering off from that, but I got a little secret. Yeah, it’s great to be in the Roastmaster, because you can kind of figure out ways to get things that are not necessarily on the menu.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Little Felton wanted to fly airplanes. I was intrigued when I would see military jets and all. Right up into high school, I had actually contemplated on joining the Air Force just because I had this fancy for getting up there and finding out what it feels like to have that much power in your hands.