Gourmet Coffee Fans Savor a Staten Island Blend
STATEN ISLAND — Amid the old steel works and looming warehouses beside the Bayonne Bridge, there's a heady aroma of roasting coffee that seems out of place.
Fans of gourmet beans might head to Park Slope and Williamsburg, but searching Staten Island for single-origin, organic Honduran produce has never been considered productive.
But, unknown to all but the most clued-in shoppers, a tiny roaster has been producing high-quality beans for years in Mariners Harbor.
Unique Coffee Roasters, the only roaster on the island, was started by James Ferrara, 50, in his garage in Staten Island in 1995.
At that time, Ferrara had to drive his green beans into Brooklyn to roast them. Then he'd drive them home, grind and bag them, then do it all over again.
Eventually, he bought his own roaster and moved to a building on Richmond Terrace. In late 2000, he moved to Unique's current spot down the road.
His son, Joseph Ferrara, 24, started working at the roaster in high school, sweeping floors before moving on to bagging and roasting. He eventually became the vice president when he graduated from Wagner College.
"I knew from the 8th grade that I wanted to do coffee," he said.
"I've been around this business all my life. It's something that engulfed me."
Unique Coffee typically roasts 8,000 to 12,000 pounds of coffee during an eight-hour shift. They bag it by hand, then sell it from their website and in 4,000 retail stores around the country, including Stop & Shop, T.J. Maxx, Bed Bath and Beyond, Marshalls and Homegoods.
Their beans can also be bought from 350 stores in Canada, 17 countries in Scandinavia and recently Korea and China.
In addition to coffee under the Unique label, the roaster grinds private-label java for several supermarkets and gourmet shops in Manhattan. They also sell coffee to several local shops, including Royal Crown Bakery in South Beach and Pasticceria Bruno in West Brighton.
And while business has been steadily growing, the rising price of coffee beans have made it increasingly difficult for the company.
"Coffee prices went up dramatically last year," Ferrara said. "When coffee prices go up, it's hard to raise your prices."
He said prices have gotten better recently, but they can change daily.
"Nobody knows what tomorrow's going to bring," Ferrara said. "It's a gamble when you buy coffee. It's like the stock market."
Also, recent competition from companies in Brooklyn has made it harder for the family-run company to break into certain cafes in places like Williamsburg.
"It's difficult to convince some of these cafes [to use our coffee]," said Ferrara.
Even with the rough market, Ferrara is still confident in his company's coffee and roasting methods.
"We can make coffee consistently, roast it consistently, and brew it consistently," he said.
"That's what separates us from those companies."
Unique uses computerized and automatic roasters.
When creating their first batch of a new blend (a mixture of beans from different countries) or single-origin (beans from one country) they will roast manually to create the recipe, and then punch it into a computer program to get a similar roast every time.
Ferrara said that it's important for Unique to keep their prices low and keep coffee affordable. He said Unique is able to sell its beans at an average of $10 cheaper than other specialty roasters.
"We keep our prices down, and it's not really by using cheap coffee," he said. "We use all good coffees, there's no junk down there."
Despite a tough year, online sales are booming. They're growing 45 percent annually, with the company fulfilling several hundred orders weekly. Each sale is roasted, ground and bagged to order.
"Everything is made to order and everything is packaged by hand," Ferrara said. "There is not one bag we take off the shelf."
The company is percolating plans to open up its own cafe, in Brooklyn or Manhattan, within the next couple of years.
While Ferrara said he loves Staten Island and plans to live there for the rest of his life, they looked to Brooklyn and Manhattan because the borough doesn't have a big enough market for gourmet coffee.
"There's a lot of Dunkin Donuts drinkers here," he said.