The Pioneer of the Specialty Coffee Business
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Oren Bloostein—a Long Island, New York, native—moved to New York City and found a job at Saks Fifth Avenue, working in corporate retail. It was 1979, Bloostein was 23, and he was completely miserable.
"I wanted to be somewhere where I didn't have to report to 15 people," he says. "I felt, for some reason—and I'm not sure why—that I thought I could do something on my own. Let's call it 'youthful optimism,' I guess."
Bloostein considered opening a franchise. Then he considered opening a dental supply business. But ultimately, his business idea came from the ground floor of his $300-per-month six-story walk-up on the Upper East Side: A one-man coffee shop.
In the mornings, Bloostein would grab two 10-ounce cups of coffee on his walk to work. During his transactions, he'd talk with the owner of the shop, trying to ply as much information out of him as possible.
"It was instrumental in my being in the coffee business," he says. "He was very nice to me and he offered to help. 'So long as you don't open across the street,' he told me."
Bloostein quit his job in 1984 and founded Oren's Daily Roast in 1986. With a $50,000 gift from his parents, $30,000 in personal savings, and a loan of $25,000, Bloostein opened his first location in a 400-square-foot shop at 1574 First Avenue on Manhattan's Upper East Side.
Twenty-five years later, Oren's Daily Roast is a near-$10 million business. It employs 88 workers throughout nine retail locations in Manhattan, as well as the company's coffee bean factory and corporate headquarters. Bloostein estimates the company serves about 6,000 cups of coffee per day, or over two million cups per year.
Back in the mid-1980's, when New Yorkers were just starting to get a taste for specialty coffee, Bloostein decided to do something different. After seeing an ad for a small roaster in Beverage Digest, a trade publication, Bloostein decided on a novel concept for his for coffee shop: Whereas most coffee shops roasted off-site, Oren's would right there in the back of the shop.
"Why would people come to me if I'm going to sell the same thing?" he says. "I needed something different."
Bloostein flew out to California where, he learned, one coffee shop owner was also roasting his own beans in the back of his shop. Because he was not perceived as a competitor, the man agreed to instruct Bloostein on the roaster—"Not so much trained me, as warned me," Bloostein recalls.
Back in New York, Bloostein would arrive at the shop at 3:30 a.m. to start roasting the coffee. He closed the store at 8 p.m. and was lucky to get out by 8:30 p.m. and be home in time "for a short nap" before the next day. It was grueling.
"There was nothing I didn't do," he says. "I was roaster, salesperson, manager, delivery person, repair guy, and barista. Everything."
Part of Bloostein's success and his ability to scale the business lies in his fanatical obsession with quality. He constantly reminds you of the quality of the coffee beans. The quality of the pastries. The quality of his customer service.
"It's like wine tasting, except you have to brew the coffee," he says. "I became pretty adept at what was good and what I didn't care for. I was pretty adamant about accepting only the best. The lengths to which we go to get that quality are strenuous."
He means that literally. Bloostein has traveled around the world—to Columbia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Kenya, to name a few—in search of partnerships that secure the best coffee beans.
These direct, personal relationships with farmers are what makes Oren's so unique. They're also necessary. Bloostein explains that in the coffee trade, both high and low prices are bad for the quality of coffee beans. When prices are low, farmers can't afford to cultivate prime beans. But when prices are high, and farmers are guaranteed a certain price point regardless of coffee, the quality suffers.
"I actually go to where its grown, and I find like-minded people who want to help the farmers makes more money," he says. "And one way they do that is to connect growers in touch with roasters."
The specialty coffee business in New York has changed considerably since 1986. Last year, The New York Times documented the explosion of young coffee up-starts, noting "more than 40 new cafes and coffee bars have joined a small, dedicated group of establishments where coffee making is treated like an art, or at least a high form of craft."
But Bloostein is calm about the new competition. "If they do coffee, it's good for me," he says. "If people get used to better coffee, there's a bigger market for me." And, reiterating what now seems like Oren's mantra: "It's just another reason to improve."