Coffee connoisseur Bob Williams is expanding Willoughby’s, the roasting company he founded with Barry Levine in 1985 in Branford, Conn., into a fourth store in the Jeffrey Loria Center for the History of Art on York Street, next to the Paul Rudolph Art & Architecture Building. The News spoke with Williams about the business, the expansion and what it takes to make great coffee.
Q: Is this the beginning of a larger expansion?
A: We are not interested in becoming a mega-chain. That said, if the right location comes along we would seriously consider it. The [Loria Center] is a perfect example of such a location.
Q: How does Willoughby’s compete with the likes of, say, Starbucks?
A: We have a lot of respect for Starbucks. They have been very good for the specialty coffee industry by encouraging the public to look for quality. We don’t consider them competition — they compete with Dunkin’ Donuts.
Q: If not Starbucks, with whom do you compete?
A: Outside of Connecticut we are known as a roasting company, not as a beverage retailer. We compete with about a dozen or so other premium roasting companies on the national level. Large chains can’t match the quality of roasting in small lots.
Q: How do you select your coffee beans?
A: Willoughby’s coffee is made from beans grown all over the world. We get samples from about 50 or 60 lots and systematically roast and blind-cup them at our Branford location. It takes us about six days to whittle it down to the three or four we will highlight that season.
Q: What are the customers like at your store near Timothy Dwight College on Whitney and Grove? Will you cater to the same clientele on York Street?
A: Our customers are really a cross-section of the New Haven population. We get professionals, Yale affiliates and residents. At the [York Street] location we are trying to attract more students.
Q: How will it be different?
A: It is a much smaller space. If you go into any of our stores now, you will see container after container of beans. It will be a challenge to stay true to what we have created in our other locations.
Q: You operate an extensive roasting division. Which is closer to the core of your business: roasting or retail?
A: We think of ourselves first and foremost as a roasting company — that is how we started in 1985. We do the majority of our business through the mail-order, phone-order and wholesale of roasted coffee beans.
Q: What are the key factors that determine the quality of a cup of coffee?
A: The first is selection; you need to select good beans. Secondly, you have to roast the beans in the proper fashion. Every bean has its own ideal roasting method. Roasting is so important because it develops the flavor and aromatics that we all associate with coffee. Lastly, you need freshness; roasted coffee is perishable. In our stores, we deliver freshly roasted coffee beans about twice a week. We take great care in all of these things — guaranteeing you a great tasting cup every day of the week.