One of the greatest benefits of being a “Next Gen-er” in the coffee business is rooted in the fact that we have so many colleagues who bring with them more experience and time in the industry than we can fathom! Everett Brown, Coffee Trader at Westfeldt Brothers, Inc. and Next Gen Communications Committee Member, had the opportunity to sit down with Charlie Cortellini, a 46-year industry veteran and the current Vice President of R&D and Food Safety at Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA.
Everett Brown: Do you mind explaining a bit about who you are and exactly what you do in the coffee industry?
Charlie Cortellini: As of September 7th, I will have been in the industry for 46 years. I started with Hills Bros. Coffee in quality control and have done everything there is to do in a manufacturing plant throughout those 46 years. At one point in time, I was running 7 plants for Nestle Beverage. I left Hills Bros. Coffee after they were acquired by Nestle and became Vice President of Operations at Chock Full o’Nuts. I then left there and became a part owner of a small gourmet coffee company called First Colony Coffee & Tea in Norfolk, VA. I ultimately left there and came back into a plant I built for Hills Bros. back in the 80s. It is now owned by Massimo Zanetti where I head up Quality Assurance, R&D, Purchasing, and Food Safety. I like to tell people I do everything that nobody else wants to do.
EB: You have family ties to the industry; your son Jason works in the industry. It seems as if the coffee industry is so big yet so small… What does the coffee industry being a “family business” mean to you?
CC: Just as an anecdote, I remember when my son, Jason Cortellini, was “Charlie’s Kid” and now I am referred to as “Jason’s Dad”.
You know, it’s funny because when I got into the coffee industry, I didn’t want to be in the coffee industry, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I was looking for a company that would pay for continued education. So, I got hired by Hills Brothers, and the deeper I got the more I realized how entrenched you get. I tell people it’s like the mafia. Once you’re in coffee, you’re in, and you never really get out.
But I think the greatest thing about the coffee business is the relationships. While it’s one of the most heavily traded commodities in the world, it’s a small industry. I’ve known people for 40-45 years and have built lasting relationships. It’s like a family, and you know, sometimes families fight.
EB: How do you see the industry changing for you specifically? For your position? For your age group? For the next gen?
CC: I like to tell people that it was my generation that gave way to the specialty coffee industry. When I started in coffee, the 16 oz. can of coffee was a decent product. Some of the blends that we used, like the 1/3 blend, was a palatable cup of coffee. Of course, you still had your 100% origin-specific coffees, but the main blended commercial coffees were a good cup of coffee.
I joined the industry before the first frost. After that frost hit, the large spike in coffee prices was the first time people really started to meddle with the product. They were adding higher percentages of Robusta, higher moisture coffees, and reducing the packaging size from 16 oz to 11-13 oz servings. Companies tried to get more out of less coffee. I think that this led to the birth of the specialty coffee industry.
I do believe that back then and today are similar in that people want to get a higher-end product. Customers are willing to pay more for better quality. The way to win today is by putting out something better than just your standard commercial coffees. If you’re growing your business on a low-quality product, then you’re building it on quicksand.
EB: In terms of opportunities for next gen members, do you see any markets growing or have any forecast for what trends could be big job growth markets next?
CC: I have a son in the industry and when he was starting, I was pushing him more into the commodity and finance side of the business. In addition to Jason, my son-in-law also just started in a commodities-related role at MZB.
If I am talking to a youngster about getting into the business, you want to have a strong finance/business base. To me, the commodity side of this business is the biggest growth sector of this industry. Where can we go with it? What can we do with blends? How can you get creative and put new coffees together? I am probably the crazy uncle that nobody wants to talk to about this, but I think Robusta has a place in this business that needs to be explored further. There is the potential for growth there that we need to pay attention to.
I think jobs are already and will continue to be created to look at yield, to improve water quality, to become less at the mercy of the weather, to produce a more disease-resistant product, and the list goes on. So, in addition to the finance and commodity side, I think the R&D-related agricultural side of the business will also see big job growth.
EB: The National Coffee Association obviously has a large impact on the industry. What are some interactions you’ve had with the NCA and what are some resources you think people might not know about that could be helpful?
CC: The Scientific Advisory Council is one area that everyone doesn’t truly appreciate and understand. I’ve known Mark (Corey) for a long time and the work they are doing is amazing. I think the NCA has even greater potential to share all the work that the Scientific Advisory Council is doing to develop and research new ways to change the industry.
The NCA has been a great resource for me. Going to an NCA event is like going to a high school reunion. The events are amazing and a great way to reconnect with old friends and network with new ones.
EB: Did you ever have a mentor in your career?
CC: Did I ever have a mentor? Probably hundreds of them. And I think the best mentors for me were the ones I met on a plant floor. It’s amazing how willing people were to teach and train me because I was willing to shut up and listen. A lot of what I know today is because I was trained, not by management people at my job, but by union and non-union workers showing me how everything works and what to do in a roasting plant.
A now retired George Kneisel was another person that, when he talked, I shut up and listened. He taught me so much about the green coffee side of the industry.
And then, down to origin, meeting producers and listening to them and what their plight is and what they go through had a tremendous impact.
EB: I want to end on a lighthearted note… I’m sure you travel a lot. Any wild stories from origin worth sharing? If not, can you share about your favorite origin country to visit and explain why?
CC: There was one trip that stands out in particular as I traveled to Colombia with my son; that experience was a bit more personal than others and carried a lot of meaning for me.
That being said, I will tell you the truth, I have enjoyed every single one of my origin trips. Some of them were nightmares due to weather and logistics, but to me, they all stand out in retrospect as great trips. Being able to be at origin, talking with farmers, and hearing their passion, has always been a true pleasure.
For those of you who don’t already know Charlie, we encourage you to seek him out at the next NCA event to meet him yourself! The coffee industry, particularly those of us developing our careers within the Next Gen segment, are fortunate to have Charlie and his wisdom and experience to look towards for guidance.
And for those of you who do already know Charlie, you are likely aware of how he always has a quote at the bottom of his email signature. As if this interview didn’t capture Charlie’s persona already, his current quote from Will Rogers certainly does: “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”