Third-Generation Coffee Maker Leaps Back Into the Grind
Java Jive: “I love coffee, I love tea / I love the java jive and it loves me.” The Ink Spots version of that song was still spinning on 1945 juke boxes when Frank Neate opened a coffee roasting plant and wholesaling operation at 1070 Mainland Street. His target market was Vancouver citizens and returning Second World War military personnel long deprived of their fresh, aromatic jolts of Joe.
By 1990, Neate’s Coffee’s 12 employees were selling 500,000 pounds of coffee annually at $5 a pound when Frank’s son John sold the firm to the global Nestle concern for some $2.5 million.
Last month, third-generation John Neate, 50, returned to Yaletown — not to roast coffee but to serve modern versions of what the Java Jive’s lyrics called “a slug from the wonderful mug.” The Davie-and-Homer Street locale is the sixth branch of the JJ Bean House of Coffee chain. That’s the outfit Neate developed in 1996 after acquiring a city-based firm called The Coffee Roaster and opening a 200 square-foot retail outlet on Granville Island.
JJ Bean - www.jjbeancoffee.com - is still a dwarf beside industry leaders like Starbucks. So is the $8 million revenue it should report for fiscal 2007 after eight years of double-digit growth since it merged with the Torrefazione Coloiera concern Giuseppe Coloiera founded on Commercial Drive in 1971.
But if its target is Seattle-based, globally homogenized Starbucks, JJ Bean’s marketing methodology is strictly local. Neate’s direction to Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects staffer Brady Dunlop was to adapt neighbourhood characteristics to his designs. That’s why the newest outlet’s red-glass inner wall, white tiles, gorilla-vinyl seats and bamboo and travertine flooring echo Yaletown condo showroom themes, while a cantilevered seven-metre table and coffee-counter structure incorporate recycled century-old lumber.
For JJ Bean’s Main-at-14th outlet, which occupies a former bank building, Dunlop and Neate picked such family-oriented motifs as oak paneling, brick, shag rugs and a slate-hearthed fireplace to hint at 1950s rec rooms.
“Having everything different isn’t the smartest thing when you’re growing a business,” Neate says. “But I don’t want to be seen as a large corporate chain with cookie-cutter locations. We want to respect the neighbourhoods we go to, knowing that every one has different expectations.”
Cambie Street, Broadway-off-Granville and Kitsilano are likely next. “But you have to respond to opportunities when they come,” Neate says.
The firm’s name is close enough to retailer L.L. Bean’s for Alliance church member Neate to legally swear never to sell clothing.
As for his childhood nickname, JJ, that was adopted when he was planning the company in a Seattle liquor bar and asked “some good-looking women what they thought about JJ Bean Coffee. Eight said they’d heard of it, and one said she’d tasted it, and it was very good.”
But Neate’s $200,000 in cash was far short of the $1.2 million he needed in 1996 to buy the million-dollar-a-year The Coffee Roaster. So he and wife Melanie mortgaged their North Vancouver and Whistler homes for $600,000, rented the latter, took in daycare and long-stay students, and “did not much of anything but work for two years.”
Earlier, he’d disclosed his plans to Nestle Canada president Keith Conklin and VP Steve Taylor, for whom “I worked faithfully for six years and had grown their business a lot.” Neate signed a three-year non-compete agreement. But when Conklin and Taylor figured The Coffee Roaster deal would break Neate, they offered a six-month extension to his six-figure contract. “They really saw my heart, and they trusted me,” Neate says.
The result, as the Mills Brothers sang in Java Jive: “I cut a rug till I’m snug in a jug.”