Coffee’s contribution is not peanuts
Established in 1742, the little town of Suffolk, Virginia served as a port along the Nansemond River in Virginia’s Tidewater region, eventually becoming a hub for railroad transportation. An Italian immigrant put Suffolk on the food production map, establishing the Planters Nut and Chocolate Company in 1912. A Peanut Queen is still crowned at the annual peanut festival.
These days, Suffolk has a newer claim to fame in the food industry. Home to several large coffee roasters including Massimo, Zanetti USA, Keurig Green Mountain, J.M. Smucker — and soon — Peets Coffee, Suffolk has become the most caffeinated city east of the Mississippi. The coffee industry has built out a cluster of related activities that generate significant employment and revenue for the people of Suffolk.
A deep commitment to Virginia coffee
Until the 1960s New York City was the undisputed home to the coffee industry. Since then, coffee has been imported through a variety of ports on the East Coast and elsewhere throughout the country, including the ports of New Orleans, Houston, Los Angeles and, of course, Seattle which is the home of Starbucks.
How did Suffolk become a coffee epicenter for the East Coast? Location and maritime advantage. Suffolk is 30 miles west of the Port of Virginia, which was the first to accept the much larger neo-Panamax ships transiting the expanded Panama Canal beginning in 2016. Port of Virginia has embarked on a $700 million expansion project of its own. By 2025, it will have a 55-foot channel depth, making it the deepest port on the East Coast, and will be able to handle an additional one million cargo containers at two of its terminals.
Centrally located on the eastern seaboard, Port of Virginia is capable of serving the major population centers east of the Mississippi. The ports of Baltimore, Savannah, Charleston and Virginia together now account for about one-third of all the green (unroasted) coffee imported into the United States. Suffolk is conveniently located to all of them.
Roasting the competition
Suffolk’s rise to roasting prominence started with one company – Hills Bros, now Massimo Zanetti. Once Hill Bros moved to Suffolk from New Jersey, others began to see its merits as an East Coast base. Building on the foundation of early investment by Lipton, which built its first plant there in 1955, the region is now the third-largest coffee and tea cluster in the country.
The City of Suffolk, together with the Virginia Economic Development Program, welcomed the industry with large industrial sites close to Port of Virginia and collaborated to have three coffee warehouse companies licensed by the International Coffee Exchange (ICE). Only beans stored under very particular, climate-controlled conditions can be certified for trading on ICE’s commodities exchange.
To ensure the people of Suffolk could move into value-added jobs in the coffee industry, local educational institutions, such as Paul D. Cook Community College in Suffolk, developed training programs tailored to the industry’s needs offering new credentials such as an Industrial Technology and Electronic Controls certification.
The companies offer interesting career paths. “Cuppers” are specialized technicians who test beans for quality and taste the beans after roasting, grading their suitability and characteristics for blending. Nora Johnson came to Suffolk to work as an intern with Massimo Zanetti in 2016 as a Florida Gulf Coast University student. Upon graduating, she joined Massimo Zanetti full-time as a Commodities Analyst, analyzing customer positions on the coffee futures market and has become involved in the company’s sustainability and responsible sourcing initiatives.
Toast the roast
The coffee industry contributes approximately 10 percent of Suffolk’s gross regional product directly, and another 13 percent through indirect and induced effects. The Port of Virginia started a new annual celebration, “Coffee Day,” so everyone can toast the roast and celebrate the opportunities trade brings to the region.
Evelyn Suarez is a legal expert and consultant specializing in customs compliance and anti-corruption. Ms. Suarez serves on the Virginia Maritime Association Board, and advisory boards to the George Washington University Center for International Business Education & Research and Georgetown University Law Center International Trade Update.