March 11, 2010

Many pour in a storm

BETH QUIMBY

— By

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John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Monday, May,11, 2009. Coffee by Design roaster Dylan Hardman roasts coffee beans at the shop in Portland today.

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John Patriquin/ Staff Photographer: Monday, May,11, 2009. Jeremy Pelkey (on right) owner of Bard Coffee serves Honnie Goode a shaker at the shop in Portland today.

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Jeremy Pelkey raised a few eyebrows when he opened a new specialty coffee shop in the Old Port last month.

Starting a business in the depths of an economic recession may appear to be an unwise financial move. Opening a coffee shop in the Old Port, where coffee sellers are already plentiful, might seem even riskier.

But five weeks after Bard Coffee opened across the street from a Starbucks, business is going well, Pelkey said.

''We have a ton of regulars,'' he said. ''We haven't moved backward yet.''

Bard Coffee is the newest player in a local coffee scene that appears to be thriving, despite the recent demise of one local chain.

Owners say the national battles between McDonald's, Starbucks and other chains have helped raise awareness about the simple pleasure of a cup of coffee.

''We have had steady sales growth month over month since November,'' said Christen Graham, who co-owns Maine Roasters Coffee shops in Falmouth and Yarmouth.

Cathy Walsh, co-owner of Arabica in the Old Port, said moving her coffee shop a couple of doors down Free Street to larger, more visible quarters last fall has helped boost sales. She said her 14-year-old business had always counted on the office workers in the surrounding business district, but now the shop is pulling in tourists.

''Coffee is one of those things that almost everyone drinks,'' Walsh said. ''There is room for a lot of coffee shops.''

And most coffee drinkers will not give up their daily cup or cups, despite a gloomy economy.

The National Coffee Association of USA's annual survey found the percentage of Americans drinking coffee has remained steady at 54 percent this year. Although out-of-home coffee preparation is down 6 percent from last year, at-home coffee preparation is up 5 percent.

McDonald's Corp. is taking aim at the market this month with its new line of McCafe espresso-based drinks and a national marketing campaign. Starbucks Corp. is fighting back with its own campaign and an iced-coffee promotion.

Coffee brewers and roasters, even those who own other chains, say such battles are good for business.

''It makes everyone more aware of the products,'' said Danny Bouzianis, who owns two Dunkin' Donuts in the Old Port and another shop in Biddeford.

Bouzianis said the demand at his shops has remained strong.

Not every coffee shop has survived the economic downtown, though. Westbrook-based Freaky Bean, which had been on a fast growth track after it opened in 2006, filed for bankruptcy last month and shut down the last of its shops, which once numbered a half-dozen.

Maine Roasters, which sold its business to Freaky Bean in 2007, repossessed its local shops in November when Freaky Bean defaulted on payments. Industry watchers say Freaky Bean's fate might have been a case of trying to grow too quickly.

''Everyone is trying to compete on every level because the general public is not going out as often, so when they do go out, everyone is trying to get them,'' said Jane McLaughlin, co-owner of Carpe Diem Coffee Roasting Co. in North Berwick.

Her 15-year-old business roasts 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of coffee a week for restaurants, hotels and coffee shops across Maine.

Mary Allen Lindemann, co-owner of Coffee by Design, a chain of four coffee shops in Portland and Freeport, said business is on an upward trend. The company is roasting about 7,500 pounds of coffee a week, picking up new accounts and renovating its Washington Avenue location to provide more space for customer education. New entrants to the market say they have to carve out a niche. Isabelle Julien, who opened Mornings in Paris on Exchange Street in the Old Port last winter, is wooing customers who want the experience of a French cafe.

A native of France, Julien said she has owned businesses before, but never a coffee shop. She said she is pleased with how it's going, although the winter was slow.

''I am looking forward to summer with the better weather,'' Julien said.

Some coffee drinkers welcome new players to the local scene. John Shoos said he makes a point of spreading his business between the shops that are an easy walk from his Exchange Street office in the Old Port.

''Each one has different atmosphere and a different taste,'' Shoos said.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

bquimby@pressherald.com

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