Gourmet coffee comes with all manner of cheery hyphenates: fresh-roasted; fair-trade; shade-grown; single-origin; but horse-drawn? That’s how Gotham’s coffee company superstar Dallis Bros. started out nearly a century ago. From true New York mercantile roots, Abe and Morris Dallis loaded carts with the rarefied beans that would caffeinate a city of restaurants in the years to come, and in doing so create a legacy of taste that seems to be bottomless.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a city more loyal to its institutions than ours. It’s so New York to be 98 years old and still delivering the finest coffees throughout the boroughs-though Dallis has long since entered the motorcar era. But lest ye think the importer and roaster might have gone stale over the decades, think again: It’s grown up to be the city’s largest coffee force you’ve never heard of.
Though it sells primarily to places where you won’t see its label, i.e., restaurants and cafés, Dallis Bros. Coffee-which changed its name to simply “Dallis Coffee” in 2001 and was bought in 2007 by Brazilian coffee company Octavio Café-knows New York coffee with all the intricacy and intimacy of, well, people who’ve been at it for generations.
In 1913 the original Dallis brothers, Abe and Morris, founded a coffee enterprise that bought roasted coffee beans and sold them across the boroughs. Gillies Coffee-still operating in Brooklyn today-was among their worthy competition, but there weren’t many others in the game. As decades passed, Dallis transitioned to roasting in-house, eschewing the horse-drawn cart for the Model T, and undertook an expansion that continues today.
Upon his return from World War II, Herb Dallis, Morris’s son, took the reins and began expanding the company’s service area beyond grocers to the cafés and restaurants that would become neighborhood institutions, places like Café Roma, a corner cannolirie at the sweet spot of Spring and Mulberry, which has been serving Dallis coffee for more than 50 years.
“Oh, we used to have a little roaster ourselves, and we used to get the raw beans from them,” says Buddy Zeccardi, owner of Café Roma, who’s worked with Dallis for more than 30 years, as did his uncle and grandfather before him.
Roma got unroasted green coffee from Dallis until the 1940s, when “basically the city shut the roasters down because they put so many restrictions with chimneys and this or that sort of thing, it didn’t pay,” says Zeccardi. “It wasn’t that you were roasting a million pounds of coffee, you were just roasting locally for your store and a couple little places that would do it the way you wanted to.”
In the 1970s Herb’s son David took the helm after a brief career at General Electric; under him, Dallis’s roaster education programs flourished, increasing expertise among the company’s own roasters and breeding a generation of healthy competition. As the city’s restaurant scene blossomed, Dallis’s business boomed.
If you’ve ever ordered a cup of coffee with your dessert in Manhattan, chances are Dallis delivered the beans. Nowadays the company provides coffee to over 100 city restaurants and cafés, from Savoy to the Rock Center Café to Community Food & Juice-though they no longer deliver in 50-pound burlap sacks, the way Zeccardi remembers it. Herb’s vision and years of footwork granted the company the unique latitude to be part of restaurant coffee’s revolution, and the company has played a major role in defining New York restaurant coffee for the greater part of the last century-particularly as tastes have become yet more enlightened. Up until recently, you see, that final cup at the end of a meal wasn’t necessarily filled with promise.
“I don’t know that the demand [for quality coffee] has been there,” says Kevin Mahan, managing partner at Gramercy Tavern. “There’s a very high level of acceptance of a wide variety of quality of coffee here.” His restaurant has been part of the sea change that’s raised the bar across restaurant espresso bars, enlisting Dallis and Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco to reinvent its coffee program. Like many other restaurants are finding: It works.
“We’re in an 1853 cast-iron landmark building, and we serve classic steak and fish roasts, fresh oysters and things like that,” says Henry Meer, chef and owner of City Hall restaurant. “You walk into City Hall, you see these beautiful landmark columns and the center beam, which is 150 years old almost: Dallis brothers coffee doesn’t slink away from that, you don’t lose the flavor-even if you put milk in it. We wanted something people would remember, as opposed to, ‘let me just have a cup of coffee and let me run.'”
Helping restaurants redefine the culinary aspect of coffee’s flavor and preparation has been one of Dallis’s trademarks for years. Jim Munson, who was VP of Dallis from 2001 until 2008, had come up through the craft beer industry and saw a need to shake things up.
Munson was out to change people’s thinking habits as well as their drinking habits. “I couldn’t wrap my mind around this word ‘regular,'” he says, believing the de facto alternative to decaf in restaurants to be an affront to the careful processes every person in the chain of coffee undertakes. “We spent a lot of time finding these coffees! It didn’t matter that they had spent three weeks debating which bean paired best with the lemon tart. It was easier for the server to say ‘Do you want regular or decaf?’ and the identity of the coffee-how it was farmed, direct purchased, organic, fair trade or whatever-was completely lost at the point of service.”
Munson helped Dallis build a new lexicon of coffee understanding within the restaurant community, and a joint effort with Bodum provided French presses for table-side brewing at New York’s finer restaurants. “Long before coffee menus became au courant,” laughs Munson. Pastry chefs loved it, and coffee service became fresher, more fun and more in tune with the gustatory offerings. Today, table-side press remains the norm at Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern and several other Dallis clients, allowing clearer focus on seasonal coffees in a presentation that showcases their nuance-rather than on an urn served up by the busboy.
New York City’s been at the forefront of a coffee revolution these past five years, but that’s largely meant the nod from outside interests-Portland’s Stumptown, Chicago’s Intelligentsia, Durham’s Counter Culture Coffee-who’ve bestowed their boutique stamp of approval on our demitasses. A new, café-centric movement entering via the city’s side door could have been bad news for an established institution like Dallis-but their restaurant relationships have only helped the coffee wave crash more loudly on our shores. While New York may be a mere notch on the expansion belt of these manifest-destined roasters, serving-and truly understanding-the needs of New Yorkers has always been Dallis’s main focus. It’s this challenge that gives the company its nonagenarian strength.
“We’re from here, we’ve been here a long time,” says Dallis vicepresident John Moore. “We have a lot of [clients] that have been here for decades. And then we have a lot of customers who are really excited about single-origin coffees, varietal coffees. I love that. I readily embrace that,” says Moore excitedly over a recent cupping at the spacious Dallis coffee lab. The company’s headquarters in Ozone Park inhabits the same red brick walls Abe and Morris bought in 1923, though today the interior sports sunny offices, gleaming coffee education and cupping labs, innovative packaging facilities, equipment repair and, of course, the roasting that’s made Dallis its name.
“They have clients that established themselves under DiMaggio and Jeter, and everything in between,” marvels Ellie Hudson-Matuszak, a coffee consultant whose company, Coffee Solutions, helped Dallis contemporize its espresso blends.
But that longevity is paired with cutting-edge sensibilities, too. “I can’t think of another roaster that shares the history and the [modern] barista focus. Dallis is unique in its participation in both the first-wave ideals of coffee as an American cultural ritual and the modern movement.”
“I get a kick out of getting a call from a guy in the Bronx who’s been ordering Dallis coffee since the 1940s, 1950s,” says Moore. “And I love giving him a coffee that blows him away. At the same time, I love having the challenge of a barista that’s just gotten a state-of-the-art espresso machine and wants to play around and work with different profiles, and really push the envelope, work with different attributes of different coffee, or different varietals and cultivars. And shifting gears like that, putting down the phone and talking to another one a minute later, is really fun for me. It forces you to really develop your chops.”
Moore’s chops have a lot to chew on these days, especially as new ownership brings New York the combined expertise of two veteran companies built and run by people who love coffee perhaps more than water.
Octavio Café, itself a family business built on generations of growers and roasters in Brazil, found in Dallis a sort of spiritual North American twin, a natural choice for its desire to grow into and alongside the New York City market. Octavio’s small but technologically advanced farm fuels its renowned São Paolo café, which showcases their coffee along with the company’s “coffee university.” Under their ownership, Dallis is up there with the shiniest kids in specialty brew, their certified tasters’ tongues working overtime to find the best in blends and to source most singular single-origin coffees. The company has grown from one established brand to three focused, boutique in-house divisions, and, thanks to Octavio, they also have their own coffee farm in Brazil.
The purchase of Dallis means more to Octavio than expanding their Brazilian brand through the mean streets of Manhattan. Tariffs prevent the import of green coffee into Brazil; through this acquisition, Octavio gains access to the fine beans Dallis sources from around the world. And for Dallis, Octavio brings the leadership of a premier coffee producer, and the caché of their own high-altitude coffee farm in the largest coffee-producing nation on earth, with state-of-the-art facilities. Not bad for some guys who started with a horse-drawn cart in Queens.
Inspired rather than intimidated by New York’s recent coffee renaissance, the roaster plans to tune its offerings to a few different notes this coming year. The original Dallis Bros. name is moving into the spotlight of boutique micro-roasters such as outof- state Stumptown and Counter Culture, as well as Empire State neighbors like Gimme! Coffee and Gorilla. And today’s Dallis can be found roasting micro-lots of pristine single-origin coffees on prized vintage German equipment, buying Cup of Excellence award-winning beans at auction, and experimenting with varietals in ways Abe and Morris would never have dreamed.
But with two nationally certified coffee graders on staff (of the fewer than 100 coffee professionals in the country with “Q” grader tasting certification from the Coffee Quality Institute, Moore is one of a handful in New York City) and a new, pimped-out lab, the name Dallis now extends far, far beyond the French Roast restaurant blends that may have once been their calling card.
Not that the venerated label will forsake the über-trad dining set that makes New York’s old-school dining establishments so special. Its new Gramercy Park imprint will serve those who serve, attuned to the specific needs of NYC restaurant culture. And then there’s the café the company hopes to open, a North American outpost of the Sao Paolo café that serves coffee-and coffee education-with a stylish South American splash.
“It’s a dream for me,” says former Brazilian barista champion and Octavio quality director Silvia Magalhaes on a recent visit.
Until then, New Yorkers can savor Dallis’s coffee at many of the city’s best restaurants-and, increasingly, at espresso bars, where cutting-edge caffeine culture still reveres the industry’s elder statesman. This January, serious-coffee-spot RBC opened in TriBeCa to much fanfare-serving Dallis espresso on one of the most innovatively engineered gear darlings of the coffee industry, the multiple-temperature-adjustable Slayer Espresso machine.
“Part of our coffee philosophy is sort of an old-world coffee, new technology approach,” says Cora Lambert of RBC. (Lambert previously worked at Sasha Petraski’s short-lived coffee boîte the Mercury Dime, also a Dallis customer.)
Lambert says that of all the coffees RBC auditioned, Dallis was the obvious pick, admiring both the direct trade with Brazilian Obata espresso and the mission to connect the best of the traditional coffee world with the brightest new techniques. Which calls to mind Dallis headquarters, where a 1924 coffee grinder bolted to the floor, and still in use, sits alongside the newest roasting, espresso and drip-coffee equipment-the past and future, coexisting not with irony, but with reverence.
Liz Clayton is a writer and photographer living in Bedford-Stuyvesant.She blogs about the coffee microclimate at twitchy.org.
Photo credit: Blake Sinclair