A Trip to Gillies, New York City’s Oldest Coffee Roaster

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BRIAN DUNN, BOY INTERN – I can tell I’ve arrived at the Gillies Coffee roasting plant from the faint but pleasant smell of coffee that permeates the surrounding block.

Apparently, this is a bad thing.

In 2002, the New York Department of Environmental Protection fined the coffee company for smelling exactly like what it produces. For years, owners Don Schoenholt and Hy Chabbott fought the fineā€“arguing that it was impossible to stop the smell, until finally acquiescing last year.

The city’s negative attention is somewhat unfathomable, given that Gillies has both been around so long—now in its 168th year, the company is both a New York institution and the oldest coffee merchant in the United States—and has such a strong environmental record. In addition to promoting Fair Trade coffee and working with the Smithsonian on preserving bird habitats, the company operates a smoke-free roaster, guaranteeing that the only smells released are from the beans themselves.

Gillies has been around for a long while, but it’s managed to stay under the radar, even as coffee appreciation has moved into the mainstream. Schoenholt himself admits that he’s not a businessman—he’s a coffee man. That’s why Gillies abandoned the retail portion of their business, instead choosing to keep the focus on the coffee, which it sells through its website, in Fairway supermarkets, and wholesale to a variety of clients.

After the jump, a tour through the Gillies’ roasting facility. Above right, an antique industrial coffee grinder. Directly below, a sponsored mobile widget from Microsoft.


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Everything begins here: with bags of fresh, green coffee beans. Each bag has its origin written on the side, and glancing through them, I saw a plethora of locations: Guatemala, Costa Rica, Peru. Places I expected, like Columbia and Indonesia. Places I didn’t, like Vietnam, Kenya, and Hawaii.

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This is the roaster’s controls. As the Gillies website says, the roasting “is enhanced by computerization, not replaced by it.” This means that while the computer makes the job easier, it’s still up to the operator to judge when the roast is finished…

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…which is done by gazing through this portal at the side of the roaster. In the Gillies roaster, the beans are never directly exposed to fire, just to the heat generated by said fire. The movement and friction of roasting also adds convection heat. Science shows that this creates efficiency. [When in doubt, blame Science. You'll be a tech reporter yet, m'boy! – Ed.]

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When the beans are ready, the machine brings in cool air to stop the roasting. It then pours them out into this bin. A normal batch is about six hundred pounds and lasts only twelve minutes.

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As you can see, that’s a lot of coffee.

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The Gillies roaster recycles the fire’s smoke back into itself. This incinerates the smoke and creates an environmentally friendly roast. For even more information on the Gillies roaster, click here for an interview with Mr. Schoenholt by Tea & Coffee about the decisions behind its design.

For more pictures of Gillies central, check out the entire Flickr collection.

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7 Responses to A Trip to Gillies, New York City’s Oldest Coffee Roaster

  1. Enochrewt says:

    I live within the vicinity of the Jolly Rancher plant (could be closed, haven’t been over there in a bit) and the Celestial Seasonings Tea plant. Both places make their respective neighborhoods smell like the products. My best friend’s family had to move away from the Jolly Rancher plant because the smell was “maddening”, but I hear nothing but wonderful things from the people that smell the Celestial Seasonings factory. Even as a non-coffee drinker I thought the smell of coffee as very pleasant. I guess I just have to say that people are weird.

  2. Jack says:

    Fascinating photos! But I live a short ride away from where they are located and it’s amazing anyone would complain about their smell. Look on a map, they are RIGHT near where the BQE and Prospect Expressway merges. TONS of traffic with TONS of exhaust. Also, they are quite close to the Gowanus Canal which smells better nowadays but is STILL an industrial mess of a waterway. The only significant stuff nearby is a Home Depot and that’s about it.

    They aren’t in a residential neighborhood. Their smell is undoubtedly better than the rest of the neighboring smells and they are being punished? Yeow.

  3. gax says:

    Dude, you boingdotted them!

  4. w000t says:

    Personally, I’d pay a premium to live in a neighborhood that smelled like coffee all the time.

  5. jjasper says:

    You rock, Brian! Keep up the good interning!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Gillies coffee is pretty crappy. For better Brooklyn-based coffee, try Gorilla.

  7. Puppetboy says:

    I live between the Gillies plant, the Now and Later factory, and the Aladin Pita factory. It takes all three to combat the smell from the BQE and the wind coming from New Jersey.

    I always wanted to see inside the plant. Thanks Joel!

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