Metro

Over twenty five years, and the coffee’s still hot

By
Senior Editor
Thursday, March 25, 2010

A year before the first Starbucks opened its doors and long before there was an identifiable coffee culture in Providence or anywhere else, Charlie and Bill Fishbein started roasting and selling brewed coffee and whole beans in a cozy, wood-walled storefront on Wickenden Street.

“When we founded Coffee Exchange, there was nothing,” Charlie said, sitting at a wooden table in the cafe’s upstairs office, more than a quarter-century after he and his brother first set up shop. But now, 26 years later, Coffee Exchange has managed to thrive, even as the coffee culture around it has grown and changed immensely.

This is, Fishbein said, in large part due to the fact that even in 1984, long before terms like “organic” and “fair trade” even existed, he and the rest of the business’s managers adopted an ethos of social responsibility — a commitment that hasn’t wavered.

The business is highly connected with Coffee Kids, a nonprofit founded by Bill Fishbein in 1988 that aims to improve the economic and life circumstances of those who actually grow the beans from which Coffee Exchange’s lattes are made. What’s more, the cafe’s coffee is 100 percent organic and fair-trade, according to Charlie Fishbein. “All of our coffee is purchased with a social component in mind. That’s part and parcel with who we are,” he said. “We’ve always tried to put the most sustainable product out that we can.”

Coffee Exchange buys all of its beans from a cooperative and roasts them in-house — another part of the formula that Fishbein said keeps people coming back. “Very seldom do we have coffee beans that are more than two days old,” he said. “It’s that freshness that translates into taste, that translates into staying in business for 26 years.”

Over the course of those 26 years, Providence’s coffee scene has grown exponentially and a whole host of competitors has sprung up around Coffee Exchange, starting with the arrival of Starbucks in Providence around 15 years ago.

“When (Starbucks) first came into town, there was a question: ‘Is Coffee Exchange going to go out of business?’,” Fishbein said. “But,” he continued, “we were never really concerned about Starbucks putting us out of business.”

Though the Seattle-based chain has sparked an interest in gourmet coffee and made for an increasingly sophisticated customer palate — the biggest change he said he has seen over the years — Fishbein said his cafe’s unwillingness to yield to trends and enduring allegiance to taste has allowed it to occupy a protected niche.

Starbucks is “a great marketing company and they’re responsible for a lot of the current coffee craze,” he said. “But we’re a coffee business and it’s because we do really great-tasting coffee that we’ve been able to stay in business for so long.”

He continued, “We don’t change simply because somebody might have a new marketing scheme. We will improve the taste of our coffee, but we won’t change it to follow some sort of trend.”

Starbucks — which has six stores in Providence, five of which are within a mile of Coffee Exchange — isn’t the cafe’s only competitor, as Providence’s coffee market has seen enormous growth in recent years.

And oddly enough, Coffee Exchange actually trained some of the founders of New Harvest Coffee Roasters, which now supplies roasted beans to dozens of the city’s coffeeshops.

Fishbein said the two businesses have a friendly relationship. “We get along very well,” he said. “When his roaster breaks, he can use mine, and when my roaster breaks, I can use his. The bond is personal and very much enjoyable.”

Fishbein said business is as strong as ever even in the face of a changing market and growing competition, and a look at the Exchange’s deck on a Sunday morning, as a long line of bleary-eyed Rhode Islanders waits patiently for their Ethiopian Oromia or Narragansett Blend, seems to back this up.

“We do have the reputation with the big deck and the crowds and the line in the morning,” Fishbein said.

Parker Wood, a Rhode Island native and longtime barista at the cafe, said Coffee Exchange’s “loyal local following and solid base” was largely responsible for the store’s longevity.

“It’s like a community center,” he said. “It’s an unchanging variable in the equation that is coffee in Providence.”