By DONALD SCHOENHOLT
This year marks the 30th specialty coffee conference put on by the association. For perspective on the earliest gatherings, we turned to Donald Schoenholt, who was the first president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, and instrumental in the early growth of the specialty association and industry. He runs Gillies Coffee in New York, the oldest operating coffee roasting company in the United States. Here he is in his own words on the founding of the SCAA and Conference [now Specialty Coffee Expo].
Pre-SCAA there were “organizational meetings” held in private rooms each Summer and Winter wherever the Fancy Food Show was held in 1981 and 1982 (New York, San Francisco, Houston). In October 1982 the Steering Committee wrote the Constitution and By-laws at the Louisa Hotel on Knob Hill in San Francisco. The association became “official” in January 1983. We wanted an opportunity to be together as a family at least once a year, and in those pioneer days we continued to link our gatherings to the Fancy Food Show as many of our members were members of the trade group that put on those shows, and several, including my own company, had booths at those shows. After the first couple of years trying to manage our affairs with volunteer labor, we had hired a Washington DC management company to run our day-to-day business, and publish our In Good Taste newsletter. When we thought we had the strength to have a show of our own, we turned to them to set it up for us.
Our first “Conference” was held in New Orleans, in 1988. It far exceeded our expectations in draw, and excitement as an experience. If memory serves, almost 350 folks came. We had a roster of prominent industry members as speakers, and there were over four dozen exhibitors; two that I remember off the top of my head that are still yearly exhibitors are Bunn-o-matic, and Royal Coffee San Francisco. I believe that Ellen Jordan Reidy (at that time with Van Cortlandt Importers) chaired that first conference. At the last minute her child took ill, and she was unable to attend, and I filled in for her giving the “Roasters” lecture and leading a general discussion on the subject of roasting. The following year the Conference was in Oakland CA, and the year after that in Orlando FL. In those early years the educational component of the gathering was considered preeminent, with the “show/exhibition” portion being subordinate to the lectures, round-tables, and other educational programs.
Through the years the Conference has grown, becoming the best attended coffee industry gathering in the world. It has changed directions, and changed names several times as the industry, and the association that represents it have moved from the backwater to being the preeminent forces in the coffee world. At the moment the conference is named Expo, and the educational tracks have become subordinate to the exhibition floor. The social aspect of being together as a family, and the collegial nature of the intellectual discourse at the annual specialty coffee gathering has remained a constant.