Dallis Does New York

Almost a century after its founding, one company still thrills city coffee cups.

Gourmet coffee suggests all kinds of cheery hyphenates: fair-trade; shade-grown; single-origin; fresh-roasted; but . . . horse-drawn?  When New York coffee icon Dallis Bros. started out nearly a century ago, indeed that’s what Gotham’s coffee was. From true 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 created 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 a classic like this might have gone stale over the decades, think again. The nearly century-old importer and roaster has 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, rather than retailing to the public, Dallis Bros. Coffee—which 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, Abe and Morris, the original Dallis brothers, founded a coffee enterprise that bought roasted coffee beans and sold them across the boroughs. Gillies Coffee—still operating here in Brooklyn today—was among their worthy competition, but there weren’t many others in the game. As decades passed, the Dallis brothers began roasting beans themselves, eschewing the horse-drawn cart for the Model T and beginning an expansion that continues today.

Upon his return from WWII, Herb Dallis, Morris’s son, took the reins and began expanding the company’s service area beyond grocers and to the cafés and restaurants that would become foodie hotspots and neighborhood institutions.

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 borough’s restaurant scene blossomed, Dallis’s business boomed.

If you’ve ever ordered a cup of coffee with your dessert in Brooklyn, chances are good that the beans came from Dallis Bros. Herb Dallis’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 restaurant coffee across the boroughs 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.

But as part of the sea change that’s raised the bar across coffee citywide, restaurants—as well as espresso bars—have enlisted Dallis’s longtime expertise to reinvent their coffee program. And like many eateries are finding: it works.

“When we first opened, I originally went through a different roasting company,” admits Jacques Gautier, chef and owner of Park Slope’s pan-Latin destination Palo Santo. “But when our espresso machine broke, the company that we were using could not help us, so we were sent over to Dallis. After Dallis fixed the machine within a few hours of calling, I learned they also sold good-quality fair-trade organic coffee. We have been doing business with them ever since.”

From Bedford Avenue to Bedford-Stuyvesant, from café tables to the posh pantry shelves, Dallis is making its hometown presence known (alongside new kids on the block like Stumptown and Blue Bottle) in Brooklyn’s flourishing foodieism, loud and clear.

“Of course, because they’re local, their quality will be higher,” says Francine Stephens, whose taste at Franny’s and Brooklyn Larder has changed the Flatbush Avenue playing field. Brooklyn Larder plans to stock the newest Dallis whole-bean coffee offerings starting this spring, and Stephens looks forward to the roaster’s ability to give Brooklynites exactly what we want. “It’ll be a shorter ship time, and the quality will be higher because it’s locally roasted,” says Stephens. “And it’s another chance to have a really good relationship with Dallis, who will be right there to teach us how to brew and understand their coffee.”

Redefining the culinary aspect of coffee’s flavor and preparation has been a trademark of Dallis Bros. for years. Jim Munson, founder of the Brooklyn Roasting Company, was VP of Dallis from 2001 until 2008. Munson began his brewing in the beer tradition—he spent a decade shaping Brooklyn Brewery—and saw a need to shake the coffee world up.

Munson was out to change people’s thinking habits as well as their drinking habits. “I couldn’t wrap my mind 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 the fair trade or the organic went well 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 or whatever, was completely lost at the point of service.”

Dallis worked to 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 Dallis clients from Union Square Café to Peaches Market, allowing clearer focus on seasonal coffees in a presentation that showcases their nuance-rather than an urn served up by the busboy.

New York City’s been at the forefront of a coffee revolution these past five years, but what that’s largely meant to the food and drink community has been the nod from a range of outside interests—San Francisco’s Blue Bottle (now in northside Williamsburg), Portland’s Stumptown (who now roasts in Red Hook) and Chicago’s Intelligentsia—that have all 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 work has only helped the coffee wave crash more loudly on our shores. While our fair boroughs may be mere notches on the expansion belt of these manifest-destined roasters, serving-and truly understanding—the myriad needs of New Yorkers has always been the main focus of Dallis Bros. It’s this challenge that gives them their nanogenarian strength.

“We’re from here, we’ve been here a long time,” says Dallis vice-president 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 sit within the same redbrick 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 their participation in both the first-wave ideals of consumption and 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 really 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 Sao Paolo café, which showcases its coffee along with the company’s “coffee university.” Under its 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’s grown from one established brand to three focused, boutique, in-house divisions, and, thanks to Octavio, it also has its own coffee farm in Brazil.

The purchase of Dallis means more to Octavio than expanding its Brazilian brand through the mean streets of Gotham. International import tariffs prevent the import of green (unroasted) coffee into Brazil; through this acquisition, Octavio gains access to the fine beans Dallis imports from around the world. And for Dallis, Octavio brings the leadership of a premier coffee producer and the caché of its 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-cart in Queens.

Inspired rather than intimidated by New York’s recent coffee renaissance, the roaster plans to tune their offerings to a few different notes this coming year. The original Dallis Bros. name is moving into the spotlight of boutique microroasters such as out-of-state Stumptown or Counter Culture, as well as local favorites like Greenpoint’s Café Grumpy, with newly expanded roastery café, and Gorilla, who roasts coffee in Sunset Park for its Park Slope shop. And today’s Dallis can be found roasting microlots of pristine single-origin coffees on prized vintage German equipment, buying Cup of Excellence award-winning beans at auction, traveling to the Octavio farm in Alta Mogiana, Brazil, and experimenting with varietals in ways Abe and Morris would never have dreamed of. 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 Bros. now extends far, far beyond the French-roast restaurant blends that may have once been their calling card.

And then there’s the café they hope to open, a North American outpost of its 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 Sylvia 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 specialty coffee bars, where cutting-edge caffeine culture still reveres the industry’s elder statesman.

Root Hill Café, on the improbably explosive 4th Avenue strip, added Dallis to its roster of roasters after learning of the company’s direct relationship with Brazil’s Octavio farm.

“We are using their Brazil primarily, but we’ve been working with them to try and create our own blend,” says Root Hill’s Michelle Giancola. Though they tried out many roasters and selected Counter Culture Coffee for their espresso offerings, they kept in touch with Dallis.

“And after they were bought by Octavio, they started telling us what they were doing with their espresso or drip coffee, and we liked what they would bring us in to sample-eventually we decided that we would switch to their drip coffee,” says Giancola.

“A lot of what we do here, or are attempting to do, is have everything eventually be local. And having a roaster that is here is very helpful for our ultimate goal. Local is really important for us, but the most important thing for us is good coffee, and they’ve provided us with a good drip coffee. That goes hand in hand for us.”

And perhaps it’s that awareness of the quality of locality, and their connection to the traditional coffee world, that influences Dallis’s ability to put a special shine on the brightest new techniques. It calls to mind Dallis headquarters, where a 1924 coffee grinder bolted to the floor, still in use, sits alongside the newest roasting, espresso and drip-coffee equipment—the past and future, coexisting not with irony, but with reverence.

Way B.C.C. (Before Coffee was Cool): The Dallis Bros. roasting beans for city cafés in 1923.

Around Town: Dallis’ John Moore is one of fewer than 100 pros in the country to boast “Q” grader tasting certification from the Coffee Quality Institute. This helps make Dallis the choice for discerning restaus like Palo Santo. The team, ever stylish, poses for posterity back in the 1980s.

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Liz Clayton is a writer and photographer living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. She is co-author of a world guide to the best coffee places to be published by Phaidon in July, 2017.