Big news--at least to those of us that I call "coffee hounds"--brewing at Dolcezza's shops in Georgetown, Bethesda, Dupont, Union Market and Merrifield.
Dolcezza, and the Dupont location in particular, has always had one of the city's better coffee programs. They were bringing in unique and interesting roasters from all around the US, invested in a serious Marzocco espresso machine and took the time to do pourovers to get the most from the beans. Roasters ranging from Verve, Stumptown and Intelligentsia to new entrant MadCap graced Dolcezza's shelves in recent years. And, unlike some independent shops that would sell a nice variety of beans but not offer the same variety for in-shop brewing, Dolcezza usually did both.
So, the news? Joining a trend seen at many shops around the US, Dolcezza has stopped carrying different and changing independent roasters' beans in favor of signing an exclusive deal with just one that will now be the bean of choice in all Dolcezza shops. Dolcezza is now selling and brewing only Stumptown.
From my perspective, this is neither a good nor bad thing per se. As with so many other things, it's a mixed bag for consumers. So, if you're interested in this stuff (and I realize many may not be), some pros and cons just below.
- Most obvious is that choice is more limited. As one of the nation's larger (and better) roasters, Stumptown was founded in Portland (OR) in 1999 and is still based there. As with many growing coffee purveyors, they roast and retail themselves (from Stumptown shops in Portland, LA, Seattle and NY). Expansion to Chicago, Miami and San Francisco are all on the radar according to reports. Dolcezza will almost certainly be supplied from NYC since that's the closest roastery. So, while Stumptown sources and roasts a very wide variety a beans, all beans will be Stumptown. This is akin to a large and well diversified winemaker with vineyards in different regions being an exclusive provider to a multi-location restauranteur. Stumptown brought in a private equity investor two years ago and is now professionally managed though the founder is still with the company. There is some chance that Stumptown could compete with its retail accounts (like Dolcezza) in future years by opening Stumptown Shops here in DC but that's not likely in the next few years given what's known about Stumptown's plans and how the busisiness usually works.
- Discovery limited. I've always found the wine analogy to serve well for coffee. All the different coffee bean growers and roasters of the world are analogous to all the grape growers and winemakers. Shops like Dolcezza and stores like Whole Foods or Moms serve similar roles for wine and coffee with whole bean sales. And, coffee shops (again like Dolcezza, Filter, The Coffee Bar or Qualia) are the last connection with the consumer in the same way as restaurants and bars for wine. A talented barista or brewer is as important to what you get in a cup as the sommelier is at CityZen with good wine imho. So, if you were in a fine restaurant whose wine list featured 150 well-chosen bottles but all from one producer, that might be less preferable to more adventurous wine consumers looking to discover new vintages and varietals from new regions or producers. Same deal here with the new Stumptown/Dolcezza relationship. There won't be "new" roaster like MadCap, Qualia, Handsome, PT's or whomever appearing on shelves here going forward.
- The biggest advantage is that the economics of a deal like this are better for the retailer/shop and thus help them to be more sustainable as they grow. If I were running a smaller food/beverage retailer like Dolcezza, I'd almost certainly consider a deal like this also. Why?
An exclusive deal between a coffee shop and roaster usually involves the roaster guaranteeing supply (a big challenge with small-fry roasters) which should mean fresher and more available beans onsite. The roaster/wholesaler also typically provides a broad range of support to the shop such as equipment, co-marketing and training of shop personnel. Prices can also be a bit more competitive. This is not an insignificant thing for consumers. Dolcezza offers some of the best gelato in the country. And, with Stumptown, they'll continue to offer an excellent line of coffee. With more stores and outlets, they can do more things while being more accessible to more customers. They can not only survive but also thrive and we all know that is tough to achieve.
- Another advantage of this is that Stumptown will enable Robb and Violetta (Dolcezza's owners) not only to hopefully be more successful. The deal should also allow them to focus more on the gelato side, which they do so well and on their staff and business as it grows. I'd expect and look for lots of new and exciting things from Dolcezza. Their new gelato production facility and shop at Union Market are just one current example.
I'm personally wistful about this move. I love small coffee shops (places like The Coffee Bar, Qualia and, most recently, Wydown Coffee) who carry beans from so many new and interesting small roasters from all around the country. Great flavors and great opportunity to discover that way. But it can be a real pain to manage for a shop as it begins to experience some success.
I'm also a huge fan of what Robb and Violetta have done with Dolcezza and fully support this move for them as they begin to really mature and scale as a company. Most of the other roaster-exclusive shops in the city tend to partner with Annapolis-based Ceremony (like Filter) or NC-based Counter Culture (Northside Social, Peregrine). This is the first exclusive in our area for Stumptown with a multi-unit operator and Dolcezza's one of the absolute best with whom they could have partnered. So, by all indications at this early stage, it seems like Dolcezza will continue to be known for outstanding gelato and excellent coffee along with inviting shops.
Will be interested to hear what others think as they try the new Stumptown offerings already available in all Dolcezza shops.
P.S., Mods, the Dining Guides only lists Dolcezza under "ice cream" for Multiple Location operators. It should be cross-referenced under coffee shops also, especially now. Also, they are five locations and growing; well past "3-5".