North River Roasters Focuses on People, Planet and Profit

North River Roasters has made a name for themselves over the past year as Poughkeepsie’s newest coffee roaster and supplier. It all started when local resident Feza Oktay gained an interest in coffee that stemmed from his daughter’s work as a barista. He decided to start his own roasting company with a focus on local community engagement in November 2015. Since then, he says that North River Roasters has been a “home looking for a business.”

“I’ve been doing volunteer work for Poughkeepsie housing for the last 8 or 9 years,” Oktay said. “So with the whole Middle Main initiative with Hudson River Housing and the Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory, the idea came from that volunteer work combined with an increased interest in coffee, along with an opportunity for a new commercial enterprise and revitalization. I just thought it would be a great space for a coffee operation.”

Although their space in the Underwear Factory is still being renovated, North River Roasters has been in operation for over a year. They roast their coffee beans in small batches using a technique called air roasting. This method uses electricity to heat the beans, allowing the bean coating called the “chaff” to fall off and be composted. The chaffs can then be converted into fertilizer. This is in contrast to drum roasting, a much more widely used method by commercial roasters, which uses fossil fuel to roast the bean and burn the chaffs instead.

“We’re looking to establish a social enterprise, so that means we’re not only looking at the profitability of the company, but we’re also looking at people and planet as well. A key part of that is sourcing fair trade, organic coffee. That’s something that’s meaningful to us and our members.”

Along with sustainability, engaging with the local community is also an essential element of this company. Part of what has made this effort so successful is the establishment of a CSCR, or Community Supported Coffee Roasting, based on the idea of the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model.

Poughkeepsie residents sign up for a “share” of the CSCR, essentially paying up front for their coffee for a certain amount of time, and in return they receive new roasts every week. They can pick up their coffee at various distribution locations around Poughkeepsie, which have included the Mid-Hudson Heritage Center, PoughKidsie, and the indoor farmer’s market at Vassar. An added element of this program is weekly emails from North River Roasters about the coffee members receive. Members are encouraged to reply with their opinions, preferences, and suggestions for the future.

“Our Peruvian beans have often gotten a lot of positive feedback, but I would say it’s really a matter of individual taste,” Oktay said. “I don’t want to be a coffee snob and tell people what they should or shouldn’t like. It’s very individual. That’s why we give such a variety to our members.”

North River Roasters’ coffee is sourced primarily from Central and South America, but they occasionally source from other places around the world as well. To drive home that community focus, they have sourced coffee from places that have a personal resonance with Poughkeepsie residents.

“Nester, a Poughkeepsie artist, is Peruvian so we wanted to include that Peru connection. There was a family who were CSCR members here but moved to Rwanda to do work with the Peace Corps, so we started sourcing Rwandan coffee too.”

As it turns out, local residents truly identify with coffee from their heritage. “We did a tasting at the Family Partnership Center a few months ago and there were these two women who came and tasted the different varieties we had. One of them liked the Oaxacan blend better and her friend liked the Colombian blend, and when we told them what they were, it turned out that the woman who liked the Oaxacan blend was actually from Oaxaca and the woman who liked the Colombian bean was from Colombia.”

Feza Oktay explaining why a sense of community is imperative to his business’ success. Photo credit: Amy Morse

Once the Underwear Factory is done in late March, North River Roasters will be able to roast in that space and open up a coffee house for the local community. Oktay hopes this will also provide employment opportunities for members of the Poughkeepsie community who have faced an uphill battle when trying to find jobs, as they may have been incarcerated or faced other difficult circumstances.

That local emphasis has been paramount to Oktay from the start. “The idea from the get-go has been to establish this social enterprise that is going to work towards helping to revitalize downtown Poughkeepsie. That means providing employment along with a meeting space for the community, and that was really what inspired it all.”

In terms of the future of North River Roasters, Oktay hopes to do more commercial supplying, along with establishing this new permanent location in downtown Poughkeepsie. As of right now, they supply to the Poughkeepsie Grind, Bridge Cafe at Vassar, Poughkidsie, and they are sold at Adam’s in the City of Poughkeepsie. He also hopes to expand the CSCR, which has about 50 members right now.

North River Roasters’ goal of using coffee to connect the local community separates it from larger coffee roasting companies. Its personal commitment to Poughkeepsie indicates its continued success in the coming months.

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