October marks 27 years since brothers Pedro and Juan-Carlos Ramirez decided to revive their family’s coffee company, a legacy four generations strong that dates back to 1909 and began with their great-grandfather, Leonardo Alarcon in southwest Venezuela.
Orinoco’s master roaster and VP Juan-Carlos (JC) says both enterprises began as small undertakings. And yet both ultimately expanded, changing lanes, lives, and the way their customers experienced a great cup of coffee.
“Our great-grandfather and his brother would approach the region’s coffee farmers, asking them how much coffee their farms were supposed to yield that year. Then they would pay them and secure those harvests ahead of time,” JC explains. “Without knowing, they were doing what we today call Fair Trade.”
That coffee, he continues, was then exported to Europe including countries like Germany, and France. Ultimately, Alarcon and his family would purchase the farms, which were subsequently passed down generations, culminating with Pedro and JC’s mother, Maritza Rodrigo.
“Our mother was a lawyer, and her involvement in the industry was more about helping coffee farmers with their legal issues,” JC says.
For a time, the family’s legacy cooled – lying dormant for years, until the brothers – who had recently immigrated to the U.S. – began to feel the entrepreneurial itch, and a new idea began to percolate.
‘It’s What We Knew’
There may very well be an awful lot of coffee in Brazil, but when the Ramirez brothers launched Orinoco in 1996, they imported coffee directly from their great-grandfather’s old stomping grounds in Venezuela.
About a ton of it.
“It’s what we knew,” says Pedro, today Orinoco’s president and CEO. Initially, he notes, the brothers stored their product in his garage.
At the time, roasting was handled by outside contractors. When the product was ready for consumption, JC – then a bicycle courier – would take to the streets, selling their wares.
“JC would deliver our coffee by bicycle in D.C. to different coffee carts,” Pedro says. “That was a thing back then.”
Word began to spread almost as fast as JC could peddle. Soon, customers were asking for specialty items that the brothers didn’t carry.
“They’d ask for things like decaf or Indonesian coffee,” Pedro recalls. “And we’d always say, ‘We don’t have it – but we’ll get it!’”
The company began to diversify, eventually importing from 22 different countries. Green coffee beans would be delivered to the states, and Pedro and JC would roast it, wholesale it, and distribute it with their brand, named for the river flowing through their homeland: Orinoco.
Growing a Company (and Covering More Grounds)
Within a few short years, Orinoco had grown beyond the brothers’ garage HQ.
They expanded to a warehouse in Columbia, MD, as Orinoco’s coffee caught on with Howard County aficionados.
During this time, JC connected with upscale grocery store chain Dean and DeLuca; one of the premium retailers in New York City and Washington, D.C. The client first started carrying Orinoco’s coffee – and then asked the Ramirez brothers to provide them with private label services.
It was a game-changer, to say the very least.
“That turned us into a private label company, for the most part,” Pedro explains. “The volume was very good. And it led to other companies asking the same.”
When COVID hit, however, things changed yet again.
Fortunately for Orinoco, the company had rebranded just before the world shut down.
“We had been toying with the idea for several years, but we never pulled the trigger,” Pedro says.
Orinoco up to that point had enjoyed burgeoning success with a combination of food service, restaurants, coffee shops, and – of course – private label markets. But rebranding opened up all new doors – and just in the nick of time.
“That’s when we got picked up by grocers such as The Fresh Market, Giant Foods, and Safeway. Right now, we’re in a few thousand stores not only in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic but through the Midwest,” Pedro says. “We’re stronger in the retail category because of it, though we’re working to get back to food service as much as possible. That’s our local customer base.”
Celebrating a Legacy
Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated annually from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, recognizing the influence and contributions of Hispanic Americans to the culture, history, and achievements of the United States.
Pedro estimates Orinoco’s workforce currently comprises 50 percent Hispanic workers and 50 percent non-Latino, though not intentionally.
Coincidentally, JC notes, the team’s Hispanic workers – most of whom work in production – all hail from the foremost coffee-producing region in Mexico, Chiapas.
“Right now, we’re focusing on bringing younger people into the workforce,” Pedro says. “To bring in new knowledge and ideas and a new customer base, while also passing business and coffee knowledge down to new generations.”
Education is important. Knowledge is power. And Pedro notes that many immigrants today are not pursuing higher education.
“That was a very high priority for me,” he says. “That’s why I came here – to go to school. And I wanted to pass that down to my kids. The question in our house was never, ‘Are you going to college?’ It was ‘What are you going to go to college for?’ So, I tried to instill that into my kids, and I hope a lot of immigrants today will try to do the same.”
Today, the brothers note, the Latino population is the largest minority in the United States.
“As a Hispanic immigrant, it’s nice to see that our heritage is recognized and that people understand that the Hispanic labor force – regardless of the industry – is a force that must be reckoned with,” JC says. “People have to acknowledge that. It propels everything behind the scenes, as we all know. So, it’s good to know we’re being recognized during this time.”
Pedro recalls immigrating to a vastly different America 40 years ago.
“You were looked at differently, talked to differently. Spelling your name – forget it. No one knew how to spell your name. Today, it’s a different world,” he says. “The one thing that I can say about Hispanic Heritage Month, is it brings recognition to us as a people.”
When Orinoco started in Pedro’s garage, with JC navigating the busy streets of D.C. on two wheels, growth was, by far, the biggest challenge.
“You have to keep in mind that Pedro and I started this company with just a few thousand dollars, working out of his garage, my apartment, and delivering coffee by bicycle,” JC says. “Money was always, always, always tight. Then, when we picked up Dean and DeLuca, our volume spiked – something like 250% or 350% overnight. So, growing well – and healthy – was a challenge.”
“Growth is great, but we grew at a pace that we couldn’t manage. I mean, we were able to produce for others and keep our customers happy, but at the same time we didn’t have enough time for resources, to create procedures and train people, and things like that,” he explains. “At first, it’s not a real problem – until you have to institute policies and procedures and employees are not used to it. Then it becomes a problem.”
But just as brewing the perfect cup of coffee requires trial and error, and perhaps a few bitter taste tests, you eventually find balance. And after that, each cup gets better and better.
“At the time, we didn’t think the company would, first, grow to where it’s grown and, second, be here 27 years later,” Pedro exclaims. “That was not a thing to us. It was just, ‘Let’s do something together. Something that isn’t a job for somebody else. And let’s see where it goes.’ And here we are.”
Orinoco Coffee & Tea currently employs 15 full-time team members.
“That means 15 families are dependent on what we do here,” Pedro says. “I think that’s something to be proud of. I see that as a great accomplishment – not only for any company but for a company created by two people who immigrated from another country and had no idea how to run things here. And we’re also grateful we’ve been able to keep our workforce as local as we can, especially within Howard County, which is where we’ve always been.”
JC laughs at the notion of Orinoco’s whereabouts in another 27 years.
“Hopefully, Pedro’s children will take over and he and I won’t have to do anything else. I think 27 more years of work may be a little too much for us,” he says.
That being said, he looks forward to the day Orinoco’s coffee bags are on store shelves across the country.
“And it would be great to walk into a warehouse and realize that all of the ideas that we had 30 years ago are still working,” he says.