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Grounds for Optimism

Chemex, Maker of Iconic Coffeemaker, Is Expanding Its Horizons

Eliza Jane Grassy

Eliza Jane Grassy shows off the famous Chemex coffeemaker.

The conference room in the Chemex manufacturing and distribution facility in Chicopee isn’t really serving the company in that capacity at this time — well, not only in that capacity, to be more precise.

Instead, while renovations continue at the plant on Veterans Drive, which the company moved into last summer, it is also acting as both storage area and museum of sorts, with all manner of material related to the famous Chemex coffeemaker — assembled on that site — and its inventor, Peter Schlumbohm.

“He was kind of a mad scientist — he had lots of inventions and lots of ideas,” Eliza Jane Grassy, vice president of the company, said of Schlumbohm as she pointed out photos of him, news clippings, and even a sketch of one of his concepts that never became reality — the so-called Chemmobile, an early form of SUV.

But most of the room’s artifacts are devoted to the coffeemaker itself, a work of art and a piece of Americana, both figuratively and quite literally — it is included in the collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. There is also one on display at the Smithsonian and other museums. Meanwhile, in 1958, designers at the Illinois Institute of Technology deemed it “one of the best-designed products of modern times.”

Its 74-year history, not to mention those various accolades and others, are chronicled in various displays scattered about the conference room, including advertisements, signs, early sketches of the product, and several of the actual items, in an array of sizes.

In most respects, the conference room is now a nod to the past. Indeed, most of the items are now decades old. But in one corner sit a few boxes containing the company’s newest product (actually, reintroduction of an old one), an automatic version of the iconic coffeemaker — called the Ottomatic — that is already becoming a hit. Meanwhile, out in the shipping area, the labels on the boxes provide more evidence that this company, while clinging to its proud traditions, is certainly not stuck in the 19th century.

The addresses are for commercial clients and retailers in England, Malaysia, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and other countries, and they are indicative of a strong push over the past few years to make this product an international phenomenon rather than just a domestic one.

Still more evidence can be found with the stamps on Grassy’s passport, and also those carried by her mother, Liz, the company’s president, and brother, Adams, who also serves as vice president. Indeed, Grassy has been to Australia and England in recent months, attending coffee conventions, while Adams has other territory, including Asia, and her mother travels almost everywhere.

“We’re now distributing all over the world, and it’s something we’ve been tackling over the past four or five years,” said Grassy, who traces the origins of this global expansion to aggressive outreach fueled by heightened interest from coffee roasters in virtually every time zone — simply one manifestation of the explosion in business opportunities generated by coffee.

She told BusinessWest that the sharp upward trajectory of sales and profits in recent years is not so much a case of being in the right place (planet Earth) at the right time — although that’s part of it — but rather having an iconic product, creating international demand for it, and then meeting it.

To do that, the company, which had been located in Pittsfield for more than 30 years, was forced to seek out considerably larger quarters, and eventually settled on the site in Chicopee, just down the street from the main gate to Westover Air Reserve Base.

The new facility provides more space for both the limited manufacturing that takes place there — what amounts to final assembly of the coffee makers as well as cutting and packaging of the filters — and the more extensive distribution efforts.

the Chemex coffeemaker

Renowned for its simplistic design, the Chemex coffeemaker is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and other museums.

Several employees have been added over the past few months, and more additions are likely, said Grassy, noting that new machinery to package the filters has been acquired, and other investments in technology have been made.

Overall, demand keeps growing, and keeping up with it is a considerable challenge, meaning this is an exciting — and critical — time for the company.

For this issue and its focus on manufacturing, BusinessWest takes a look at this iconic product and the current efforts to continue its legacy, but in a contemporary fashion.

Bean Entrepreneurial

Grassy remembers virtually growing up in the Pittsfield plant where her parents took the company after acquiring it and refocusing its efforts solely on making coffeemakers after unsuccessful bids to expand the brand to other household items.

She recalls working a variety of jobs, from tying the strands of rawhide that go around the neck of each carafe to packing boxes in the warehouse. She also remembers the letters that would come with orders for new coffeemakers and especially the filters used in them, an equally potent source of revenue.

“People would write about how they had their coffeemaker for however many years, they love it, and it has become a part of the family,” she told BusinessWest, adding that such longevity isn’t the hindrance it might be if one were selling tires (primarily because the company also sells the filters). Instead, it’s a wonderfully effective selling point and a steady source of sales for the holidays, weddings, and virtually any time of the year.

Soon, the company will likely be getting more of these letters, and perhaps in a few different languages, as it continues its global push.

But before talking about that, Grassy set the stage by going back several decades and using the material in the cluttered conference room to help tell the story.

It begins with Schlumbohm. The German-born chemist-turned-inventor relocated to the U.S. in the 1930s and, within a few years, had filed more than 40 patents, most of them dealing in advances in refrigeration through chemical, mechanical, and engineering processes. But there were others, including one for a filtering device filed in 1939.

It would eventually become, along with the tremendously simple design, the heart and soul of the Chemex coffeemaker, which went into production only a few months after the U.S. entered World War II.

The product’s success is owed to a blend of chemistry and design: the narrow-waist flask, or carafe, uses filters made of chemically bonded paper, perhaps 30% thicker than those used for most drip-method coffeemakers, which removes most of the oils and chemicals, giving the coffee a distinctive taste that has helped Chemex more than withstand the recent onslaught from Keurig and other manufacturers.

“We have an entirely different philosophy, for lack of a better word, when it comes to making coffee,” she explained, adding that nothing has changed in 74 years. “The Chemex was designed as a pour-over method, so that the coffee grounds would be properly extracted. Schlumbohm, as a chemist, knew that pouring water over grounds created a chemical reaction, and his dissatisfaction with coffee at the time led him to develop bonded Chemex filters. When it extracts out all the undesirable oils, sediment, and fats, that just leaves the flavor of the bean and the caffeine.”

Peter Schlumbohm

Peter Schlumbohm, inventor of the Chemex coffeemaker, is seen is this photo, one of the company’s many artifacts, sketching the Chemmobile.

Upon its introduction, the Chemex immediately drew favorable reviews — it appeared on the cover of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Useful Objects in Wartime” bulletin — and solid sales that remained constant through the next several decades and long after Schlumbohm willed the company to an heir who later sold it to the first of a succession of private owners.

Over the years, the product has enjoyed a prominent place in popular culture. James Bond is seen using one in From Russia with Love, the second movie in the 53-year-old series; Mary Tyler Moore had one prominently displayed in her kitchen in her sitcom from the early ’70s; and the product appeared repeatedly in the Dick Tracy comic strip, for example. As part of its efforts to recreate the late ’50s and early ’60s, the makers of Mad Men placed a Chemex in Don Draper’s kitchen.

But the product has certainly stood the test of time, and has been anything but a museum piece, said Grassy, adding that it’s as popular now as it was in the ’50s, when Schlumbohm gave one as a gift to President Harry Truman.

The company was eventually sold to a concern that tried to broaden the Chemex brand to a host of kitchen appliances, said Grassy, adding that a succession of owners essentially failed to replicate the coffeemaker’s success with other products, and the company went into bankruptcy.

Sip Codes

When her parents bought it, they returned it to its roots, and it continued to “plunk along,” as Grassy put it, into the ’90s and the start of this century, when coffee ceased being a drink and instead became a thriving industry, with huge new chains like Starbucks and smaller coffee roasters setting up shop in cities across the country.

The Chemex coffeemaker has been part of the phenomenon, she said, adding that it is used by many specialty coffee chains, including Blue Bottle, Stumptown, George Howell, and others, who want to showcase their coffees in the best way possible.

“The Chemex truly makes a really, really good cup of coffee,” she noted. “And that’s very important for coffee roasters — they want to showcase their coffee beans and the flavors, and with the Chemex process, they’re really able to do that; there’s no bitterness, and you can make it as strong as you want.”

When the company became more aggressive with regard to generating new business, both domestically and overseas, and orders started, well, pouring in, those involved started expanding their horizons, and in many different ways.

It was as that profound change was happening that Grassy and her brother decided to become part of the leadership team at the company. Indeed, while they both grew up at the Pittsfield plant, neither had intentions of making this a career, she said.

“I had just moved to Cambridge from San Francisco — I had attended an art school out there and had gone for fine art — and had planned to go to Leslie for an art-therapy degree, when I got diverted,” she said. “My mother said, ‘things are busy; I’d love it if you could come help, even on weekends or part-time.’

“So I started commuting back to the Berkshires, and that’s when I noticed something interesting was happening,” she went on. “I noticed it in cafés and online, and I said, ‘something’s going on here, and we just need to get involved,’ and the rest is history.’”

What was going on lay at the heart of the basic laws concerning supply and demand. Changing times and iconic products were creating demand, and now the company had to go about creating a supply.

While the company has always sold its product overseas, Grassy said, volume there was a fraction of what it was domestically. That started to change when she and her mother traveled to London five years ago for a coffee event.

“We started making connections there,” she said, adding that these involved both retailers and the growing legions of coffee roasters, and these connections helped introduce the product to new markets and new constituencies, thus generating sales volume.

The pattern has been repeated in other European countries, including Germany and Austria, and also in Asia, South America, Australia, and other spots around the globe, said Grassy, to the point where international sales are now approaching domestic volume.

And while expanding its market reach, the company is also introducing new products, such as the Ottomatic, a machine (manufactured in Ireland) that brings the same brewing chemistry and philosophy, but with the push of button.

“It’s a revolutionary automatic coffee machine,” she explained. “It actually has as shower head, so, as opposed to a regular coffee machine which has one stream straight down, ours showers down and has a pulsing to mimic the Chemex brewing. It’s been a huge success for us.”

Meanwhile, it has rebranded, changing a logo that had been constant since the ’80s, and also created new packaging, updated the website, and made full use of the wide array of social-media outlets to get its message across.

“It’s been quite an evolution,” said Grassy, adding that a thread through its many elements has been sensitivity to the company’s long, proud history, while also modernizing the brand as necessary. This approach can be seen in some of the new advertisements, which have a ’50s look to them.

“We want to take a company with a rich history and continue that legacy in a contemporary way,” she explained. “Our history is very special, and we don’t want to deviate from it. We want to marry the past with the present and future.”

Off-the-cup Remarks

As she wrapped up a tour of the Chicopee facility, Grassy paused in the spacious, still-vacant front area of the building.

Eventually, it will be reshaped into a display area for many of those artifacts now in the conference room — which represent only a fraction of what the company has stored in its archives — and there will also be a small coffee bar for employees and customers.

It’s an exciting development, one of many taking place at this company that is writing new chapters in a story that is rich in character — and flavor.

In other words, this is a venture on very solid ground — or grounds, as the case may be.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]