A DIFFERENT KIND OF COFFEE SHOP: FAIR MOUNTAIN COFFEE ROASTERS
Most mornings in the business district of Atlantic Highlands, those anywhere near the corner of First Avenue and East Garfield Avenue are likely lured by the toasty aroma of roasting coffee. And those who follow their noses will be drawn into the serene and flavorful auspices of Fair Mountain Coffee Roasters, a fixture in Atlantic Highlands since 2012 but conceived decades earlier in the confines of Wall Street’s coffee district where two java lovers fell in love.
In the early ’80s, a 20-something Greg Lewis took a job as a coffee runner at a firm in lower Manhattan. Thus began a steady ascent in an industry that flourished around the coffee crossroads of Wall Street and Water Street. His jobs, after coffee runner, included operating tasting rooms, quality control, trafficking, trading, and eventually a prestigious arbitrator for the Coffee, Sugar, and Cocoa Exchange.
In 1984, Barb DiBeneditto was hired as a receptionist and later worked in the traffic department at the coffeehouse where Greg was employed. They met and married two years later, eventually going separate ways professionally. Barb broke into broadcast television production and started her own teleprompter company; Greg pursued his talent for decorative arts via his services for hire while also teaching at Parsons School of Design. They lived in Manhattan and watched a lot of This Old House, dreaming of buying homes of their own to renovate.
This dream manifested in a succession of New Jersey houses the couple would purchase, renovate, and sell while maintaining their respective careers.
The 2008 recession all but ended any demand for the gilded splendor of Greg’s art; at the same time, Barb was growing weary of the constant and increasingly unglamorous travel her teleprompter business warranted. This is when the coffee bug came back.
“I missed the physical side of coffee,” Greg says, referring to the previous aspect of his job that involved visiting farms and warehouses, roasting, tasting, and generally interacting with people.
“Our goal,” Barb says, “was to supply great, organic, fair trade coffee to people who appreciate it.”
Greg Lewis and Barb DiBeneditto of Fair Mountain Coffee Roasters
They bought a small roaster and stationed it in the basement of their Montclair home. Greg connected a flue to the fireplace, and they began roasting right there, filling the neighborhood with both the smell of roasting coffee and the sight of curious neighbors. The idea wasn’t to operate the business in their basement but to build flavor profiles for the coffees they’d eventually sell once they found some retail space. (All coffee roasted was donated to said curious neighbors.)
Lovers of the shore, the couple bought a home in Fair Haven and opened Fair Mountain Coffee Roasters in 2012 among the retail spaces at 171 First Ave. in Atlantic Highlands. The original storefront was 700 square feet located down an alley, next to a dry cleaner, at the back of the building.
“It was hard to find us,” Greg admits. “And no one knew who we were, so we had to bring the store to the people.”
They did this, Thursdays and Sundays after work, at farmers’ markets in Red Bank, Sea Bright, Atlantic Highlands, and Robbinsville.
According to Greg: “It was the hardest job I ever had, but it was the most rewarding. It was so much fun dealing with the people, and they were great; they supported us, and it was all about getting started.”
The grassroots approach worked. Walk-in business picked up, as did effective online marketing and sales. A forager from Whole Foods Market found them at a farmers’ market and a wholesale business began that added many local gourmet shops and restaurants. They needed a bigger roaster. And more space. They found exactly what they needed on the other side of the building, a 1,500-square-foot location with an entrance that opened to East Garfield Avenue.
Through screen doors the space is cool and muted, of umber tones and refurbished decor: driftwood, tobacco fence, corrugated metal roofing, funky iron chandeliers commissioned from a local artisan. There’s a map-of-the-world mural covering two walls, painted by Greg, of the coffee belt with indications of the 23 countries from where they procure their beans. Of course, said beans are on full display, arranged around the room on the floor in open sacks picked up personally at their ports of arrival. There are packaged ground beans on shelves, as well as edibles and art from local producers.
“We’re not really a café. We hope that people are taking our coffee home, and they’re brewing it and reading the paper. We’ll teach you how to brew it; we’ll teach you about coffee.”
Barb can usually be found out on the floor offering expertise, behind the counter pouring coffee or ringing up sales; Greg is frequently on display, in the airy and pristine production area over a low fence, working the roaster and discussing, with those who gather to watch, the computerized system that enables roasting each coffee to a specific profile.
What you won’t find there are tables and chairs, open laptops and slow-sipped ventis. In this way, Fair Mountain Coffee Roasters, by design, resembles more of a boutique wine store than a coffee shop.
“We’re not really a café,” says Barb. “We hope that people are taking our coffee home, and they’re brewing it and reading the paper. We’ll teach you how to brew it; we’ll teach you about coffee.”
Among those who get the shop and its ethos is Rick Pascocello, a publishing industry veteran, who has been a customer and friend for seven years. “Each week I stop in to pick up two pounds. I love that I can also receive an education on both the coffee beans, the small farm companies that grow them, and the countries Barbara and Greg visited before procuring any of them.”
And that love Rick has for Fair Mountain Coffee Roasters is a blessing born from the love that Barb and Greg have for each other and for coffee.
FAIR MOUNTAIN COFFEE ROASTERS
171 First Ave., Atlantic Highlands