CEO and President, Vassilaros & Sons Coffee Co.
Stefanie Kasselakis Kyles is the CEO and President of Vassilaros & Sons Coffee. In addition, she is on the board of the National Coffee Association. Kyles has a diverse and extensive background, which has allowed her to enter the leadership role of the coffee company started by her great grandfather 100 years ago.
Total Food Service had the opportunity to ask Stefanie Kyles a few questions about the history and evolution of the Vassilaros family business, and why fresh local coffee makes a huge difference in what restaurants serve their customers.
Please discuss how you got into the coffee industry.
Actually, I had not expected to go into the family business. I went to law school, and entered the corporate world practicing international law. I also spent some time doing investment banking. At that time, my uncle had been running Vassilaros for about twenty-five years. Unfortunately, he became sick and passed away. I ended up leaving my corporate job and going to Queens to run the family business. It was a difficult time because we were obviously distraught having suffered a great loss, but that was counterbalanced by a very desire to keep the company strong and in the family.
Since I started two years ago, it’s been an amazing experience. It’s completely different from anything I’ve ever done before. Previously, everything I did revolved around abstract concepts, so it’s wonderful to be running a manufacturing facility at a company that still makes coffee properly. In addition to the vast requirements of running a working factory, our customers have tremendous demands placed on them and we are in service to them.
As you look at some of the key mentors throughout your career, is there anyone in particular who had a significant impact on you?
Absolutely. You can’t do anything without valuable lessons from great mentors. The chairman of a company that I previously worked for had been my mentor since I was in school. I partially adopted his style, and received wonderful career advice early on. There were no corporate mentors in my world growing up; everyone I knew had a family business or a restaurant. They were all really intelligent and hardworking entrepreneurs, but nobody could help me to write a resume or coach me through an interview at a law firm. In my opinion, the mentor I’m referring to is one of the great leaders of our time. Fortunately, I was well prepared for a leadership role.
Looking at the history of how Vassilaros came into existence and how it has evolved over the years, what are some of the highlights? What has enabled the company’s continued success?
My great grandfather, John Vassilaros, started the company. He was an immigrant from Greece. He arrived in the country penniless and unable to speak English, however, he had the wisdom to build a company on very fundamental business principles. Coffee is a crop, and he treated it as such. The flow of beans, the countries of origin, the flavor character, the freshness, and the price are always changing throughout the growing cycle. The problem was that coffee was inconsistent. Some days it was good, and some days it was bad. In the early 1900’s, my great grandfather began blending beans at his kitchen table. Eventually, he came up with a recipe that he could reproduce day after day regardless of the time of year, which in turn allowed restaurants to rely on the quality, flavor, and price of his product. It’s also important to note that my great grandfather was very conservative. He managed cash flow, never overextending himself or taking on debt. He operated a weekly route business that was cash on delivery. This model allowed him to essentially finance his customers’ growth. As immigrants would arrive from Greece, they would open a diner, and become his customers. These family diners would grow to include multiple locations. A lot of these families that my great grandfather worked with are still customers today. I don’t want to give the impression that our whole world is comprised of those tight knit relationships, but supporting the growth of your customers can translate into growth within your own business. Eventually, we broke into the broader market in the 1960’s when my grandfather took the helm.
In what ways has the business changed since you joined the company? Has the local roasting community grown? Please discuss some of the things that have impacted the industry.
There are two different components to my response. The first factor relates to income for the business. In my role, I aim to professionalize this company, and allow it to be a bridge to the future. We’re constantly responding to the changing landscape of the industry, and there’s been quite a bit of changes over the past few years. The rise of Starbucks is often referred to as the third wave of the coffee industry, and now we’re in the fourth wave, which is defined by more artisan micro roaster products and independent coffee shops. I’ve found this change to be positive, as it has led to much more awareness around coffee. Coffee has actually grown in popularity, and has even become trendy. Now there’s a new appreciation for the sourcing of beans. There is a new respect for the challenges associated with making a great cup of coffee, and a larger consumer appreciation for different flavors. There are new buzzwords used to describe coffee, such as ‘premium,’ ‘quality,’ ‘fine-cup,’ and ‘locally sourced.’ At Vassilaros we’ve been doing all of that for decades, because the restaurants we serve require the best quality product.
Are there any special plans for the celebration of Vassilaros 100 year anniversary?
We’re about to launch an anniversary blend to celebrate 100 years. It’s currently in progress, but it will be ready soon.
How has technology impacted how you operate your business?
There’s certainly a lot more information available regarding the sourcing of beans. Sourcing has become very transparent and traceable. Now there’s more focus on origin because it has become clear where beans are coming from, and there are apparent differences in character depending on the different sources. Also, the roasting process has changed. Roasting coffee is essentially toasting raw beans until they’re caramelized which releases the flavor and character. Previously, a master roaster would have to listen to the drum until he or she heard ‘first crack.’ The first crack refers to the temperature at which the beans finally start to break down and become caramelized. It actually sounds like the popping of popcorn. Although it’s still the same concept, we now use computerized roasters, which give us very specific control over all the metrics going into the process. All of the metrics change from week to week as the seasons change and based on the varying moisture levels of the coffee beans. We are constantly making adjustments in order to achieve the same taste every time. In addition, technology has ushered in computerized route systems, which allow for tremendous efficiency.
Do you typically provide equipment to your customers?
Yes, we provide all of the equipment. It’s part of our business model. We also provide the service to that equipment, so we have five in-house techs on call. The equipment we provide is from a variety of vendors. In the past, we’ve considered narrowing down the brands that we offer to simplify inventory, but the reality is all kitchens are different. Each kitchen has unique nooks and crannies, so we want the ability to offer the right equipment that suits the particular needs of each customer.
Recently we’ve seen an emergence of cold brew. What’s your read on that business?
We’ve done very well with cold brew. Vassilaros began offering it last summer. There’s a reason why cold brew has become so popular – it’s really delicious. Until recently, ice coffee meant making a pot of coffee and chilling it, but cold brew has a radically different flavor profile. In my opinion, cold brew is certainly here to stay. It’s at a very early stage of its life cycle. Cold brew is popular in warm climates, but it’s also becoming a big ready-to-drink product. The industry and preparation standards are still in the making, but it’s one of the fastest growing products in the beverage sector. Vassilaros offers a ready-to-brew cold brew to our customers. Depending on the establishment, we’ve seen that product do very well. Offering a cold brew is a wonderful example of putting a modern twist on a 100-year-old company. We’re not hurting what we do well, but rather building on it.
Restaurants have a variety of offerings to choose from when purchasing coffee. There are online options like Amazon, and large distributors such as Sysco and U.S. Foods. After 100 successful years, there are clearly elements to Vassilaros that separate it from the competition. Why Vassilaros?
There is really no comparison between Vassilaros and the large distributors. The difference is freshness. Once coffee has been roasted, the flavor starts to dissipate rather quickly. We roast every day. From the time we roast it, it’s in a restaurant twenty-four hours later. The coffee doesn’t sit in a warehouse, a basement, or a shipping container. Our coffee is meant to be used right away. I think that freshness is under valued. The difference is clear when you compare Vassilaros coffee to the bigger and more commercial brands that are not hand roasting day after day.
We’re having our annual celebration of top women in the restaurant and foodservice industry soon. Do you think that women in this industry have broken through the proverbial glass ceiling?
I’m a lawyer, so I start by looking at the facts. If you track the CEOs of the major coffee businesses, there are not a whole lot of women in those ranks. If you consider the sheer numbers, like most other industries, women are still largely under-represented. However, people like me that are able and willing to step up and take on the CEO role are hopefully making a positive change. I really enjoy having the opportunity to change attitudes. In my opinion, it comes down to doing a great job and having that be recognized.
What does the future for Vassilaros look like?
Our goal is to keep our heads down and keep building our business by putting one foot in front of the other. Historically, we’ve grown the company behind the scenes without too much fanfare, which I think has helped us to best serve our customers. The focus will be to continue on that 100-year-old path.
To learn more about Stefanie Kyles and Vassilaros & Sons Coffee Co., visit their website
All photos courtesy of Vassilaros & Sons Coffee Co.