Keeping Things Hot

Approaching 100 locations and 40 years in business, PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans gets a new look and prepares to jump into custom coffee.
Sara Essex Bradley

New Orleans is notoriously anti-chain store — unless, of course, the business is one of our own. Out of a single Uptown shop, PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans made its name starting in the late 1970s with its hot coffees, original cold brew iced coffee, organic teas and freshly baked pastries. As specialty coffee shops spread to every street corner, PJ’s became a local institution.

From the original store —opened on Maple Street in the Carrollton neighborhood in September 1978 — locations of “PJ's Coffee & Tea Co.,” as it was originally known, spread throughout the Greater New Orleans area with company-owned shops. PJ’s founder, Phyllis Jordan, (hence the initials) developed a special cold-drip brewing process that has since grown in popularity, with several businesses adopting her technique into their own offerings.

Jordan, a pioneer in the modern coffee industry, believed offering the best coffee beans  — sourcing only the top one percent of Arabica beans for her brews — along with superior bean-roasting techniques made for a more delicious flavor. But it was the development of a special cold-drip process that protects the flavor and strength of the beans, while producing a coffee that is two-thirds less acidic, that was the store’s original claim to fame.

PJ's opened its first franchise in Mandeville in 1989. From there, stores opened in Hammond and Picayune, Mississippi. Atlanta-based Raving Brands bought the company in 2002, and then sold it in 2008 to brothers, Paul, Steven and Scott Ballard of New Orleans Brew. New Orleans Brew then evolved into Ballard Brands, whose portfolio also includes WOW Café: American Grill & Wingery, The Original City Diner and Boardhouse Serious Sandwiches.

This fall, the company expects to open its 100th store. As part of the preparation for this milestone, a new brand identity has been unveiled, including an updated logo and a signature décor for its shops. The company will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2018.

“Our vision is all about delivering the New Orleans passion for eating, drinking and living to the world,” said Peter Boylan, president of Ballard Brands, PJ’s parent company. “Before the end of the year, we’ll have 100 stores open and operating. We wanted to make sure the brand properly articulated the story of craftsmanship. This coffee has soul in it. That’s what makes PJ’s different.”

Custom Offerings

For those who prefer to shop online rather than going into a PJ’s location or grocery store, PJ’s is building an e-commerce platform that will allow customers to select their preferred beans from a particular geographic region, have them roasted to a desired flavor and delivered to their door.

“You’ll have the ability to interact with our roast master in order to deliver a product to your desired specifications,” said Peter Boylan, president of Ballard Brands, PJ’s parent company. “It allows folks to say, ‘I’d really like to have five pounds of an Ethiopian with a medium roast.’ We’ll roast those in small batches at our facility in the Marigny based on the order of folks looking for that premium product.”  

Farm to Cup

PJ’s partnership with a Honduran coffee farm is changing lives.

One of the major  trends in contemporary coffee production is to not only directly source the highest quality coffee beans at the peak of freshness, but to do so while making a difference in the farming community where the beans are grown. PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans is part of this movement.   

PJ’s imports coffee from farms around the world, but the relationship the company has developed with El Terrerito Farm to produce and nurture Arabica coffee plants is special.

“We’ve partnered with them to purchase all of the coffee off of that farm,” said Peter Boylan, president of Ballard Brands, PJ’s parent company.

Boylan knows El Terrerito’s owner, Al Lopez, from previous restaurant-related business dealings when Sara Lee and PepsiCo employed Lopez. Upon retiring, Lopez bought 225 acres in the Copan Region of Honduras, a four-hour car ride southwest of San Pedro Sula, in the mountains near the border with Guatemala.

Coffee grown at El Terrerito has a bright, lightly fruity taste profile that doesn’t linger, says PJ’s roastmaster, Felton Jones, Jr.

 “By adopting El Terrerito Farm in Honduras, PJ’s Coffee is committed to doing business in ways that are good for the planet and each other,” Jones said. “Not only are we serving a great cup of Honduran coffee to customers, we’re developing programs to ensure the quality of life of Honduran farmers is improved.”

Boylan said farm workers at El Terrerito are paid a higher wage than average coffee workers in the region, and are also better able sustain their families through the farm’s tilapia pond, herd of cows and goats, chickens and mango grove.

El Terrerito Farm Supervisor Marcial Rivera is among those that have benefitted from the farm’s relationship with PJ’s. Rivera grew up picking coffee with his mother and siblings during school breaks. Harvesting beans provided funds for the kids’ school supplies and clothing.

The oldest of nine brothers and sisters, Rivera dropped out of school after sixth grade to help support his family by working as a mechanic. He soon found, however, that this work didn’t provide the income to sustain himself, much less his family.

Eventually, Rivera met Lopez, the owner of El Terrerito and was given a job. After five years on the farm, he says he is working “the right way,” while earning enough to provide for his family.

“I cannot express my gratitude to the farm owner, Mr. Adelmo Lopez, who calls me and introduces me as his ‘partner,’” Rivera said. “We do everything different here — we care for the environment, the streams, the trees, the birds and other animals (no hunting is allowed), the soil and each and every coffee tree. I can testify that we are on the right track, and I am proud to make my living working in El Terrerito Farm. I have helped myself and my family. My wife and kids have a much better life now. I believe I can help many other families that work in El Terrerito Farm and this makes me feel very proud every single day.”

New Looks

In August, PJ’s debuted its new branding with the opening of franchisee Aubrey Miller’s Garden District shop at the intersection of Magazine Street and Jackson Avenue. It features PJ’s newly enhanced, upscale, modern interior design paired with a little New Orleans flair. The store represents the new brand standard for all PJ’s locations, with renovations to established shops beginning later this year.

“We’re trying to differentiate ourselves,” said Peter Boylan, president of Ballard Brands, PJ’s parent company. “We want to quickly articulate to our guests that this is a premium brand. The brand persona is that PJ’s was born and raised in New Orleans, and we want to make sure that we deliver a little bit of that New Orleans passion everywhere we go.

“We’re looking for folks who appreciate an excellent cup of coffee and appreciate the hospitable experience they’re going to have in one of our stores and the craftsmanship that goes into producing each beverage — from the time it is farmed, to when it gets to our facility on North Peters in the Marigny, where it is roasted, bagged and delivered to each store.”

The Garden District shop also debuted the company’s new logo, its first design change in more than a decade. Gone is the purple and red logo with the black letters and swirly serifs. The new PJ’s image, created by New Orleans-based Moroch Partners, has a more streamlined look in purple and white that features a tightly kerned, short-serifed P and J with a coffee mug cradled in the curve of the J. According to its designers, the logo’s rich purple color embodies the soul of Louisiana and has ties to New Orleans icons, including Mardi Gras and the former K&B drug stores.

Brad Hunter, a partner at Bond Moroch, said the company worked with PJ’s through the first half of 2017 on a brand truth process to determine the company’s defining characteristics, its customers and brand persona before developing brand identification and logos, as well as how it will be presented to the public.

“We wanted to make the new logo about coffee,” Hunter said. “A great part of the logo is when the customer discovers the design element of the coffee cup in the J. It’s very cool. It’s like the arrow in the FedEx logo. Once you see it, you’ll never not see it again. It reinforces the message that this is about a great cup of coffee, something that should be appreciated.”

New Locations

 The majority of PJ’s stores are in or near Louisiana, but the brand has an ambitious growth plan. Already in seven states — including California and a newly opened shop in Miami Beach, Florida — PJ’s is discussing expansion to Colorado and Northern Virginia, as well as adding to its international locations in Vietnam with additional stores in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean.

“We’ve got a pretty aggressive strategy,” said Peter Boylan, president of Ballard Brands, PJ’s parent company. “Look at it like spokes on a wheel — you’ve got New Orleans as the hub, and we’re taking the brand and expanding it out with a spoke toward Houston, a spoke toward Dallas, toward Denver, St. Louis, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Building those markets out is one of the big opportunities.

“The future is about expanding the brand strategically throughout the United States,” he added, “as well as targeted international markets where premium coffee is appreciated and valued.”

Buying In

Coffee talk with new PJ’s franchisees

Of the 100 stores PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans expects to have open by the end of the year, only 14 will be owned by the corporation.

“We’re a franchise business,” said Peter Boylan, president of Ballard Brands, PJ’s parent company. “It gives people the opportunity to own their own business associated with a brand that cares.”

PJ’s has set an aggressive growth strategy. The company is already looking to reach 150 stores, as it spreads across the South, West, and internationally in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean.

Among PJ’s newest franchise owners are Kyra and Jermale Sam, who are set to open a store in Pearland, Texas. Kyra Sam managed franchises of PJ’s and Smoothie King in New Orleans when she was younger and said it was always her goal to have her own store. When Jermale, an anesthesiologist, took a position in Texas, the couple began looking at franchise opportunities.

“We decided on PJ's because we love the taste of the coffee,” Kyra Sam said. “Where we live they don't have many coffee shops, so we decided why not bring a taste of New Orleans coffee to Pearland? Our hope is that people enjoy the flavor and the ambience of the new look of the store that PJ's is rolling out.”

Once the Pearland store is established, the Sams plan to open other locations in south Houston.

“We are looking forward to this journey with the PJ's brand and serving the Houston market,” she said.



Categories: History