I was sad to learn that the National Beverage and Products Association has decided not to continue holding its annual trade show. I started attending that event as a full-time VT employee in 1989. It had become an annual road trip for me, my mother and my father – our former publisher, the late Victor Lavay. It was a chance for us to spend quality drive-time together and talk about the industry in my own private tutoring session (while listening to Frank Sinatra)...
The East Coast Coffee Service Association, as it was known back then, always staged a small show. I’d see most of the same faces every year, and I began to look forward to it. One of the first seminars I covered was called “Second Generation, Sharing the Wealth.” The moderators included the Zirakians, father and son, and the late Gerry and Ron Blum. As an assistant editor, I covered many educational sessions at this convention. My favorites were always the round table discussions, since everyone really said what was on their mind. I learned a lot about the office coffee service business during these events, and mingled with many imaginative entrepreneurs.
As a blossoming young journalist, I felt very comfortable with this group. They all seemed very eager to share their experiences with me. The late Harry Saslofsky of Ellis Coffee, Julie Hecht, Butch and Lynn Winkler and Len Rashkin are a few of the friendly folks who shared their wisdom with me. The association was like family!
A lot changed about that show over the years. For one thing, that second generation (and third, in some cases) began to take over, and many “pure OCS” operators shifted their emphasis to related enterprises like bottled water and vending. Consequently, the trade show got smaller, but the educational programs remained as strong as ever. In retrospect, this was part of a trend away from special-interest exhibits. During that period we saw the National Coffee Service Association fold into NAMA (1999), and many trade groups in a number of industries began consolidating their shows to offer a wider audience to their exhibitors. In our industry, local coffee service associations – some of which predated NCSA, and which had proliferated during the 1970s and ‘80s – merged and then faded away. Today, only the Keystone Coffee Association survives.
But NBPA held on, largely through the perseverance of Roger and Paulette Rigolli and Jay McMenamin, and the devoted efforts of a small group of industry leaders. The association attracted national support from many pioneers of the OCS business, but its core constituency always was a regional base of operators in the “eastern corridor.”
For the past five years, each show was rumored to be the last, but the association prevailed. I always found it frustrating that the naysayers would gossip about the show’s demise, rather than working to ensure its survival.
As we all know, business has gotten harder and everything has become more expensive, including travel. We work twice as hard to earn the same nickel, and we strive with increasing diligence to cut costs. But even through these difficult years, NBPA continued to spearhead one of the best educational programs for total refreshment service operators. I have grown as a result of it. And as my parents always told me, education is something that no one can ever take away from you!
NBPA may have shelved its trade show, but the association is still in business. Its leaders and wellwishers understand the value of networking: learning from your peers. I hope they will continue their great tradition by launching a new educational conference. The trade show always provided the financial support for the convention, but there are other ways for manufacturers and suppliers to profit from underwriting education. There is no reason why we can’t keep the NBPA family together and attract new operators.
There is something to be said for the regional trade group, the mom-and-pop operation, the small start-up company. At their best, they bring new ideas, different perspectives and a breath of fresh air to an industry. That always has been true in the coin-operated industries, and it was equally true of coffee service – perhaps even truer.
Coffee service is unusual. From one viewpoint, the modern OCS concept – selling coffee by the kit for the customer to brew, and pricing it by the brewed cup – was a brilliant response to the challenge of serving small locations. During the postwar economic boom, it had been practical to supply pre-brewed coffee (in large insulated servers) or simple, inexpensive soluble-coffee vending machines to offices with a dozen people. Fuel was cheap, diligent workers were readily available, inflation was negligible. All that had ended by 1960 or so, and a new approach was needed. The relatively recent advent of the small-batch paper filter restaurant brewer, and coffee in fractional-pound packaging, provided the means to devise one.
That approach surely was brilliant, but it required a very different skill set from vending or pre-brew (or mobile catering). All those industries involved a good deal of apparatus, specialized knowledge to keep it running, and a need for ongoing legislative and regulatory vigilance. Early coffee service had none of those complexities; it was a sales, delivery and billing method. Vending operators and bottled water distributors could do it, and many of them did; some were among the founders of NCSA. As more and more providers of workplace services added OCS, the coffee service operators countered with their own vending and pure water programs. As VENDING TIMES always has argued, “it’s all one industry.”
Indeed it is, but each of the groups coming together to form that one industry has its own insights to impart. Effective selling and market positioning always have been OCS operators’ specific strengths, and operators in other segments have learned from them. The National Automatic Merchandising Association has understood this, and has done a fine job of carrying forward the best of NCSA (the Quality Coffee Certification Program is just one example).
But there is only so much education that can be conducted twice a year, for three days in a major tourist venue. There is an ongoing need for local discussion and relationship-building. No one at present will argue that several dozen local trade shows are the answer. But I’m confident that an answer can be found, and I hope NBPA finds it.