(Photo: Art Gentile/The Intelligencer via AP)
“In 1978 is when we started…” begins Tom Miller. “Many moons ago and twenty pounds lighter!” interjects his wife, Cathie. So begins an afternoon of tag-team tales from the lively couple behind Thomas Miller Coffee, a small, family-owned business that provides complete coffee service to several SAGE venues across three mid-Atlantic states. Tom and Cathie have been working together for 36 years, fueling their company’s steady growth with a focused service mentality that sets them apart from other vendors.
Tell me a little about the origins of your business—and of your relationship!
Cathie: He [Tom] started part-time, and he left his full-time job in 1978. He was known as the cookie man because he sold more cookies than coffee, and eventually the coffee part grew. In 1980, we met at one of his accounts. On our second date I was doing his books and helping him with deliveries; three years later, we were married.
Tom: Our first warehouse started in a one-bedroom apartment. Now we have this massive warehouse [just north of Philadelphia]. We ship coffee to parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, within a two-hour radius of our warehouse.
What services do you offer?
Tom: We provide good coffee, good service, and good equipment. We buy our coffee through contracts, so the prices of the coffee we sell stay fixed for a year instead of fluctuating like a commodity normally would. We also provide state-of-the-art equipment and maintenance with our coffee service at no additional cost.
We serve all kinds of different locations— offices, restaurants, delis, factories, hospitals, dining halls— any place coffee is consumed. We distribute many different roasts, along with creamer, sugar, tea, cups, equipment, anything that’s related to that cup of coffee. And when your equipment breaks, we’re there to take care of it.
How do you decide which coffee roasters to work with?
Cathie: We try to get roasters who are appealing to different people for different reasons. There’s not a taste profile that we can’t match. We got one account with a lot of staff members from the South. They were coming up here but they missed their coffee. The key thing when we were bidding was “Can you get Community Coffee®?” Community is a family-owned roaster and distributor down in Baton Rouge. It’s hard to find up here. But we got it.
Tom: We’re very proud of the fact that we work with small vendors all over the country, and that we put so much effort into community relationships and sustainable companies and supporting local economies.
How do those relationships inform your business philosophy?
Cathie: People and service are what’s important to us. Our service is about exceeding people’s expectations. If a service call comes in before noon, it’s taken care of that day. It doesn’t matter if it’s in Westchester or Allentown. We’ve been on a boat in the middle of the Chesapeake, two hours away in a blizzard; it doesn’t stop us. We’ll get the job done quickly, safely, and, 99% of the time, the first time. And all of our route drivers are trained to do some service, so in a pinch, they can do it. ‘Cause if you can’t get your cup of coffee, it’s not going to be a good day. We know how important it is.
The same goes for our people. Most of our employees have been here 15 years or more. They’re not just delivery people; they’re not just service people; they’re relation-builders. We want our people to build those relationships so that when competition comes in with an offer, our customers can say “Oh, no, I love my coffee guy. My coffee guy takes care of me.”
Fifteen years—that’s loyalty!
Tom: Our customers tend to stick around, too. The place I spent my first day working is still our account. We’re not a big company; we’re not into rapid expansion. We want growth, we just want to make sure that the customer’s going to be happy with us, and that we can take care of them.
Cathie: After all, if you’re not perkin’, we’re not workin’.
At SAGE, we can attest firsthand to the fantastic experience cultivated by Tom and Cathie’s service mentality. Of Thomas Miller Coffee & Co., SAGE Executive Chef at John Starrett at The Hun School of Princeton’s (and previously at Moore College, another Thomas Miller venue) says: “They’ve been one of my best vendors. Their technology team is incredibly accommodating and responsive. Their sales team is great to work with on merchandising and new products. They bring a great product into our venues. And I always get a laugh in when I’m placing an order.”