Eagle Coffee Co. fills area cups with a little taste of the world

JACQUES KELLY

August 04, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Nick Constantinides, Baltimore's Mr. Coffee, prefers his java black -- no milk, no sugar, no flavors, please.

Drinking coffee that way also helps him test its taste.

Constantinides can be found behind his desk at the Eagle Coffee Co., Inc., in the 1000 block of Hillen St., just around the corner from the landmark No. 6 fire house, the Oldtown Mall and the Sunday morning downtown Farmer's Market.

On most days, a Federal Express truck delivers a small cardboard box full of just-picked beans to Eagle.

If Constantinides likes the taste of these samples from Jamaica, Hawaii, Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Mexico and Africa, chances are these coffees will turn up on thousands of breakfast tables in the Baltimore and Washington area.

From the outside, Eagle looks like one of many ancient Oldtown businesses that are located in small rowhouses, barely three stories high, that were converted to businesses in the 1000 block of Hillen. The scene is 1840s Baltimore.

Do not be misled. Behind the brick walls that house Constantinides' business is a modern coffee roasting and packaging operation that supplies tons of java to every Giant supermarket and to dozens of institutions, hotels, restaurants and gourmet shops.

If you have any doubts, just inhale near the corner of Hillen and Colvin streets. It's not hard to pick up the scent of the toasted beans. On days when the big gas-fired oven is toasting a batch of heady French roast coffee, you can smell the aroma all the way up to the Maryland Penitentiary or as far west as the Peabody Conservatory of Music on Mount Vernon Place.

"When I got into this business, we were a small firm. We roasted about 11,000 pounds a week. Now I do 11,000 pounds for one Giant supermarket store alone," the 47-year-old Constantinides said.

He was still taking courses at the University of Baltimore when he joined his father, Louis, in the family-owned and operated business that was once one of several independent coffee roasters in Baltimore. Time extracted its toll on his competitors. Today, Eagle and the Pfefferkorn firm, located in Federal Hill, are the only survivors.

Eagle is the largest of the two and is the city's only direct coffee importer. Yesterday, for example, he received a full container of 334 burlap bags of decaffeinated coffee -- the decaf process is done in Germany although the coffee is Colombian -- a total of some 44,800 pounds. It will be on supermarket shelves in the next few weeks. His coffee is sold under the names Eagle and Oldtown.

"We utilize the Port of Baltimore whenever possible. We buy direct from the growers and have it shipped in via container loads. It winds up at Locust Point or Dundalk," Constantinides said.

The firm was founded in 1921 by an uncle, Arthur Stergio, on West Lexington Street. It moved briefly to the 600 block of W. Baltimore St., then settled into 307 S. Charles St., where it turned out coffee, packaged in tin cans with fancy labels, for about 40 years. For their Greek customers, they also made an especially strong coffee called Lord Byron.

"We had a three-story converted tobacco warehouse at what would be the back door of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. The Inner Harbor [renewal] took us. I could sell a lot of coffee if I had that location today," Constantinides said.

He and his father were paid a "small" amount to leave the harbor area. They bought a building at Hillen and Colvin in 1971 and have expanded into several adjoining properties. His brother Arthur joined the firm in 1970.

Constantinides soon began making changes with the basic blend of coffee his firm was selling.

"The coffee America drank wasn't really very good. I immediately upgraded and bought better beans. It took off," he said.

Today, some of his customers will pay $30 a pound for Jamaican Blue Mountain beans.

"If you think that's high, there's a lady who came in and bought 10 one-pound bags of it," he said.

Constantinides sells coffee along the East Coast, particularly in Washington, where many select grocers carry his wares.

"But Baltimore is the backbone. It's sold at Lexington Market at Konstant's stall and at the Polock Johnny's. And it's also served at Peerce's Plantation," he said.

Business took off in the 1970s and 1980s, when customers began buying better grades of coffee and flavored coffees.

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