Martinson coffee, founded by my great-uncle Joe Martinson
This column appeared in the Toronto Star in 2002. I was reminded of it recently when I stayed in a hotel in Kitchener, Ontario, and found this coffee in the room.
A cup of joe.
Who would have thought I am related – albeit distantly – to the “Joe” of that famous culinary phrase.
It all began, as is often the case, almost by accident.
It was last fall and I was in Las Vegas attending a four-day gathering of food writers from across North America. One evening, at a cocktail soiree atop one of The Strip’s glitzy casinos, I was chatting with a colleague, Suzanne Martinson, food editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and her investigative journalist husband Bob.
During our conversation, I asked if they were related to the Martinsons of Martinson Coffee: a popular American brand of that trusty brew. The pair answered “No,” although they knew the coffee well, and I thought that was that.
My reason for asking was a long-shot and sprung from some recent rooting around I’ve been doing to unearth my family tree.
My Martinson connection dates back to the summer of 1940. That was when my mother, at age 17, arrived in Seattle with her parents and younger sister, having fled the holocaust that was soon to decimate their large Jewish family left in Riga, Latvia.
Their escape, which took one year, was via Sweden, the Trans-Siberian Railway to Japan and across the Pacific Ocean to the United States.
Having omitted to get their passports stamped in Vancouver, the family was refused visas to enter the U.S. They were imprisoned and would have been returned to Europe had my wealthy oil tycoon grandfather Aaron Nisse not contacted an attorney called Paul Martinson – a relative of my grandmother’s who lived and, at age 94, still resides in New York.
As my mother succinctly recalls: “He sprung us from jail and saved our lives.”
The foursome subsequently stayed for six months in a residential hotel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side before moving to Montreal.
When urged to tell this story, my mother, who rarely discusses the refugee past that still haunts her, once remarked that the Martinson family was in the coffee business.
Fast-forward to Las Vegas where newspaper scribe Bob Martinson has returned to his hotel room to surf the ‘Net in search of Martinson Coffee. The result of his sleuthing, and later mine, goes back to that cup of joe and is as follows.
There was, it turns out, a man called Joe Martinson who was the attorney Paul’s uncle. Joe, whose family emigrated to the United States from Mitau, Latvia, in the late 1800s, began his career in coffee at age16.
A resourceful lad, he had the idea of roasting several kinds of high-quality coffee beans separately before blending them – an intricate, labour-intensive modus operandi rarely used then or now – in his mother’s kitchen.
“Joe maximized flavour by discovering and using the ideal roast for each particular type of bean,” explains John Martinson, Paul’s son and co-owner of the U.S. tea company China Mist. “That was what set his coffee apart from others and made it so popular,” says John, speaking to me by phone from his home in Phoenix, Arizona.
Joe, he continues, then sold the freshly roasted whole beans from a pushcart to his neighbours on Manhatttan’s Lower East Side.
The formula was an immediate success, says John, and the coffee aroma emanating from Joe’s cart as he made his popular door-to-door deliveries gave birth, word has it, to the expression “cup of joe.”
In 1908, Joe bought his first small factory and began marketing his premium blend to hotels and restaurants. Soon after, he packaged the ground coffee in cans and sold it to stores.
From then on, it was your proverbial all-American success story.
“Joe was a pioneer in marketing,” says John enthusiastically. “He bought a small fleet of Rolls Royces in the 1930s. He had the back seats removed, painted the Martinson logo on them and sent out salesmen and delivery guys dressed as chauffeurs to deliver the coffee to upscale hotels and restaurants in Manhattan.”
Ahead of his time, the clever entrepreneur also used small airplanes to streak across the Big Apple skyline trailing banners and served free coffee on Wall Street in the thick of winter from a Martinson bus. By the 1940s, the company was in full swing.
Joe died in 1949, just before the completion of his large new roasting and blending warehouse at 190 Franklin St. in Greenwich Village. Since then, the company has been sold several times.
Meanwhile, the coffee has remained a supermarket staple in several American states. Cans of it were even used as major props in two movies: ET and The Incredible Shrinking Man.
Two years ago, Martinson Coffee wound up in Canadian hands when it was purchased from Tetley USA by Mother Parkers, Canada’s oldest coffee company and the largest family-owned purveyor of coffee and tea in North America.
Michael Higgins is its co-CEO. “Martinson Coffee is an old, old brand in the U.S.,” he explains. “Twenty-five per cent of its following is still in New York but it’s also big in Florida, Boston, Washington and Philadelphia. It’s been in poor hands for 30 years but we’ve upgraded it.”
He adds another interesting twist to this percolating story.
In 1988, Drew Nieporent, owner of 16 notable New York restaurants including the famous Nobu, bought the Martinson Coffee warehouse in Greenwich Village. Together with a star-studded group of investors that includes Robert di Niro, Sean Penn and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Nieporent used the space to house the trendy, 150-seat Tribeca Grill.
It was here that Higgins decided to celebrate Mother Parkers’ recent acquisition of Martinson Coffee with a flashy party.
The story might end here but there’s one more twist.
In our most recent phone chat, John Martinson tells me he’s heard via the grapevine that Martinson Coffee may once again be for sale. “I should give them a call,” adding, “The coffee would need to be improved and marketed the way Joe did.”
By the way, to make a terrific cup of coffee, use my method: Using a paper filter, pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1½ tablespoons of my favourite blend: half Brazilian Santos and half espresso beans, ground fine.
Here’s a great cake to accompany your cup of joe.
Sour Cream Coffee Cake
Based on the recipe by Toronto’s cooking and baking maven in her book Lillian Kaplun’s Kitchen (Key Porter; $19.95). I like to bake this in a small bundt or tube pan – about 8 inches/20 cm in diameter – as it gives the prettiest shape. You can use chopped walnuts instead of chocolate chips, if desired. Best served – with a cup of joe, of course – the day it’s baked.
1 cup sour cream
1 tsp baking soda
2 cups cake and pastry flour
Pinch of salt
2 tsp baking powder
½ cup butter
1 cup less 2 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
¼ cup brown sugar
2 tbsp unsweetened cocoa
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ cup semi-sweet chopped chocolate or chocolate chips, optional
Icing sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 350F.
In small bowl, combine sour cream and baking soda.
In medium bowl, sift together flour, salt and baking powder.
In large bowl, using electric mixer, cream butter until soft. Add granulated sugar; beat until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, then vanilla. Fold in dry ingredients alternately with sour cream mixture.
In small bowl, combine filling ingredients.
Grease and lightly dust with flour 8-inch/20 cm bundt pan, 9-inch/23 cm square baking pan or 9-inch/23 round springform pan. Spread half of batter in pan; sprinkle filling mixture on top. Spread with remaining batter.
Bake in oven about 40 min. or until tester comes out clean. Cool in pan on wire rack. Invert on to plate. Dust with icing sugar.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.