Parlor Coffee Dillon Edwards

Parlor Coffee

Dillon Edwards

Cultivating Personal Bonds through Coffee

In the modern world, we often miss out on the backstory of our food – who’s making it and how – unless we’re deliberately seeking it out. We sift through a sea of anonymous products, deciding what to buy based on factors like price, quality, taste, and our personal preferences.  The lack of connection to our food is not limited to consumers. Even within the coffee industry, it’s still common practice for roasters to buy green coffee through intermediaries like trading firms and importers which frequently lack transparency.

Dillon Edwards, the founder of New York’s Parlor Coffee, always felt that the conventional method of sourcing coffee was too impersonal. Driven by a desire for a more tangible connection, he’s made numerous trips to visit coffee producers over the twelve years since he established his business. Today, he sources the majority of Parlor’s coffee beans directly from producers with whom he’s built personal relationships.


The story of Parlor Coffee is rooted in the ambition of an unknown 22-year-old barista. Having moved to New York just two years earlier, Dillon set up a humble espresso bar in the back of a Brooklyn barbershop. Despite the unconventional approach, Dillon has since expanded his venture into a thriving coffee roasting business that employs more than 18 full-time staff members. And he continues to nurture grand dreams for the future.


Continuous pursuit of ideals

Technology’s rapid advancement has made us markedly more interconnected. The fluidity of communication now allows us to instantly surpass barriers of countries, languages, and cultures. Yet, this has also diluted the significance of face-to-face interaction, rendering human relationships easily replaceable. The world is increasingly becoming a place where we can get by without using all our senses.

Defying this trend, Dillon places high importance on direct human interaction. While he does use digital tools such as WhatsApp to stay connected with producers, he makes it a point to visit coffee origins six times a year on average, staying for at least three to four days each time. While maintaining a business focus, he also immerses himself more deeply, learning about the country’s situation, its business challenges, and the producers’ lives and perspectives over meals at their homes. This direct, personal approach has become the standard for Parlor’s sourcing.


Maria Bercelia, a Colombian coffee farmer with whom Parlor has partnered for more than seven years, serves as a prime example of the company’s mission to forge familial bonds with producers. Almost all of the coffee she produces finds its way to Parlor.

“Maria is a hardworking person full of ambition, who has established a methodology to consistently produce high-quality coffee,” Dillon explains. “I respect her as a businessperson, but she’s also like another mother to me. When I visit, I always stay at her house, eat meals she prepares, and spend time talking about much more than business. She also expects me to come during her twice-yearly harvests. 

“But we must remember that if the business doesn’t succeed, we can’t maintain the relationship. We have to stay true to the bedrock principle of sourcing unique and high-quality beans, roasting them, and consistently generating profit. Otherwise, it turns into a charity. It’s a constant balancing act, where neither aspect can be compromised.”

Engaging in direct trade with producers holds a certain allure, but it also entails significant challenges for small- to medium-sized roasters. The resources expended – energy, time, and money – are considerably higher than those required to source from trading firms and importers, and the degree of uncertainty is also amplified. Nonetheless, Dillon is committed to his quest, fully aware of these challenges.

“For roasters engaged in direct trade, it’s crucial to be willing to take the risk of inconsistent quality. It would be disingenuous to say that you support producers who are working hard to produce perfect coffee unless you reciprocate their efforts in some way. It’s not as simple as going to the marketplace, waving money around, and getting the same quality coffee every year.


“To make great coffee, it’s not enough to have all the conditions lined up, such as climate, soil, and variety. It takes tremendous effort and dedication from the producer. Maria’s work ethic and personality are visible in every aspect of her operation.

“What matters to us is finding producers who share our vision for long-term quality improvement and are ready to go the extra mile with us. But finding ideal producers like Maria is no easy task.”


Growing slowly

White labeling, or selling goods to retailers who will market them under their own brand, is a commonly used method to boost a company’s growth. In the US, several coffee roasters have grown using this strategy. However, Dillon proudly says that Parlor has never done white-label sales.

“Every product we sell is under the Parlor Coffee brand. I don’t mean to judge the practice, but I believe that when you start white labeling, you risk becoming just a service fulfilling the client’s needs and losing sight of your company’s vision and mission. It feels like a slippery slope; once you start sliding, it’s hard to stop.”

This is why Parlor has meticulously cultivated relationships with what it calls wholesale partners – the word “partners” emphasizing that these aren’t just conventional buyer-seller relationships. Parlor provides additional services to its partners, such as training and consulting to align their ideals with their goals, ultimately enhancing the coffee experience for end consumers.

“Coffee isn’t complete until it’s poured into a cup. We expect our partners to responsibly present our coffee to the customers. This is why, from the start, we have committed to our policy of growing slowly and only selling to clients we can trust.”

This same philosophy inspired Parlor to open a tasting room for customers, a mere 5 meters from where the coffee is roasted. (The tasting room is currently closed but is expected to reopen by 2025.) The aim is to serve coffee brewed with precision and care and, through close-knit communication, offer a platform where customers can gain in-depth knowledge about the brand and its coffees, encouraging them to make conscious buying decisions.

“Many of our initiatives run counter to the strategies and models endorsed by American business schools,” Dillon says. “But I believe it is precisely this dedication that has brought us to where we are now, and we have no intention of changing course. Even if it’s only by small steps, we believe our approach makes the coffee industry better.”


Exploring the unexplored

Dillon grew up in Tennessee, a peaceful area in the southern US, surrounded by forests and farms. He liked this environment as a child, but by middle school he felt it was dull. When he turned 16 years old and got his driver’s license, he started visiting the closest major city, Nashville, looking to places like record shops, bookstores, and coffee shops to learn more about the world.

“To me, coffee has always been a symbol of intellectualism. Coffee spread across Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, and played its role in big changes like the French Revolution. It helped people stay alert instead of dulling their senses by drinking beer or wine in the morning. Coffee has always made us think more, ask questions, and talk with others, shaping a free society.”

Driven by his desire to explore the unknown, Dillon moved to the West Coast of the US after he graduated high school and started working at Stumptown Coffee in Portland, Oregon. His love for specialty coffee deepened, and he began to understand the whole supply chain. At the time, Stumptown was a pioneer in direct trade with producers, committed to building human relationships with them. Dillon was motivated by Stumptown’s philosophy that coffee producers deserve the same respect as great winemakers.

In 2009, Stumptown decided to expand into a new market, New York City. At the age of 19, Dillon, keen to be part of the team, set foot in New York for the first time. The encouraging words he received from coworkers – “You’re young. If it doesn’t work out, you can always come back to Portland” – gave him the push he needed.

“Surprisingly, despite the image of being a global city that sets trends in everything from fashion to technology, New York’s coffee culture was undeveloped,” he recalls. “The mainstream was deli coffee, which is known for its convenience and affordability – it was about a dollar at the time.”

As a barista, Dillon understood that if he wanted to advance as a coffee professional in New York, he’d have to take numerous steps. Realizing this early on only increased his motivation. He believed the city needed someone to stand proud and drive the specialty coffee industry forward. This conviction pushed Dillon to embrace what might have seemed a risky challenge.


Opportunity is there for everyone

Spurred on by the spirit of trying something new with nothing to lose, Dillon started Parlor Coffee at the age of 22 and spent the first few years operating on a shoestring budget – “just a dream and a prayer.” Over the next 11 years, the specialty coffee market in New York evolved, with a range of unique and small-scale roasters popping up across the city.

“I still believe that New York can be a world-class coffee city, and I will continue to make that my personal mission. I’ve been able to come this far because I feel a genuine pride in creating something people enjoy and appreciate.


“One of the beautiful yet frustrating aspects of coffee is that it’s never complete in one place. A perfectly produced coffee can be grown with so much care deep in the mountains of Honduras, for example, but when it’s finished, it’s still a raw ingredient. It still has to be roasted and brewed carefully by roasters, baristas, and end consumers to reward the labor that goes into producing it.

“If the growers do their job right, the quality of coffee should be amazing. If we do our job well, the customers should want to buy that coffee again and want to support the producer. That’s my idea of a sustainable relationship.


“Our role is to serve as a bridge between consumers and coffee producers who, despite producing a good coffee, don’t have the right opportunities. For example, operations like the La Esmeralda farm in Panama have all the ingredients for success and are already well known. They will flourish even without us. We are looking for farmers and producers who need someone like us. One of our main goals is to form a sense of family with coffee producers in all the countries where we buy our coffee.

“Maybe I’m driven to work this way because I know what it feels like to be an underdog,” Dillon says. “I come from a humble background and started as an unknown barista in New York. Then someone gave me a shot. It’s a combination of my motivation and resolve, as well as people’s faith in me, that has helped me come this far. This is why, at my core, I have this urge to stand by producers who, even though they may not be privileged, are determined to overcome challenges through their persistence and dedication.”


"Drinking coffee at our roastery will always be my greatest joy in drinking Parlor Coffee. Because I’m right here at the source, and I have so many memories of building this business in this room. But a close second is drinking coffee on a Saturday morning with my family. The cup that tastes the sweetest is the one you pour when you know you don’t have anything to do that day but be with your loved ones."