Steve Dumanian, a Romanian immigrant with a passion for fresh roasted coffee, has been running his grocery, Carmel, on 108th Street for nearly three decades.
His client base draws almost entirely from the large Jewish and Russian populations that live in Forest Hills north of Queens Boulevard.
We talked with him about the challenges of keeping a shop open in changing economic times and building a customer base.
Tell me a little bit about the clientelle you serve and your role in the neighborhood.
The clients are mostly Israeli, and we have a whole mixture of everyone else.
My mother ... her trade was coffee, roasting coffee, we roast our own coffee in the store, we're one of probably maybe five or six stores in the whole state that process their own coffees. This is my trade, that's what I learned from my mother. When we came here forty-some years ago, that's all she wanted to do was open a store here. We came to Forest Hills and we stayed in Forest Hills.
What's the biggest challenge for you in this neighborhood and in the city, and with the difficult economy?
The biggest challenge was to win over the Jewish people here, because I'm not Jewish myself, and to gain trust, which we were able to do over the years.
We are fortunate because we have a good clientelle. We're very tough on ourselves to try and get things the way you'd like it. The kind of product that you'd buy that you'd like to take home. I would feel very bad if you take something home and say "this is not too good." We get nuts, fruits, every two or three days and every box that comes in we have to check. And if it's no good, they go right back. We'd rather not sell them. So we have a good reputation.
What's the process like of roasting your own coffee?
This is my trade, so that's why we've had a good, running clientelle for the past twenty-some years. We have quite a few generations that shop with us. First the older people, then you find that their children are coming and so on. We have a good following.
We roast as we need. A batch of coffee takes somewhere around 17 to 22 minutes. We have days that we do it non-stop. If you come Friday or Saturday we do it non-stop. You smell it, you just pass by and you smell it. You can smell it, some days as far down as Queens Boulevard.
What's your favorite part of being in the neighborhood?
I don't have a preference. It doesn't have to be here, we can be anywhere. But I'm one of the luckiest people because I have such good customers.
This interview has been edited for clarity.