SUMMIT, NJ — In celebration of the 30th anniversary of his career as a coffee entrepreneur, Ahrre Maros served free and fresh cups of brew to customers in two of his stores from Feb. 10 to Feb. 16. Maros had no way of knowing, when he opened his first coffee shop in 1990, that his little business would blossom into the “Ahrre’s Coffee Roastery” empire, a significant presence in the local coffee scene despite fierce competition.
This is the story of how it all came to be.
Maros developed a distaste for rigid boundaries from a young age — a distaste that eventually drove him to dive into the business of selling tasty coffee.
“My parents were very strict and controlling,” Maros told LocalSource in a Feb. 20 phone interview. “As a result, I never liked people telling me what to do. My first two jobs as a teen showed me that I would have a problem working for others.”
Maros first encountered coffee in his early adolescent years. While he would eventually grow to love it, he didn’t initially enjoy it.
“My mother would entertain, and she would serve espresso,” said Maros. “She let me try it a few times and I hated it. It was too strong and bitter. I remember liking the taste of it when a drop dripped onto a sugar cube. My mom always had sugar cubes, so this was the way I took my coffee.”
Maros didn’t drink American drip coffee until he was about 20 years old and in college.
“I needed the caffeine to study for exams or to stay up late and finish a paper,” Maros said. “But I wasn’t really drinking coffee. It was Folgers Crystals, which was instant coffee. It tasted horrible, but it got the job done.”
Only when Maros turned 25, after graduating from college and moving to Berkeley, Calif., was he introduced to “the real stuff.” His girlfriend took him to Peet’s Coffee and Tea, a local coffee shop.
“Peets roasted their own beans, and I could tell the difference,” said Maros. “I don’t think I’ve had instant coffee ever since.”
Without thinking much of it, Maros brought five pounds of Peet’s Coffee back home with him while visiting his family during Christmas. Eager to convert others to his new obsession, Maros kept brewing coffee for his high-school friends throughout the visit. He quickly earned the affectionate nickname “Coffee Boy.”
Still, Maros didn’t really think about opening a coffee shop — and neither did his parents. What they did think about were jobs.
“I was almost 28 years old and out of college for several years but hadn’t taken any steps toward a career-oriented job,” Maros said. “My parents were on my case, and the main topic of conversation around the dinner table was my ‘next steps.’ Basically, when am I going to get a real job?”
It wasn’t until a friend from California, Eileen Watrius, visited the East Coast in 1987 that Maros got the idea that would change his life forever.
“She was present for several of those ‘inspirational talks’ from my parents,” Maros said. “Eileen and I talked a lot about what I would do next during her visit, especially on a particular rainy Sunday afternoon, while walking around downtown Summit looking for a place to sit and have coffee. It was strange to us — coming from California where there were coffee shops and cafes on every corner — to not have a place to sit and talk.
“While walking in the rain, looking for a coffee spot and discussing my future, we came across a construction site where they were building the Strand Mall,” he continued. “The sign said, ‘Now leasing space.’ Eileen jokingly said, ‘Here’s what you need to do, move back here and open a Peet’s Coffee franchise in this new mall.’”
Everything suddenly clicked.
“It was like angels began to sing at that moment,” said Maros. The two ducked into Winberie’s and discussed the idea in more detail. Joke became reality.
Maros opened his first store in Cranford on Feb. 10, 1990. His second store opened in Westfield in April 1992. The third, Common Ground Cafe, opened in Summit in January 1993.
“By my third anniversary, I had three stores,” said Maros.
Entering the coffee business may have changed Maros’ life, but it didn’t make it any easier, as the industry was ruthlessly competitive. Over the course of his 30-year career, Maros has managed to open six individual stores. Today, only two remain.
Two years into Maros’ business, the Coffee Connection opened around the corner from his Westfield location. It was larger and better funded, according to Maros, and it slowed his store’s growth. Eventually, he had to close his original store in Cranford to keep the business going.
“Two years later, in 1996, Starbucks purchased the Coffee Connection,” Maros said. “This made things even harder for me. But the real stab in the back was the Starbucks that opened nine doors down from my Summit store in that same year. In three weeks, it took half my business away. But Summit is my hometown, and I needed for that store to survive at any cost.”
It didn’t. Maros closed it 14 months later, in July 1997.
But Maros refused to give up.
“The only reason I survived all those trials and tribulations was because I knew if I went out of business, I would have to get a real job,” Maros said. “I just couldn’t do that. So, I did what I needed to do to keep it going. At some point, not that long ago, I turned a corner!”
Maros distinguished himself from the competition through the way he prepared his coffee.
“I was the seventh coffee roastery to open in the state of New Jersey,” Maros said. “I’ve been roasting my own coffee in small controllable batches since the beginning. Small-batch roasted and fresh roasted is just plain better. I offer local residents a considerably better alternative to supermarket-bought coffee. It’s that simple.
“When you buy a bag of coffee from me, you get a full, 16-ounce pound,” he continued. “Most other places, including the supermarket, will sell you a 12-ounce bag for about the same price as my 16-ounce bag. The consumer is misled into believing that the store-bought bag is the same size as my 16-ounce bag.”
Today, aside from being a successful coffee entrepreneur, the Hungarian-American businessman is also managing two widely known concert series for charity. He has fused his passions for coffee and music by hosting the “Coffee With Conscience” concert series, which features mostly singers and songwriters.
Maros said he’s now looking forward to the next 30 years in the coffee business.
“The original store in Cranford opened one week after my 30th birthday,” Maros said. “So the 30th anniversary was one week after my 60th birthday. Both of these milestones are huge. In effect, I have been running my business for exactly half my life.”
Maros hopes to partner with others and open a coffee drive-through, “like they have in the Seattle area.” He has his eye on a few potential spots on the eastbound side of Route 22 but doesn’t yet have the financing in place.
“It’s been fun and it’s been a struggle,” said Maros. “I haven’t had to work for anyone since I was in my 20s. I still have my freedom.”