OQ Coffee Co, a small start-up business, founded by Ben and Jessica Schellack, has been serving specialty coffee in the Highland Park area since the store’s opening in 2012. Located across the Raritan River from New Brunswick and Rutgers University, the coffee shop takes its name “OQ” from the nearby Old Queens Campus at Rutgers. The formula for its ongoing success is a blend of excellent coffee and commitment to and involvement in the community.
OQ Manager Noam Orr said that although generally it is challenging to sustain a small business in a town the size of Highland Park, “things have been good at OQ. Each year more people come to the door, more people buy our coffee, and more people spend their time and money here.” A coffee shop means a lot to small town and it is important for people to have spaces like this in which to spend their time, he said. The friendly environment will give the shop “ staying power.”
OQ Coffee Co thrives off of the involvement and diversity of the Highland Park community, said Mr. Orr, who grew up in Highland Park. “Highland Park is like a microcosm of the world. It’s nice to manage a business here, because you get a mix of clientele in various stages of life. Customers are high schools, grad students, professionals doing freelance work, young families, and retired citizens,” said Mr. Orr.
The Schellack family goal for OQ Coffee is to give back to the community of Highland Park and beyond. The company vision is to “roast the highest quality, ethically-produced coffee available, and to use our business as a vehicle to motivate our neighbors through education to action concerning injustices in Highland Park, New Brunswick, and the world,” as reported on the OQ website. Ms. Schellack encouraged customers to educate one another with their motto, “Start a Conversation.”
OQ Coffee Co also has an art gallery. “Four times a year we have a gallery opening, and that’s also another great opportunity for people to start a conversation,” said Ms. Schellack. The walls of the coffee shop display a variety of paintings from both local and professional artists. The shop not only houses visual art exhibits, but also holds musical performances, including those by Highland Park High School students.
Mr Shellack confessed that coffee at one time was one of his least favorite drinks. He even landed a job at Starbucks – in spite of coming clean and telling the store manager that he was not a coffee drinker. He was surrounded by coffee all day, but a trip to a Chelsea, New York coffeehouse was what really sparked his interest in and love for coffee.
In Chelsea’s Café Grumpy, a friend urged Mr. Schellack to try an espresso shot. He loved the creaminess and flavor of the coffee and decided to try to recreate the flavor he experienced that day. It wasn’t, however, until he met his wife Jessica Schellack that he fully dove into the coffee business.
Unlike her husband, Ms. Schellack always loved coffee. She attributed this to her father, who always made coffee in the mornings when she was a child. Coffee brought together the Schellack entrepreneurs. They met over a cup of coffee and began to date soon after. Ms. Shellack revealed to Mr. Shellack that her dream was to one day own a coffee shop, and he suggested they start one.
The complication was that they had other career responsibilities. Mr. Schellack, with a BA from Vanderbilt, teaches middle school Latin and upper school humanities at the Wilberforce School in Princeton Junction.
Ms. Schellack, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture and environmental studies from the University of Michigan and a master’s in regional planning from Rutgers University, now works for the Port Authority of NY and NJ.
But the coffee dream was intoxicating, and the two of them were unable to let go of it. It led them to rent the kitchen space of Elijah’s Promise in New Brunswick. They began to roast coffee by night. Both made sacrifices to support the beginnings of their business. Ms. Schellack was still in grad school at Rutgers, and it was a struggle for her to find free time to commit to her company. Mr. Schellack put in all the money he had saved to begin the business and admitted that it was a frightening venture.
The Schellacks were involved in every part of building the OQ Coffee shop. They designed the building themselves, a place that people could gather and interact. The duo undertook everything from build-out to lighting. Ms. Schellack called the process a “group effort”. Whenever she and Mr. Schellack had doubts, the encouragement of “amazing friends” helped to inspire and motivate them to continue. Mr. Schellack added that the shop was a “creation of a large community of people.”
Coffee quality is important to the OQ business. Mr. Orr explained that great care is taken in the sourcing of the beans. “We consider ourselves a specialty coffee company and bring in coffee that scores on a certain level. On a scale of 1-100, all the coffees we source are 80 or above. By doing this, we start with a better product.” All of the beans are roasted in house in tiny, six and a quarter pound batches. This allows the production of many distinct and unique flavors. In addition all beans roasted within two weeks of being brewed or shipped.
The Shellacks believe in environmentally sustainable business practices, The Schellacks practice direct trade; they interact directly with the farmers and producers of their coffee beans, and look to measure the sustainability of beans at their origin before shipping them to New Jersey.
OQ products are also sold online and in other locations around NJ. Coffee and even equipment can be found on the OQ Coffee website, as well as in locations such as Rutgers Gardens Farmers Market and the George Street co op in New Brunswick. OQ coffee offers coffee cuppings, or tastings, to customers in their Highland Park store.
“We offer really great service and a very comfortable place to come,” said Mr. Orr. “There is no judgment here about your preferences of coffee. You can come in and talk to us for 20 minutes about your favorite coffee from Kenya, or you can come in here and get a coffee to go with cream and sugar. We will be just as happy to do either.”