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HOPKINTON

Coffee firm keeps grinding amid setbacks

By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / November 4, 2010

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Bostonians who crave locally brewed Red Barn Coffee now have to look a bit harder or walk a bit farther to get a cup of their favorite java.

On Sunday, Red Barn Coffee Roasters of Hopkinton had to close its highest-profile location in the city — Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall — because of construction set to start on a new visitors center there. It’s the third time in five years that Red Barn has lost a prime cafe spot.

Red Barn, which still has full cafes in Southborough and Westborough, was one of 10 ground-floor vendors, collectively called the Grasshopper Shops, displaced by the visitors center project at Faneuil Hall, which is overseen by the National Parks Service.

The building’s second-floor Great Hall, which is used for citizenship and other swearing-in ceremonies, will be unaffected by the construction, National Parks Service spokesman Sean Hennessy said this week.

The $7 million visitors facility will be a new starting point for the city’s Freedom Trail walking tours, and will feature exhibits, a film-screening area, and a bookshop, the parks agency said.

Red Barn owner Mark Verrochi said he wasn’t surprised by the eviction, since the city hasn’t been willing to renew leases in the spot for nearly a decade, and notified all of the vendors earlier this year that Halloween would be their last business day at Faneuil Hall.

The change leaves Red Bard with just one downtown Boston outlet, Bagelville, a 900-square-foot coffee shop in the nearby Quincy Market Building.

The next closest spot in the city is a cafe at the Longwood Galleria food court near Fenway Park.

The latest Red Barn eviction is part of a distressing pattern, Verrochi said.

In 2005, the company lost a cherished location after eight years in business along the eastbound side of Route 9 in Southborough, when it had to close to make way for a Hummer auto dealership.

In 2008, Red Barn lost the lease for its cafe on West Main Street in Hopkinton, when developers for the Hopkinton Square project declared the contract invalid.

“It’s disappointing,’’ said Verrochi, who founded Red Barn in 1997 with his wife, Lisa. They started by roasting coffee beans in a red barn in Hopkinton, a processing operation that has since expanded and moved to Upton.

“No question the market is tough and the economic realities right now’’ are even tougher with a Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks on every corner, he said.

Red Barn still has two full cafes in Massachusetts, one on Route 9 westbound in Southborough, and another on South Street in Westborough, Verrochi said.

Both sell coffees, sandwiches, and pastries, and emphasize personal service to a loyal clientele, Verrochi said. The coffee seeks to meet a specific New England taste, said Lisa Verrochi.

“We call it a highly specialty coffee that is medium roast,’’ she said.

The remaining Red Barn outlets remain healthy, said Mark Verrochi, who said he employs 30 people companywide, but would not disclose annual sales figures.

While his retail business has hit several road bumps related to real estate issues, Verrochi said he is expanding the company’s coffee licensing and roasting operations.

In the past three years, Red Barn also acquired two small local roasting companies, Commonwealth Coffee in Franklin and the Coffee Man in Milford.

Last year, the company received a $250,000 loan through the Small Business Administration, administered as part of the federal stimulus American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, to buy a 50-kilogram roaster. The new equipment has allowed Red Barn to increase by tenfold the amount of coffee it is capable of roasting, he said.

Verrochi has several local businesses that brew and sell his products, including coffeehouses in Milford and Hopkinton. Colella’s Supermarket in Hopkinton recently became the first local business to license the Red Barn brand, and hosts a cafe inside the store.

Verrochi said last week that he expects Red Barn to grow, despite the setbacks and cafe closings.

“If it was easy, everyone would do it,’’ he said. “You have to react, adapt, and change.’’

Meanwhile, closer to Boston, the local coffee scene is getting a jolt from longtime specialty coffee entrepreneur George Howell, who last month took over Taste Coffee House in Newtonville.

Howell founded the region’s first gourmet coffee chain, the Coffee Connection, in 1975. In 1994, he sold most of his 24 locations to Starbucks, which was then entering the Boston market.

In 2002, he founded Terroir Coffee of Acton, which works with coffee farmers and importers worldwide on issues of logistics, storage, and shipping, as well as direct-trade issues.

Earlier his week, Howell, 65, said he hopes to eventually pioneer the process of single-serve drip brewing at Taste, with customers getting a fresh, custom-made cup of coffee every visit.

“I am always trying to be on the cutting edge,’’ he said. “It’s a mission.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.