When Steve Schnitzler and his family had arrived in Wilmington via New Jersey, and culinary school, he worked at local restaurants like Eddy Romanelli’s before eventually landing at Front Street Brewery. He was the executive chef tasked with helping open the area’s first brewpub in 1995.
“It took so many hours to get going,” he said. “Port City Java was next door. I went over there and got so much coffee.”
He was actually searching for a place to open his own restaurant when he met Port City Java founder Don Reynolds, who then convinced Schnitzler to join him at PCJ and help build the business. He was hired to be the director of operations and it was the start of a period of big growth for the coffee chain, which was only a couple of years old at the time.
“We exploded when it came to franchising,” he said. “The problem was that folks that were running that portion of the business were straight up lying to franchisees.”
Around 2008, it all culminated in what could have been the end of Port City Java – with lawsuits filed, financial irregularities exposed, and the eventual ousting of Reynolds.
Instead, Schnitzler stayed on as CEO and started working with new partners. At the time, business advisers gave him less than a 5% chance of success.
“I refer to it as the best weight loss program ever,” he said. “With the urge to vomit 24 hours a day, the weight just comes off. It was bad. It was very rough.”
It took more than two years to get the brand back on track. The growth that had contracted was able to begin again, but more slowly this time and in a more thoughtful way.
Now, he’s sitting in the newest Port City Java — in Crossroads Center, the same shopping center that is home to the area’s largest Harris Teeter grocery store and an upcoming K38 restaurant. It’s one of 14 corporate locations, plus a bakery and roasting facility and corporate offices off River Road in Wilmington.
There are still two traditional franchise locations, in Hampstead and Monkey Junction. But the biggest growth has been in what he calls “non-traditional” locations. For these, Port City Java partnered with organizations like Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center and colleges like UNCW, Coastal Carolina University and NC State, which total 12 locations.
It’s a good feeling to be in this place after 25 years with the company, he said. And this year Port City Java was also named one of the country’s most popular regional coffee shop chains, according to a Yelp data report, alongside companies like La Colombe, Scooter’s Coffee and Peet’s Coffee. It was also the only regional chain on this list from the Southern US
“That’s the relationship building. That’s becoming a part of people’s days,” he said.
“But the thing that I’m most proud of is that we have been able to provide a career path for a lot of folks,” he said, and that they offer bonuses, health benefits, and retirement perks. “We have a lot of people who have been with us a very long time.”
Life of a former chef
Several years ago, Schnitzler and his wife Lisa visited the restaurant of a friend from his days at the Culinary Institute of America who was running the kitchen at a popular New York restaurant.
“I was so impressed with her,” he said. “I said ‘You did what we all said we were going to do when we were in culinary school. This is amazing’… And she said ‘Yeah, being a chef in Manhattan doesn’t care that you’re in your 40s now. My feet hurt all the time. I’m tired. It’s still 75, 80 hours a week.’”
He said the conversation helped him realize he made the right decision those many years ago, even though he never did open his own restaurant.
“You know, I was thinking Greek-style place where everybody in the family works there,” he said.
But, with him at PCJ, his wife could remain an art teacher. (She’s now on the staff at Girls Leadership Academy of Wilmington.) And he could have a more normal schedule and work week.
“I’m very happy where I am.” he said. “I left the kitchen because of my kids, because we had kids. I never wanted to leave the kitchen, but I also wanted to know my kids.”
Now, he cooks at home. He’s a part of a Bite Club, where five couples pick an ingredient or technique for a theme for a dinner get-together.
“I cook more now than I did as a chef,” he said. “When you’re a chef, you train other people to cook.”
And now that the couple’s two daughters are adults — one is married and living in Saxapahaw, NC, and the other is finishing her studies at NC State — he is able to devote time to the community and serving on nonprofit boards like the former Fully Belly Project and The Carousel Center. He’s also become a prominent figure in the actions against Chemours and keeping PFAS out of the local water supply.
But he’s also focused on adapting Port City Java in a changing hospitality landscape. With the onset of the pandemic, he said the company’s revenue dropped 85% overnight, with the closing of locations without a drive-thru and on college campuses. There are still some locations closed due to staffing issues.
Meanwhile, one of the busiest locations is at NC State in Raleigh. There, the majority of orders come in via phone app, and it’s essentially a cashless business.
“There’s someone whose job it is to match the person to the order when they come up,” he said. “There’s essentially no interaction.”
At the same time, building relationships is a part of what has made Port City Java special.
“Compared to a company like Starbucks, we’re never going to match their volume. We’re never going to match their speed,” he said.
“But we are local, a local coffee shop. And we can make it a positive experience.”
Allison Ballard is the food and dining reporter at the StarNews. You can reach her de ella at firstname.lastname@example.org.