When Charles Chiarello was attending school at Queens College, he never envisioned he would be selling coffee for the next 40 years. But a part-time job turned into a career and eventually his own business.
Chiarello, owner of Classic Coffee Systems on Merrick Road, was the Valley Stream Chamber of Commerce’s Small Businessperson of the Year award recipient at the Nassau Council of Chambers of Commerce breakfast on Oct. 12. Though he wasn’t able to receive the award in person because he was out of town on business, Chiarello said he was still humbled by the honor.
“I’m not a big shot,” he said. “I’m just a middle class guy who’s worked hard and has never forgotten his roots.”
Chiarello, 61, grew up in Far Rockaway and studied sociology in college, with the intention of becoming a social worker. He got a job for an office coffee service and kept it after graduation. Eventually, he decided to go into business for his own, starting Classic Coffee Systems in 1980 with business partner John Malizio.
It was an “entrepreneurial spirit” that convinced Chiarello to start the business, which supplies offices throughout the metropolitan area with beverages and related supplies. His business was located on Meacham Avenue in Elmont for the first 15 years before moving to Valley Stream in 1995.
Chiarello said while “coffee” is in the company name, it only represents about 40 percent of his business’s sales. They also provide bottled water, vending machines, filtration systems and all the accessories such as cups, straws, plastic utensils and napkins. “Anything to do with a beverage or a break room, we provide those supplies,” he said. “We’re very much a service company.”
He also described Classic Coffee Systems as a “solution company.” Chiarello said he works with employers to find out what their needs are and what their budget is, then designs a plan that works best for them.
As late as 2008, Chiarello’s business has 34 employees, but the recession hit the company hard. He now employs 15 people, but many have worked for him for years.
When the economy crashed, many companies that Classic Coffee Systems served downsized. Fewer employees meant fewer sales for Chiarello’s business. He said it was one of the most stressful and challenging times in his life, but a determination to succeed kept his business afloat.
Before the recession, Chiarello said there were 30 to 35 similar businesses to his in the metropolitan area. Most either closed or were sold, and Classic Coffee Systems remains one of a handful still left. “It’s very rewarding that we were able to survive when other companies did not,” he said.
Chiarello said it was that same determination that got the business through its first few years of existence. With a 3-year-old at home and his job providing the only income, Chiarello and his partner refused to fail.
His business is all about developing relationships. Chiarello said he is very loyal to his clients, and makes sure his employees share in his business’s success.
Classic Coffee Systems has been a member of the Valley Stream Chamber of Commerce since the business first moved to Valley Stream. Chiarello is a member of the Chamber’s Board of Directors, his second time serving in that capacity.
Chiarello said he believes any community is strengthened by a having a vibrant, unified business community, and the Chamber of Commerce plays a big role in that. Even though most of his clients are outside of Valley Stream, he still wants to be involved. “I can’t sit by and make believe the rest of the Valley Stream business community doesn’t exist,” he said. “I don’t understand why more business aren’t involved in the Chamber.”
Debbi Gyulay, president of the Valley Stream Chamber of Commerce, said Chiarello was selected as this year’s Small Businessperson of the Year because of his success as a business owner and for his commitment to the community. “He is a true example of a caring, concerned and active community member,” she said.
Chiarello was a member of the planning committee that organized the Valley Stream Community Fest, which was held for the first time on Rockaway Avenue on Sept. 29. He said the street fair was a huge success, and plans to be involved again to make next year’s event bigger and better.
His two children attended school in Valley Stream, graduating from Central High School. He is a former vice president with the Little League and a leader with the Central High School District’s Business Advisory Council. Chiarello often speaks to high school business classes and reminds students that the skills they learn as teenagers, from leadership to time management, will be required no matter what career path they take.
Chiarello said that Valley Stream has given him a lot, so he feels the obligation to give back. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have a successful business here,” he said. “You give a little and a lot comes back.”