Coffee imports are picking up at nontraditional coffee ports like Jacksonville and Port Everglades, Fla., and Houston.

Miami's designation by the Coffee, Sugar and Cocoa Exchange in 1994 as a certified entry port opened the door for neighboring Port Everglades to handle containers filled with pungent jade-colored beans headed for exchange warehouses or roasters' ovens.Last year, Port Everglades imported 143,416 short tons of coffee - 50 percent more than Miami - to become the No. 3 coffee import port in the nation behind top-ranked New Orleans (247,335 tons) and New York (220,555 tons).

The boost in Port Everglades' traffic was sparked by the relocation of King Ocean Services, a major coffee carrier, from Miami to Port Everglades, and by a new Maersk Line service from Central American ports. The port now has plans to expand to better accommodate its growing coffee trade.


Dave Miller, spokesman at Port Everglades, said it recently paid $120 million for 271 acres west of the port's Southport container terminal for development into a railyard and additional container facilities.

''Just about all of our coffee goes straight to the roasters right now,'' Mr. Miller said. ''The additional property will enhance throughput and expedite our container handling.''

Port Everglades and Miami together last year surpassed New York in coffee imports with a combined 239,594 tons, and even rivaled New Orleans for the title of import leader.

''There was a time when just about all the coffee imports were handled in either New York or New Orleans,'' said Stephen Smith, a former Wall Street trader who now operates South Futures in Coral Gables. ''Now, the coffee industry has become really fragmented.''

The Florida ports received a major boost in 1992 when Maxwell House closed a roaster in Hoboken, N.J., and expanded an existing facility in Jacksonville.

Brothers Gourmet Coffees, a leading national wholesale supplier of branded gourmet coffees, consolidated several plants and relocated in 1994 to the Houston area. The Port of Houston imported about 75,000 tons of coffee last year.

''Houston is centrally located between San Francisco and New York, major destinations for our African and Indonesian coffees,'' said Linda Pennington, vice president of operations at Brothers. ''Houston was also attractive because the port gets calls from all over the world, and inland distribution is quite easy.''

In New Orleans, Folger Coffee Co. earlier this year bought the old Nestle coffee-roasting plant, which becomes the Procter & Gamble subsidiary's second roasting and packaging plant in the city. Folger also operates roasting plants in Sherman, Texas, and Kansas City, Mo.

''This is a significant expansion for us,'' said Tony Hilton, manager of Folger's 38-year-old plant for instant coffee. ''We have been adding capacity here with some regularity.''


Importers expect Miami and Port Everglades to continue to add capacity as exchange stocks begin to rebuild in the wake of poor harvests recently in Colombia and Central America. With supplies at such low levels in the past two years, many buyers have preferred to pay a premium over exchange prices rather than enter the futures market.

''The exchange port designation coincided with the depletion of coffee stocks,'' said Manny Offen, vice president at Econocaribe Consolidators, one of Miami's four new exchange warehouses, totaling 1 million square feet. ''So this so-called answer to our prayers turned out not to be, not yet. We are expecting stocks to start to build up again either this year or next year.''


Since the largest portion of imported coffee has shifted from breakbulk, palleted cargo to containers in recent years, freight rates haven't been much of a concern for importers, according to Albert Barrientos, vice president of Westfelt Brothers, a New Orleans importer. That's because new players in the north-south trade lanes have kept freight rates highly competitive. Additions to the service, such as a seventh ship for Sea-Land in its South American lanes, have helped double the capacity going to South America's east coast alone.

''My concern is not about freight rates. They have been reasonable for some time and probably won't change,'' Mr. Barrientos said. ''My concern is which direction the market is going to take.''