Barista Magazine

FEB-MAR 2014

Serving People Serving Coffee Since 2005

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a new nonprofit, the Coffee Trust, which promotes grassroots development in specific coffee-producing countries, just isn't that surprising when you've gotten to know him. Let's do that then. Before we start, however, it should be stated that Bill, 66, is a prolific writer and speaker, and by the time our interview was over, I had been gifted with far more interesting content about his life, the development of Coffee Kids, his work with coffee-producing communities, and his perspective on the growth of the industry, than I could ever fit in these pages. Therefore, beginning February 3, and continuing for each Monday through the month, we will feature segments from Bill's absorbing interview on Barista Magazine's blog: Fenway Park, home to the Boston Red Sox. In an advanced class in differential equations, I realized that I didn't have a clue what the professor was talking about. I transferred to the business school. But I had to work while at college and had a job at a Ramada Inn. I learned more about business and life at the hotel than I ever did in college. While in the business school I did what most college students did: I fell in love. I fell in love with a young women from Venezuela. She made coffee that her parents sent her from home in a weird contraption that I later recognized as a stove-top moka espresso maker. We used to study together late into the evening. She fell out of love with me pretty quickly, but in some juxtaposition of fate, I was left with a love for coffee that has followed with me ever since. Sarah Allen: Bill, please share your early history with us, family life growing up, and also what coffee was like in your childhood home. Bill Fishbein: I was raised with my older brother, Charlie, and younger sister, Debi. Charlie and I shared a room where sock fights, pillow fights, and real fights took place on a regular basis. Debi had her own room: very pink, very delicate. As she was quite a bit younger, we all treated her like a princess. Charlie and I were hardly treated like princes. My dad had several businesses in Providence. He was one of the first to go into the frozen foods business. He later sold wholesale foods to restaurants and supermarkets. I began to work for him when he had a small restaurant equipment business. Later on, my brother Charlie and I worked together with my dad in a specialtyhousewares business, and also in our family-run restaurant. My dad actually discovered the original location for Coffee Exchange and worked the first few months until his health prevented him from working any further. Shortly thereafter, I took over the management of Coffee Exchange and carried a lot of the load for the first few years, until we were able to build an espresso bar and start our own roasting operation. Charlie took over as I became distracted with Coffee Kids. He developed the fledgling business into one of the most amazing roaster-retail businesses in the country. My mom and dad created a safe, wholesome home. Our characters were honed in that home. We knew the difference between right and wrong, even if we had to read between the lines. I had my first cup of coffee when I worked in a kosher delicatessen. They would send out for coffee and I had it light with about six sugars. At home, I never drank coffee. My mom and dad did, and oftentimes, dunked a bulkie roll in it (called "tinking"). One day I came home to find my grandmother 'tinking' on a coffee-soaked bulkie roll. She had a sheepish look on her face and said, "Don't tell your father." I didn't know what she was talking about until I saw our dog eagerly lapping away at a coffee-soaked bulkie roll in her bowl, too. "I didn't vant to tink alone," is what my grandmother said to me. SA: What inspired you to open Coffee Exchange? How did you do it? BF: I knew that all I had ever wanted to do was open my own coffee business. I didn't want to make a lot of money. I just wanted to earn a living. But I was not bankable. I had no credit. And my family was not in a position to help either. So, I turned to a friend. My friend Ray Tremblay didn't have a whole lot of money, but he loaned me $4,000. It was all the extra cash he had and all I had to get started. It took a long time. Early on, my friends used to visit me at Coffee Exchange where I would be standing behind the bean counter, the store empty of customers and the beans aging in the bins. They would say, "Billy! Get a job!" But I was determined to earn my living in the coffee trade, the only business I ever really wanted to be in. While business was slow and took years to develop, it grew on profits, not borrowed money. And I had plenty of time to look at all my past mistakes from every possible angle. SA: Where did you go to college and what did you study? When did you first get the nonprofit itch? BF: I went to Boston University. I started out in engineering. I told my parents I wanted to study bioengineering ("their son, the doctah"). But I really wanted to live just down the street from 80 barista magazine SA: In your bio on the Coffee Trust website, it says of your Coffee Exchange time: "As the business grew, he was faced with the reality that his income was directly related to the struggle faced by small-scale coffee-farming families." Can you please explain this? What in particular happened? Were you going to source to buy coffee or visit farms? How did you first become aware of the plight of the small coffee farmer, and your role in the chain of the product? BF: Your question points to the fulcrum of my life and within it, how my life changed. It was 1988 and business was good. I had spent my life struggling with my family in search of the American Dream. But it was always two steps ahead, three steps back. We never gave up. We always dreamed of a better life. Then one day, after struggling for so many years, there was a line out the door. I had a hundred dollars or so in my pocket with no debt against it. And I knew that there would be more the following week. I realized I had never been in that position in my entire life. I was hardly rich. But I felt that coffee had carried me across a line, a line I had struggled against for as long as I could remember. I felt I would never have to struggle like that again. One might think I would be elated. But instead, I went into an emotional turmoil. I didn't feel I had the right to leave the struggle. I felt there was honor in the struggle.

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