Barista Magazine

APR-MAY 2018

Serving People Serving Coffee Since 2005

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system was ending, so coffee prices were collapsing, and the Mexican government was getting out of the business of coffee; they stopped sup- porting their coffee institute. Farmers were watching everything close down around them, but everybody still lived from coffee. I often tell this story about being approached by a farmer named Pedro, who had traveled seven hours by bus on behalf of his communi- ty because he heard I might be able to help them sell their coffee. His beans were still in parchment, not ready for export. And I thought: I can't really solve this problem on my own—it's much bigger than just buying his coffee. These farmers needed more knowledge to fi gure out how they could participate in a global economy. I did take his beans though, and I went to New York, opened the phone book, and started calling importers. I would go to meetings with my Kodak carousel projector, showing pictures of where the coffee came from and the people behind it. I got pretty beaten down by those meetings and realized it's really tough to sell green coffee. But eventually one of the importers said, "We'll buy all the coffee." And I realized I had the concept down, but I didn't know how to export coffee. I could be a bridge between the family farms at origin and their customers in the U.S., but I fi rst had to learn things like logistics. [Laughs.] CR: Is that when you formed Aztec Harvest? DG: Yes, that was my fi rst coffee company—I ran it, but 100 percent of the shares were owned by the farmers in Mexico. We were a really good success story—farmer-owned, $1 million in sales in 1994. But when I would call a roaster, they would say, "I love your Mexican. Do you have Guatemalan coffee? Costa Rican?" And I couldn't get the farmers to agree to bring in coffees from other countries. So I told them, "This is your company, you can run it. I'm going to start something else." My next idea was to source "sustainable coffee" from a few countries, not just Mexico. This would be coffee that was environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially just. If a farm was doing all these things, I thought, then it was probably run well, and its coffee would be high quality, too. I started Sustainable Harvest with this plan in mind. Paul Katzeff from Thanksgiving Coffee helped me with some funding; after a year I was able to pay him back. I owe Paul a lot of gratitude—it's incredibly hard to start a low-margin, capital-intensive, high-risk busi- ness. No one wants to invest in that. So his help was integral. From those early years until 2002, I was basically working alone—it's hard to scale as an importer, and I just didn't have the money to grow the team. But in 2002, I hired Jorge Cuevas, who'd been an intern for me and was running a coffee-exporting business in Mexico, and his friend Oscar Magro. Jorge and Oscar are still with the company today. They were based in Mexico and organized origin visits for roasters. These early trips where roasters and producers were brought together led us to the idea of creating a conference where we could bring all parties together to get to know one another and get calibrated. CR: And that was the Let's Talk Coffee conference? DG: Yes. We held one in 2002 that was just producers, and then 2003 was the fi rst one with roasters and producers together. I think people who work in coffee have always been looking for human relationships that are transparent and have good communication. They want to know whom they're buying from and whom they're selling to. And the confer- ence helped provide that. Let's Talk Coffee became a platform where we wanted people to learn the newest and most novel ideas in coffee. We knew we had almost all the answers we needed in our collaborative supply chain ecosystem; it was just a matter of starting a conversation. Let's Talk Coffee is about learning and about giving people their own place to have a direct 129 www.baristamagazine.com

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