Article: Back Roads Journal: How Did We Get Here?

Written by Cafe Campesino on Jun 1, 2002 in Article, NEWSLETTER |
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Well, it all started with a wheelbarrow. Someone on our team dumped a load of dirt on the farmer’s coffee bush, the farmer got mad and made us quit working on the house. We’d flown from the U.S. to Guatemala with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village program to build houses. What should we do now?

While the farmer and local Habitat coordinator discussed the fate of the coffee tree, our team sat in the shade and talked about coffee. Wonder how much coffee he gets from that little tree? Wonder how much he gets paid for it? Wonder how many other families depend on coffee as their main source income?

After an hour and a half of discussions, the farmer let us go back to work with promises that we wouldn’t cover another coffee bush. We were working — but my mind was elsewhere. I wanted to know the answer to those questions…

That was five years ago and that’s how we entered the intriguing and exacerbating world of specialty coffee. The original idea was simple — assist farmers in creating direct markets here in the U.S. while ensuring that they receive a fair price. The idea hasn’t changed — but Café Campesino sure has!

“Good Morning! Café Campesino and Cooperative Coffees…”

For two years, this is how we have answered the phone. It occurred to us last month that we have never really explained the difference. So (drum roll please) here goes…

In 1998, after learning that the answers to the questions posed above are about a pound (from one coffee bush), about 25 cents (what the farmer gets paid for a pound of coffee) and millions (how many families depend on coffee as their main source of income), we imported our first 40,000 lb container of green coffee and began selling it to coffee roasters all over the eastern United States. Coincidentally, my brother Lee opened a bakery/deli the same year and insisted on serving Café Campesino coffee. After all attempts to rationally explain to Lee that we sell green, not roasted, coffee failed, we succumbed to his wishes and started selling roasted coffee, too. We actually contracted with one of our roaster-customers and they sold us back some beans that we sold to them. Confusing? Read on…

By late 1999, Café Campesino’s roasted coffee had fortunately expanded beyond our one local customer and we were regularly shipping orders to internet customers and a few grocery stores. Our green coffee business, however, was suffering from lack of additional capital and a gnawing desire to restructure the importing business into a roaster-owned cooperative. After visiting 30 roasters during a month long road show, seven roasters (including Café Campesino) met in Atlanta and formed Cooperative Coffees. Most of the founders were customers of Café Campesino and all embraced the idea of collectively owning an importing company that would only deal directly with small scale farmers. So in the spring of 2000, our phone greeting was lengthened. Cooperative Coffees now has 14 members and has greatly expanded our original importing capabilities. We run the cooperative from our offices in Americus and most of my time is now devoted to managing this organization.

So, where did this leave Café Campesino’s roasted coffee efforts? Since most of the company’s sales were associated with green coffee, our sales fell dramatically as this business shifted over to the cooperative. But with help from a series of part-time folks, we rocked along for the rest of 2000 and developed our website. A flurry of web development work during the summer began producing results in the fall. Daniel returned from India in November, and by early in 2001, he had assumed day to day management of the rapidly growing roasted coffee biz. Under his direction, our roasted coffee sales double last year and will do so again this year. Plus, we’ve added much more capacity. (You can test our systems if you’d like by placing an order!)

Well, that’s the story of the wheelbarrow. Have you ever thought of a wheelbarrow as an agent of change — a catalyst — with life path altering force? I hadn’t either. And I admit, sometimes it feels like we are shoving this wheelbarrow up a sand dune. Sometimes we feel that it is barreling down a hill and we are along for the ride. Regardless, the work is exciting and meaningful. And we thank you for helping us push the wheelbarrow.

And Now the News: We’re shortening the phone greeting!

After sifting through reams of data, research, focus group results and test studies, we made the following decision: last Wednesday we installed a new phone line! (Sometimes it’s the small things in life that create the greatest excitement.) If you want to place a roasted coffee order or discuss the weather in Americus, Georgia, you can reach Daniel and Rosemary at the same familiar number 229-924-2468. If you’d like to order green coffee or discuss the weather in Americus, Georgia with Bill, you can reach me across the hall at Cooperative Coffees’ new number 229-924-3035.

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