Traveling to the coffee lands requires no small output of time and money. Is it always worth it? And what should you expect from your trip?
Tim Wendelboe’s eponymous coffee roastery in Oslo sends him to origin about a half dozen times a year. While he’s a world away from his roaster and among the coffee trees, he’s building relationships with farmers and his importer while negotiating coffee prices on taste and quality. It seems to be working out, as Tim shows no sign of slowing down, and his coffees have a great reputation in Oslo and beyond. But in a 2010 blog post, he did acknowledge the questions that can arise from so much globetrotting: “My accountant may think I am crazy spending so much on traveling, but I think it is totally necessary and a good investment for the future. We are building relationships with serious farmers and we are trying to secure a good supply of great coffees in the future.”
Wendelboe’s view tends to ring true across the specialty side of the industry, but his accountant’s head scratching about whether there is any return on investment is valid. My own consultancy, Brewed Behavior, takes clients to origin to meet like-minded coffee producers and learn about coffee agronomy right on the farm, and to see the milling process first hand. It’s fun to see coffee in its natural environment, but it needs to make financial sense. Roasters and retailers need to make the time and cash commitment work for their bottom line in some way, and make sure the trip will use their strengths, and build on them.
How do you know it’s worth it?
“Like everything else in business, it must be budgeted,” says Larry Challain, president of Batdorf and Bronson Coffee Roasters, based in Olympia, Wash. “You must look at origin travel not as fun and exotic (though it can be), but as a business decision and ask yourself, ‘Is this important to my business success?’” And, remember that for a small roaster or retailer the cost is a much bigger part of your operating budget than it is for a medium-sized or large business.
For example, at a small roasting company, the person roasting the coffee is probably also in charge of buying the green. Noah Namowicz, marketing director at Minneapolis-based Café Imports points out, “If they are at origin, they are not in the shop roasting, solidifying their coffee profiles, and ultimately building their brand.” For larger roasters, the same time and financial commitments apply, “but there may be more flexibility in how those costs and staffing needs are spread out,” he adds. “In the end, buying trips usually are not a cost-saving technique for a business, but they provide valuable staff education and strength in marketing.”
And enormous risks abound. If origin trips are being planned for buying purposes, Namowicz cautions that “a roaster could fall victim to price inflation due to inexperience with coffee buying, coffee-quality risk upon importation (this is a big one), lack of logistical support to get coffee out of origin, and then ultimately overextending the producers themselves.”
So, roasters can (and should) pay a good importer to do much of this legwork for them. Namowicz notes that, “Getting the top coffees is not a task to be taken lightly. The paperwork involved on the export and import of coffee is costly, and it’s the same whether you’re importing a container or a 15-bag lot. Buying it requires utilizing a supply chain that works efficiently together in order to succeed at getting coffee from seed to cup.”
Indeed, importers can be your best friend, and this relationship should be managed carefully. Challain provides practical advice on maintaining a good relationship with importers: “Paying for you green when due really matters and is one of the most important things you can do to ensure access.”
Challain has been sending Batdorf’s green-coffee buyers to origin six or seven times a year for 20 years, to visit producers they already work with, to cup new-crop coffees, negotiate prices and search for exceptional new coffees. “We want to see for ourselves where our coffee is grown and milled and under what conditions, both environmental and social. It helps a roaster build positive relations with producers, exporters and your importer. And it can provide access to the coffees one desires.”
But again, bite off what you can chew. For a roaster or retailer, the due-diligence reasons to go to origin are to deepen your understanding of specialty coffee and the challenges faced by farmers who are trying to produce it. “We have found that these types of trips often allow customers to understand why we pay a premium for quality, and to see that attempting to produce high-quality coffee often comes with great risk, large investments and hard work,” says Namowicz. “Seeing the tough cash-flow cycles farmers deal with and the dirty work that goes into getting a coffee processed, milled and on a container for export helps roasters and retailers convey to their customers why they should pay more for good coffee.”
Should every coffee professional try to go to origin?
“For a retailer or barista, the return to your company is not direct to the bottom line, but going to origin will be of value for building coffee knowledge, enthusiasm and if shared with your customers, sales,” says Challain. If you’re not a green buyer, the best way to visit origin might be with an industry-organized trip. “At least one visit to an origin country is quite valuable for anyone who has a real passion for specialty coffee, especially owners, serious baristas and others not usually involved with the green coffee,” says Challain. “You will gain a renewed appreciation for the efforts that many hands make in bringing great coffee to you and learn about current conditions farmers face in the region you visit.”
But despite needing it to fit into a profit-and-loss statement, all coffee professionals are naturally curious about their supply chain and the people who work in it, which is what makes traveling to origin so attractive. We want to speak to the producer growing our coffee and understand where it comes from. Robbie Britt is one such professional. He owns Dynamite Coffee, a mobile coffee cart in Cape Girardeau, Mo., and also does equipment sales and support for Espresso Parts, based in Olympia, Wash. He’s been in the industry for nine years and has never visited a coffee farm, though he’s itching to go. “Just like I’d try to build a relationship with a customer at my cart, I want to pursue relationships across the board in my business. It’s a matter of philosophy and perspective, being aware and educated as a business owner, and valuing not just the bean but the people in the process.”
Britt’s goal is to make it to origin in three to five years, so he can bring back first-hand insights to his colleagues and customers. “It’s messy and expensive, but a lot of things are. As a small business owner I’m trying to be realistic. It feels like a miracle that I have my little coffee cart off the ground. I have a lot of pride in it. So I’ll work hard, take it a day at a time, and hope that doors will open.”