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Thursday, 21 November 2013 18:59

Venture brings ‘local’ intentionality to coffee business

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Whether it’s a hearty steak or an organic tomato, the “farm to table” movement has taken the food industry by storm in recent years.

Now, entrepreneurs Chad Morton and Kirby Watson want to bring that philosophy of ethically sourced, sustainable, quality products to the realm of coffee via their Direct Trade Coffee Club business.

Unlike with apples, carrots or beef that are all grown or raised in West Michigan, Direct Trade Coffee Club has one uncontrollable variable for its product: Coffee can’t be grown in this climate.

Direct Trade’s mission is to work directly with the coffee growers, whether they’re in Honduras, Costa Rica or Guatemala, to ensure that the farmers get the best possible price for their coffee and that the Coffee Club sources the best possible beans.

“My passion is trying to connect the right people together so everyone gets the best possible scenario,” Morton told MiBiz. “I have worked directly with the farmer, brought coffee back. Now the opportunity in the big scheme of things is to work intentionally with the farmer as a relationship.”

Direct Trade imports its coffee beans and has recently started to roast and package its own coffee, which it ships from its location on Grand Rapids’ southwest side. From there, the two principals list their varieties for sale online. Most of the coffees are in the range of $15 per pound and are delivered straight to the customer’s door. Their target demographic is people who want ethically and intentionally-sourced coffee, but “want it stupid easy.”

The partners have also found some success in supplying offices where a higher quality coffee is desired.

When it comes down to getting the highest quality coffee, the two principals feel confident in their ability to source the best beans. Both come from extensive backgrounds in the coffee business. Morton was the main buyer for downtown Grand Rapids coffee shop and roaster Madcap Coffee Company Inc. before branching out to start the coffee club, which sells exclusively through the website.

Hawaii is the only state that can actually grow coffee beans, so Direct Coffee recognizes that the operation doesn’t exactly fit into the traditional “farm-to-table” concept.

“From our perspective, intentionality and understanding what that farmer has to go through, those are the same issues,” Watson said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s farm-to-table movement here in West Michigan, or if it’s farm-to-table and that farm happens to be in Guatemala. It’s the same issues of getting closer to your food, understanding where its coming from and understanding a little more about some of the challenges farmers have in general.”

Having spent considerable time in various parts of the coffee industry, the two have each worked around what has been called “fair-trade” coffee. The name refers to the idea that the coffee farmer gets paid more for his beans from the coffee buyer.

But what Morton and Watson said they found missing in that model was quality.

“Fair trade is a set price point that a group of people make, that was determined to be a low set point,” Morton said. “The main difference between fair trade and direct trade is quality controls. You can be a fair trade farmer and have really (terrible) coffee. … They do have a fail-safe if it goes down below a certain price point, but there’s no quality initiative.”

Because of the lack of quality they often found in those coffees, the principals have embraced what they call “direct trade,” in which they work together with the farmers to improve the quality of the farms and pay what the coffee is worth.

“Direct trade builds a long-term sustainable relationship between the roaster and the farmer based on the quality of the product. That’s the real key,” Watson said. “Fair trade is really more charity-based.”

The quality of coffee is based on a 100-point scale that takes into account the various attributes of the drink, including aroma, acidity, body, flavor and aftertaste. Any coffee that scores under a 70 is not recommended. Direct Trade told MiBiz that it won’t sell any coffees under a score of 87.

The rating system for fair trade is that movement’s inherent flaw because it creates a disincentive for the farmer, Watson said.

“You get a group of farmers together. Some of them may have coffee that scores at an 85 and some may have coffee that scores at a 60. But they are all paid the same price based on the market price,” Watson said.

The plan for Direct Trade Coffee is to keep the business small and cater to that small niche of clients, as well as working with those who want to make an extra step or two toward getting into more specialty coffees. The founders have no plans for retail beyond what they sell at their online store, citing small margins and a lack of roasting infrastructure.

“The spectrum (of coffee drinkers) is changing,” Morton said. “People are going from drip coffee makers to French Press to Chemex. … We are about education and where you’re at on the spectrum. How do we get (coffee drinkers) to that next step with as little impact (as possible) on convenience and pocketbook?”

Read 6160 times Last modified on Monday, 25 November 2013 09:27

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