Never in a million years would I have imagined I would be starting a coffee company in the middle of a global pandemic and economic onslaught. Had someone predicted this to me 5 years ago, or even 1 year ago, I would have laughed them out of the room! But as I delve deeper into this industry, I continue to hear more and more interesting stories as to how people ended up here. While the paths are all wildly unique, the roots are all similar, consisting of a desire for adventure, exploration, challenge, helping others, and a little bit of passion for the drink we consume every day. The coffee industry is so much more than just serving a good cup of coffee over the counter at a local cafe. It is a global supply chain that binds us near and far, from the first world to the third world and every person in between. It’s a drink that through its unique flavors captures and tells the stories of its exotic origins, terroir, history of colonialism, geopolitics, the people that process it, and so much more. Despite what you might think, the industry is not for the faint of heart, and each person has their own story about how they wound up here. Here is mine.
I have always had an affinity for Latin America. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it has always fascinated me. When you are in a major city like Rio de Janeiro or Bogotá, there is a sense of energy behind all of the noise, graffiti, street vendors, and music. Perhaps it is similar to the feeling one gets in New York City, but the difference is that in Latin America, anything is possible both good and bad. Your range of possible outcomes, no matter what it is you are doing, is so wide, that it requires you to stay on your toes, not get too comfortable, and be ready to adapt at any moment. There is a sense of adventure and unpredictability that gives me an adrenaline rush that I don’t get anywhere in the United States. I believe this unpredictability is what has created a culture that is widely known for being extremely flexible, friendly, and relationship-oriented. While not completely glamorous, there is something to be said about their ability to take what has been given to them and make the best out of it. Look at the food in Latin America. You find ingredients that are not necessarily high on the “luxury” ingredient list, and yet you can find some of the most delicious flavors on the planet. To me, that is the perfect microcosm of the culture of Latin America. Take what little you have, turn up some Reggaeton music, speak (very loudly) a WhatsApp message into your phone, and make something incredible with a smile on your face.
Where It All Started
Early in my career as a commodity trader, I knew I wanted to do something in Latin America. I wasn’t quite sure what it was but it was something. I remember working with my counterparts at PEMEX (Mexican national oil refining company), Glencore, Trafigura and many more and thinking how much I was missing out on because I didn’t speak Spanish. They could speak English better than I could in addition to their perfect Spanish, French, and Portuguese! I remember tucking my tail between my legs one day when I decided to “stick my neck out there” and offer up that I knew a little Spanish (from a lifetime of not paying attention in school). I didn’t even get past Quihúbole?!? (if you know, you know).
I decided that if I ever wanted to pursue my dream of developing a business in Latin America, it all started with learning Spanish. Not like DuoLingo, 15-mins-per-day Spanish. Like actually being a Spanish speaker. I dedicated myself to studying 2-3 hours per day and to absorbing everything I possibly could. Step 1 complete.
From Cannabis to Coffee
Fast forward a few years and while working in the industrial hemp industry, I began to notice that the Latin American market was opening up to cannabis/hemp production, specifically Uruguay, Paraguay, and Colombia. One day I saw an advertisement for an industrial hemp conference in Montevideo, Uruguay. After much hesitation, I decided to take the plunge and just go. While in Montevideo (highly recommend a visit, really cool town), I met a couple of Colombian guys that would not stop talking about the opportunity in their country. After many conversations, it seemed to make sense. Colombia (along with the other equatorial climates) has been blessed with the ability to produce agricultural products year-round due to the fact that they don’t really have seasons (they do, but not in the context of a North American). Several months later, I went to Colombia and made stops in the 3 major cities: Bogota, Medellin, and Cali.
Finca del Gualanday
My last stop was meeting with a lady named Liliana that owned a farm just outside of Cali, called Finca del Gualanday. In all honesty, I was very unsure of where this meeting was going to go, and at the tail end of a long trip, I was a bit “over it.” Luckily Liliana is pretty hilarious and we became fast friends. At the time, her English was about the same level as my Spanish, which made for a very entertaining day of Spanglish. Her farm was exactly what I would have imagined a Colombia “estate” to look like: a beautiful white stucco house overlooking the mountains with citrus and banana trees everywhere. The place was humble yet incredible.
As we concluded the tour of her farm, she handed me a cup of coffee as we sat down to discuss how she would need a similar processing facility to the one we built in Kentucky. About 3 sips into this cup, I abruptly put a halt to the conversation to ask what this coffee was. It was so good. I am no coffee snob (at least I wasn’t at this moment) but this cup was so easy to drink, there was a tiny hint of citrus, but not terribly acidic, and a nice sweet aftertaste, almost like the coffee was influenced by some of the sugarcane that was being harvested 3,000 feet in the valley below. She flippantly pointed to the other side of the farm and said “those trees, we have about 8,000 coffee trees over there” (about 8 acres), as if I wouldn’t be interested. She explained to me that the farm had not been commercially producing coffee for about 10 years because the cost of producing organic coffee is so far above the “market price” of coffee. This statement stopped me in my tracks. She was speaking my language. This was the exact sort of problem that my experience was made to solve. I don’t know if it was the 3rd cup of coffee or just pure excitement, but my mind was spinning a million miles an hour. I felt like everything I had worked toward, everything I had dreamed of was, in some way, coming together before my eyes. This was the moment where we decided to go for it. We made a handshake deal that I would be back to help support the farm, and that we would figure out a way to make this farm thrive once again.
Making It A Reality
When I got back to Denver and explained the situation to my wife, it started as a “this could be a fun part-time job” proposition and a few months later we were completely gutting and renovating our garage, converting it into a commercial roasting facility. I felt as soon as we installed 3 phase power, this thing was legit.
As I have studied coffee marketing and branding strategies, you can’t help but notice how many companies talk about sourcing ethically. Some even talk about making donations for every bag that is sold. As I delve deeper into this market, I realize that what I created with Lilliana is so much more than just a bilateral transaction between a buyer and a seller. What we created was a way to push the boundaries in the coffee industry. Instead of simply playing victim to a broken coffee market (a great topic for another series of posts), shrugging our shoulders and treating farmers as an unfortunate victim of circumstance, we decided to throw this narrative out the window. We are realigning the risk profile, realigning incentives, creating new pricing mechanisms, and basing our transactions on friendship, trust, and most importantly mutual respect. I quickly realized that we had inadvertently brought the farmer somewhere they had never been, to the negotiating table as an equal and formidable counterparty.
I believe that my story is unique, but by no means is it special. There are hundreds, if not thousands of similar stories across the industry, all having their very own inspiring twist. My hope is that you join me, as we explore the exotic world of Latin America, using coffee as our guide. I look forward to sharing my thoughts, challenges, anecdotes, photos, stories, and more through this blog, and as always would love to connect with each one of you!