Big City Coffee History

From Stephan Iscoe Interview on Big City Coffee and Entrepreneurship, by David G. Mitchell, Saving Advice

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Stephan about his passion for coffee. He told me his story and his enthusiasm for both his coffee and his commitment to help his coffee growers were equally evident:

My interest in the coffee business goes back to the early 1980’s. A friend was a distributor of organic foods and had just signed a deal to distribute Cafe Altura – a shade-grown organic coffee from Chiapas, Mexico. He came by my house with a batch of fresh-roasted beans and a little electric grinder. Five minutes later I was sipping the best coffee I’d ever had. Up to then, I was a tea drinker.

Fast forward about 20 years. I was persuaded to leave the warm Pacific coast of Panama to visit a friend’s coffee farm way up in the volcanic highlands. Here I met many other coffee growers, large and small, and their workers – pickers, farmers, laborers – and families. Not only did I get to drink great, fresh-roasted coffee, but I learned some tough facts about what it takes to survive as a coffee farmer or worker.
You need to understand that producing organic coffee, in the shade, in a bio-diverse field, on the mountains, is labor-intensive. There are no automated pickers or fertilizer spreaders. Workers wash cherries by hand and then spread them out to dry in the sun. Nothing is automated until the beans are sorted.

The bottom line for most of these growers is that some years it costs more to produce and pick a crop than they can get for it. Sometimes they operate several years in a row with losses until they give up or the prices rise. But that’s not even the worst of it. They have no extra money for books or clothes or transportation to school in the nearest city. There are no daycare facilities and no medical clinics in the mountains.

This was all shown to me over many visits; presented as a matter of fact. When they were sure this had sunk in, I was asked to help get their crops directly to the consumer market, bypassing the corporate commodity brokers, shippers and wholesalers. And it seemed to me important to do. The grower could get 21 cents to a dollar extra a pound. In some cases as much as two dollars more. I didn’t hesitate. I came back to the States and began putting together a roasting team and a marketing team. The whole startup was financed by private equity.

We began selling Panamanian coffee online within three months, and were selling seven organic, fair trade Latin American beans within six months. We just added our eighth organic coffee, an exceptional fair trade bean from Ethiopia. We work with several aid organizations in Latin America and Africa and our profits go to charities that assist the farm communities where our coffee is produced.

After learning about the history of Big City Coffee, I asked Stephan to share with us some of the lessons that he has learned. Here is the rest of our discussion.