Recently my friend Ashley Tomlinson (The Little Black Coffee Cup + De Mello Palheta Coffee) reached out and asked me if I’d contribute my thoughts on the topic of trust in the coffee industry. Given a number of recent circumstances and interactions, the request was scary timely. The resulting interview is part of her new Coffee Trust Project, and I encourage you to take a look on a day when you can sit with a cup of coffee and really dive in to ponder the diverse perspectives represented there.
I believe TRUST is the secret ingredient. The one that has the power to make specialty coffee better. Trust is critical for doing meaningful business, maintaining long term relationships, as well as for quality and sustainability. But what is TRUST? Do we have it already? If not, how do we define and build it?.
I think she’s identifying something that’s crucial here. What is the Direct Trade movement about if not both a celebration and a quest for trust? Conscientious customers need to be able to trust that the roasters who obtain their coffees are doing it in a way that aligns with their core values. Roasters need to be able to trust that their good intentions are being executed well in origin. Farmers need to trust they aren’t being taken advantage of.
We all know that, while it’s got some real positive traits, the emphasis on “Direct Trade” is critically lacking in real-time solutions to the actual, extremely complex, world of coffee trading. At its core level, the emphasis on the connection between roaster + farmer ignores the other stakeholders in the mix: the pickers, mill workers, truck drivers, quality control personnel, insurance agents, exporters, accountants, trainers, customs brokers, importers, warehouses, baristas, and customers, among many others.
Roaster + farmer is an easy equation to remember.
It’s not the whole picture.
Back to the concept of TRUST.
Like everyone, I have a personal journey with trust that informs my current perspective on trust in business.
Growing up in a tight religious community (read, cult) in the Midwest States of the United States, I didn’t think much about trust, but I gave it to anyone who asked for it, with joy.
I believed everything I was told about faith, religious practices, and the afterlife, suppressing my questions and hating myself for my disbelief.
If someone told me they were looking out for my best interests, I believed them even when their actions showed cruel negligence. I believed them when the authorities in my life taught me that women didn’t get to have careers, were less deserving of basic rights than men, should cover every part of our bodies to avoid provoking lust in men, and that if I went to a university I would be 1) brainwashed and 2) raped.
I treated trust like air. It was free to everyone.
The results were predictable. I grew tired, collected hurt like bruises, and eventually left organized religion behind me. Put myself through university. Forged my own career.
I’m ten years into coffee and, not coincidentally, ten years into life away from said religious community. I’m also ten years into examining trust, and observing how it—and the lack of it!—permeates the coffee business.
Like other esoteric-but-essential concepts, trust is a personal kind of thing. I tend to view people as trustworthy when they are honest with me, share their emotions and challenges, and deliver on their promises. I have learned that intentional vulnerability, like me sharing with you the above personal history, is part of the foundation of trust.
Hard as it is to realize, not everybody defines trust the same way I do.
Trust takes time to build.
Coffee Sourcing Relationship-building
What you see in this gallery of photos is the beginning of a coffee relationship. We spent a few hours inspecting this site, which we had traveled thousands of miles to reach, talking about processing and the unique challenges this producer faced, connecting with the personnel, and collecting initial samples. The sun beat down on our heads and crushed us. We had driven over almost-impassable roads for hours to get there and would be returning the same way.
We have a four-page document we fill out for our initial site visits. You can see it in Zele’s hand in one of the photos above (a blue folder with a red sticker). On this document we write down information ranging from soil type to cherry acquisition practices, we sketch a layout of the site, remind ourselves how many disks are on the pulper and how often it is cleaned, and analyze the cleanliness and airflow of the storehouse. We get the names and take a portrait photo of each of the management team, look them in the eye, and shake their hands. We ask about water practices and annual volumes.
When we drive away we turn to each other. “How did it go?” We ask.
Sometimes there’s unanimous joy in our faces. It was amazing, we tell each other. The initial connection was there; our contacts show a desire to work together and labor toward higher quality coffee and higher payment for these lots. There’s a willingness to explore changes in coffee processing practices. Our gut assessment of the relationship is positive and we start talking volumes and coffee types for initial contracts.
But that’s just the first step. I can’t count how many times we’ve invested thousands of dollars, days of our time and opportunity cost, and an enormous amount of energy with producers who seemed like a shoe-in to work together, only to call a couple weeks later and hear a barrage of excuses which all boil down to, in essence, THEY DON’T WANT TO DO THE WORK.
Trust develops when you spend time with people, when you go through hard and good things with them, and when you have mutual benefit from your partnerships. People earn my trust by being themselves with me and by delivering as promised. People undermine my trust when they present themselves as one thing, and deliver something else.
It takes time, and our partners delivering on their promises, for trust to build.
It builds like mist in the relationship, sweetly suffusing our interactions. History informs our conversations. Last year, even though it was hard, you finished that lot on time, I think. You promised me a premium if I did this work, and you gave it to me, they remember. Each year of successful partnership builds more trust.
This trust is the foundation of our business and one of the aspects least easy to quantify.
But, like the wordsmith and idealist I am, I’ll keep trying.