Dec 30, 2020 • 51M

Michelle Stoler and the Million Reasons to Buy Coffee

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What makes a great coffee?

When we talk about food, drinks, and other agricultural products, our metric of goodness is typically based on visceral experience. We can taste it, smell it, and otherwise perceive markers of quality through our five senses. In coffee, quality is also equated with the experimental and the rare—a coffee processed in a new way, or a highly-sought-after varietal, is imbued with value.

But what if we were to shift our understanding of goodness, and what makes it? What if, for instance, we prized a coffee that was sustainably sourced? I don’t just mean that the coffee was sustainably grown: I mean that the coffee, throughout the lifetime of not just the bean itself but the relationships built between buyer and seller, was bought and sold in a way that was fair and equitable to all involved.

Coffee is an incredibly risky plant to harvest. It is highly dependent on the environment, so a late rainfall or unseasonably warm weather can wreak havoc on the flavor of a bean. For most coffee professionals, this isn’t news. But what might be revelatory is thinking about how to redistribute the risk involved in growing coffee across the supply stream.

Much of the risk in growing coffee is assumed by the farmer. If a crop fails or a coffee underperforms, that almost always translates to a farmer getting paid less—or not getting paid at all.

Michelle Stoler works for Shared Source, a green coffee importer, purchaser of parchment coffee, and exporter who works in Portland, Oregon. She thinks a lot about risk, and how it might be shared. In this episode, we explore what it means for more actors within the coffee supply stream to assume risk, and the good that can come from taking that unique burden off farmers.

We also talk about the coffee industry’s obsession with pricing—not just paying farmers more, but its focus on where the money goes. If we pay a farmer a set price for coffee, why do we need to justify that price by pointing to the investment they made in their community? Why isn’t the work put into cultivating the coffee justification enough?

After listening to this episode, I hope you take a moment to set your values, and to probe your own assumptions. What makes a coffee great? As Michelle points out, the default is to fall back on quality—but there are a million other ways to gauge, and reasons to buy, a coffee.

By setting clear values, more roasters and importers can help assume the risk that we almost singlehandedly put on farmers, which is unfair, unjust, and a relic of the colonial roots of coffee’s past. Here’s Michelle:

Ashley: Could you introduce yourself to everybody?

Michelle: Sure. My name is Michelle Stoler and I work for Shared Source. We're a green coffee importer, a parchment coffee purchaser, and an exporter.

Ashley: How did you get into coffee?

Michelle: I got into coffee through cacao actually. I moved to Quito, Ecuador for some postgrad studies. I did a research project, a master's thesis about the advantages and challenges of fair trade certification for cocoa farmers. Cocoa is the third-largest export in Ecuador after petroleum and bananas. And a lot of cocoa farmers in Ecuador happened to be low-quality coffee farmers. They had cacao or cocoa on the lower parts of their farm and coffee on the higher parts of their farm, which is pretty unique to this one part of Ecuador.

And so as I was kind of kicking it with cacao farmers, talking to them about the ways that they commercialize their cacao and the ways that they were able to keep the most profit and learning about cacao, which has a very intense, long, very important fermentation step, I learned a little bit about the way that they process their coffees and their coffee was almost always sold kind of as an afterthought on the local market because it was usually lower-grade coffee.

When I moved back from Ecuador after four years there, I moved back to Portland, Oregon, and I wanted to work either in chocolate—which is obviously the product that you make from cacao—or I wanted to work in coffee. And I got a job in coffee. And here we are.

Ashley: Here we are.

Michelle: Yeah. I worked for a roaster and I worked for a different green coffee importer. And now I'm working for Shared Source doing green coffee purchasing, managing our relationships with producers, and managing operations and sales in the U.S.

Ashley: I would say, as a coffee professional, probably the weakest point of my knowledge in how coffee works as a whole entity, as a whole system, is how coffee gets to us.

I can describe how to extract this, what flavors you might expect from that—I can do the song and dance of, “coffee comes from a cherry, and this and that happens to it …” But I think there's a part in the middle—a farmer growing coffee, a farmer processing coffee, and the coffee physically getting to a roaster—where I feel like my knowledge is pretty limited. I would imagine for a lot of baristas, there are some gaps there. I think we have pretty broad understandings: There's an importer and there's an exporter. I don't know that everyone could maybe tell the difference. I barely feel like I could right now.

So I'm really interested to get into the nitty-gritty of how coffee gets to us and what those steps look like because there's just so much to learn. And there's a lot of differences from country to country, there are differences specifically to how Shared Source does it, so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit, just really generally, about how coffee gets to us and talk a little bit about how Shared Source does those things a little bit differently? Very broad question, I know.

Michelle: Sure. No, I am happy to talk about that because I feel so lucky that I get to see and be a part of that. So much of my coffee career has been really kind of centered around that.

When I say that Shared Source is a parchment purchaser, an exporter, and importer, that means that we purchase parchment coffee directly from producers. And we do that in Colombia and Guatemala, specifically. Colombia and Guatemala both mostly have washed coffees. And for a washed coffee, its final step from a producer means that it's coffee in parchment. So that usually means that the producer has taken the cherries, they've depulped them, they've fermented them—sometimes using really interesting and exciting fermentation techniques—and they have washed the coffee and left it to dry in any number of drying contraptions around patios. And that is the point that Shared Source comes in.

We purchase the coffee directly from the producer. That means that we pay them in the local unit of purchasing—in Colombia that's the carga and in Guatemala it's the quetzal—and we pay them in their local currency directly to their bank account.

From there, we take physical possession of the coffee and transport it to a mill and we have the parchment removed—that means that the coffee is sorted and any sort of insect damage or other damage or poorly … poorly nutriented beans? How do you say that beans that are—that aren't fully formed because they didn't get enough nutrition?—they're all sorted out.

We're partnering with mills who are then responsible for putting the coffee in GrainPro bags and jute bags. We are contracting another freight provider to take the coffee to the port and at the port, it gets on a container ship.

I think this is interesting because I didn't know or think about this before my career in importing coffee, but most coffee, especially if it comes in a full container, is just usually sitting in the jute bag in the container. It's probably stacked up in there. Then it gets to the port, there's another truck driver who takes the unloaded container, which has been unloaded off of the ship, takes it to the warehouse. And there, people at the warehouse physically unload the coffee and it's green coffee at that point. Usually, at that point, an importer is selling the coffee to a roaster. I'd say that's the very brief supply chain of events.

Ashley: That overview was super helpful in understanding how coffee gets from a farmer to eventually being sold as green coffee. And I think that it was helpful for me to hear when the importer comes in because I'm guessing, based on that response, the importer is generally the person who's like, “I am bringing coffee into this country and then selling it to roasters or selling it to people who are going to use green coffee for something.”

Michelle: Totally. Yeah. A lot of importers are buying from any number of different actors. You can buy coffee from a cooperative, you can buy coffee from an exporter. In that case, the exporter is usually a local agent who is purchasing coffee in parchment form directly from producers. You can even purchase coffee directly from a producer if that producer is large enough to have a dry mill maybe on their farm or to own a mill somewhere else where they mill their own coffee. So they bring their coffee to the green stage, they're responsible for bringing coffee to the port and then the importer takes possession and pays the producer or the co-op or the exporter from there. And then the importer is always the one who's providing both the financial upfront cash—they're paying for the coffee—and they're also providing the logistics steps of coordinating with a customs broker, or maybe managing the customs step on their own and getting the coffee physically from the container where it's from, its port of export, into its port of import and then the logistics of getting it to the warehouse as well.

In Colombia and Guatemala, we are skipping that step of purchasing from an exporter. Rather we're working directly with producers to purchase coffee in parchment form from them and to pay them straight into their bank accounts to make sure that we know exactly how much producers are making. We are confident that we are paying fair and meaningful prices.

Ashley: So when someone gets, let's say, a coffee offering from Shared Source specifically for coffees from Guatemala or Colombia, where you have this importer/exporter dual role, that price is like, “Yeah, look, we paid this. Let me show you the text message I have with this one.”

Michelle: Totally. Yeah. We do, I don't know, 90% of our communications through WhatsApp and so there's usually a text message with producers to say, you know, “We've cupped X number of samples that you gave us from your harvest.” [We usually give] detailed cupping notes or information about the coffees that we weren't able to purchase. “We found a defect in this cup,” or, “This really wasn't a clean coffee. It tasted like this had happened in the processing. Can you share a little bit more about that?” And then there's [usually] an offer saying, “These coffees tasted great and we love them, and we'd like to offer you this amount of money for the coffees. We hope that this is a good price for you, and we hope that you accept.” And from there, it's almost always a message from a producer saying, “Great, I'll start storing the coffee for you,” which is exactly what we want.

But of course, that relationship and that dynamic between the two of us is always kind bound by the inherent power dynamics of buyer and seller, especially buyer and seller in this coffee market, where the buyer is often assumed to have a lot of power. We get to set prices that determine their livelihood—how much money they're going to make for the crop that they've spent a year, or in Colombia, maybe six months since they have more frequent harvests, that they've spent a lot of time preparing for. So it’s a big deal and it's not something that I tried to take lightly for sure.

Ashley: I think it's interesting that you mentioned that oftentimes when you are having that conversation of, “I cupped these coffees, I determined them to be of this quality. We'd like to buy them at this price,” that oftentimes is met with, “Yeah, sure. That's great.” As opposed to what I would maybe imagine. I mean, haggling is not quite the right word for it, but the idea of there being an inherent value to the coffee that's inherent to the coffee.

I don't believe that there is any inherent value—obviously, value is created—but the idea that there are two equal actors coming to a bargaining table being able to set parameters that meet both of their standards. Not to say that you aren't trying to do the best that you can do when you offer a farmer whatever price that you can. But I think it's interesting that you called out specifically that oftentimes people say yes to your offers. And I was wondering: How do you start to think about bringing more equity to that table?

Michelle: It’s tough. I would like to say that everybody says yes to our offers because we're offering them the very best price for a great product and that we are offering them a very fair price that they have no need to ever consider negotiating. But I think that would be blind and foolish to assume that that's the only reason why they're saying yes.

There's obviously a huge historical precedent of who has power in the relationship of buying and selling coffee. And it's almost always the buyer. So thinking about that, there are all sorts of ways that we can try to attempt to restore equity. Some of that is just making it really clear that this is an offer and not a contract. This is not, “You must sell us this coffee at this price,” but it's a question. “This is your coffee. We think it tastes like this. And we would love to purchase it at this price, is that acceptable?” Framing it as a question and a negotiation.

We also think about that when we're thinking about pricing. We think, “Is this a fair price? Is this a producer that we think will tell us if not?” and I definitely don't want to discount the super helpful work of my colleague, Frank Torres, who is Colombian, who provides really helpful context when we're talking about pricing to say, “Do you think this is a fair price?” And he lives in Colombia and he is a coffee producer and he is our field agent whose job it is to be kind of a liaison, and to manage relationships between us and producers on an ongoing year-round, constant basis.

So a big part of the way that we're approaching pricing and communication and power dynamics now is really trying to involve Frank and say, “Please help us make sure that these prices are fair and meaningful. And that when they're presented to producers, they're presented as what they are, which is an initial offer.” If they need more then let's start that conversation, not in a way that's going to mean we will always pay more if someone asks, because we are very thoughtful in the prices that we set out initially, but in the same way that any sort of business relationship often has an element of negotiation if you want or need. I want to make sure that that is clear when we communicate pricing to producers as well. But I think it helps to be cognizant of the inherent power that we have and to take that into thought when we're making our initial offers.

Ashley: I'm just imagining, thinking about producers as the people who have the thing you want. Simply put—you want to buy coffee, they have coffee. And I have to imagine based on what you just said, a lot of farmers aren't necessarily shopping around. That's not really what's happening when people are buying green coffee.

Michelle: Yeah. A dream world would be that they can shop around with a lot of buyers paying really good prices. That would require us all to do our very best as buyers to put forward good offers. And hopefully, that offer includes both a good price, but also, maybe there's some longevity to the relationship that producers know that we're going to pay them on time, that we're going to pay them quickly, that they know that when local market prices slip down, that we are a consistent buyer who has consistently paid a high price. So maybe the market prices are spiking right now, but they're going to continue to offer their best coffees to us because they know that next year and the year after and during the flight crop harvest, we'll be there to purchase coffee then at the same fair prices, even when the market inevitably slips.

That's not always the case. Many producers that we work with don't necessarily have a lot of other contexts with buyers who are going to pay good prices, but when they do, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking of it as a bad thing. Like, “Oh, now we have competition,” but I think for the future of coffee and for what we want, which is to see producers thriving and economically independent and living lives that are comfortable and happy, it's definitely a good thing when there are multiple buyers that force everyone to put their best offer forward, because this is a product that demands a lot of value in the U.S. or wherever it's consumed.

Producers, as you said, are responsible for adding value to the product from its very inception and taking on the risk and deciding to grow it in the first place and all of the risks that come from dealing with climate change and processing and drying coffee—all of the steps that require us to have a delicious green bean that we can then offer to roasters who are going to add even more value to the product.

Ashley: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about some of the producers that you work with, because Shared Source specifically works with people who maybe don't have that market access. So you're not necessarily working with the superstar producers that maybe are on Instagram, or maybe dominate coffee competitions. You're really working with people who maybe don't have that foot in the door to get to that specialty market. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about why you do that and how you do that.

Michelle: Sure. I mean, we, I am very excited to say that some of the producers that we work with do enter coffee competitions. For example, some producers that we worked with in Colombia just entered the Cup of Excellence. And I just heard today that they moved on—they were in the top 90.

Ashley: I think this illustrates just how different your perspective versus my perspective is because I immediately thought of barista competitions and you went to Cup of Excellence. And I was like, you're on the different end of the supply stream.

Michelle: You're so right. That's true. None of the producers that we work with are familiar names in the barista competition circuit. And many of them do not submit their coffee to other competitions, like the Cup of Excellence. But some of them do because they know that they have a quality product and they know that we've been really happy with the coffee that they have and they've improved their processing over many harvests. And it's exciting to me that some of them think, “Oh, I have a good thing. And I know it now, and I'm going to submit my coffee to the Cup of Excellence.”

But you're right. None of the producers that we work with have had their coffees featured prominently in any barista competitions. And that's a little bit by design, I would say, because I see the value that we add to this whole stream is connecting producers, specifically smallholder producers who might not have that access to a roaster, who don't have the English skills, who don't have the land size, to have enough coffee to regularly offer to a roaster.

We are able to purchase that coffee and kind of act as that middleman. I feel like the word “middleman” has deservedly become a bit of a bad word. But you know, in this case, I hope that what we're doing is providing a real service and connecting smallholder producers who otherwise would really find it challenging to meet roasters. And we're connecting them to roasters who would otherwise find it really challenging to develop meaningful long-term relationships with coffee producers and at the same time maintain the same varied menu that many of them want to maintain.

Ashley: So how do you do that? How do you find producers? Because the idea that they don't have market access, I imagine makes it tough because you're looking for people who you don’t know.

Michelle: Yeah, you totally nailed it. Some of this comes from longevity. We've had relationships with many of these producers for, I don't know, probably upwards of eight years, and producers always know more people just like us. They have friends and neighbors and family members to introduce you to, to say, “Hey, my neighbor saw that you paid me a great price for coffee last year, and they have coffee. Would you be interested in receiving a sample?” So we're always expanding our network that way. That's by far the most common way.

One of our most long-term and cherished relationships is with a producer who just happened to be working during a cupping, a local company competition in Colombia, who happened to say, “Hey, you guys are cupping these auction coffees, I have some coffee. Can I bring it down?” And we cupped it and it was great. And we have enjoyed working with him for many years since then.

So it's kind of serendipity, but a lot of it is just network. It's families, neighbors.

We work with some associations that are loosely organized friends and neighbors who commercialize their coffee, I guess, kind of as a group and say, “We have a buyer contact. And so anyone who's a member of this group is welcome to submit their coffees and their samples.” And that's always a great way to meet new producers. But honestly, we're a small importer and exporter, and we purchase from the same producers year after year, harvest after harvest. And as we slowly and intentionally grow, we're able to expand the network of producers that we purchase from. But we're not aiming for rapid-fire growth either. So the question of how to meet new producers has yet to be one that has been challenging.

Ashley: What would you consider a success when you cultivate these relationships and market access isn't really a challenge anymore? Is there a point where—I wouldn't say the relationship ends per se—but it's almost like you don't need this from us? Does that make sense?

Michelle: Kind of. I would say that success is when we're able to cultivate a relationship where risk is mutually shared.

Ashley: Talk more about that! Talk about risk.

Michelle: Yeah. I think about this a lot when I think about who are the customers that I enjoy selling coffee to. It's the customers who make a real commitment to a group or an individual and say, “I understand that growing coffee is inherently risky and that a lot of that risk is placed upon those at the bottom of our supply chain. And I want to take on some of that risk.”

And what I mean by that is [for example] climate change happens. And sometimes that means that the yield of your coffee farm goes down significantly, or you have to figure out a new way to manage fermentation, which is affected a lot by temperature, or sometimes the rain doesn't come when you expect it. Or sometimes the rain comes right when you're drying the coffee and suddenly you have a mold problem or a phenol problem, or sometimes for totally unexplainable reasons, a coffee from a specific parcel of the farm that last year tasted great that this year, under the same meticulous care, just doesn't taste as great.

And the success for me is when we are able to cultivate a relationship with a roaster who understands that and can take on some of that and says, “I will still buy this coffee and I will find a home for it. Maybe it's in my blend. Maybe we're just going to showcase the coffee on its own and talk about the fact that coffee is an agricultural product that is cyclical,” and who takes on some of that risk so that it's not all on the producer. Being a middleman, we are in a place where we can buy some coffee and take on some of that risk, but a really successful relationship to me is when roasters are able and willing to share in that risk.

Ashley: That's a really interesting point. And perhaps this is just on my mind because I listened to a different interview of a podcast that's not published which is so insider-y it's ridiculous. But I'm helping edit something, and I was listening to somebody talk about the idea of the value stream and who takes the least amount of risk in the supply stream. And it's oftentimes roasters.

Which I'd never thought about. But hearing you talk about what it looks like for roasters to share some of that risk committing to buying coffees—not necessarily regardless of quality—but regardless of undue circumstances that can't be predicted like climate change or maybe the [coffee] yield isn't as big. Because I can imagine for a lot of roasters perhaps who are maybe risk-averse, that might not be a risk that they're willing to take. Saying, “Oh, that's not the amount that I need, so I need to move on to somebody else.”

Michelle: Yeah, yeah. I would just push back and say, “What does it mean to be a roaster that touts relationships with producers when that relationship does not mutually share risk? It’s challenging for everyone, risk is tough!

No one wants to take on the risk. I understand that many businesses, and small businesses especially, really don't have great ways to manage that risk and to deal with what do you do with expensive coffee that doesn't taste as great. I understand that that's a legitimate problem, but it's no less of a legitimate problem for producers who say, "What do I do with this coffee that doesn't taste as great for reasons that are largely outside of my control?" or "What do I do when roya comes in—or coffee rust comes in—and decimates the large part of my production? And I've been managing my farm organically because of a certification that a larger importer requested of me?”

Those are risks that producers take on all the time. They're also small businesses, also with few financial tools at their disposal. So I would just hope that we can all recognize that and try our damnedest to share in it.

Ashley: It's really illuminating to hear you talk about the idea of risk and what that looks like in practical terms, like “The coffee that I paid maybe a couple of bucks more than I would for a blend because I intended it to be a single origin isn't performing at that level. So the risks that I took there was to pay more for that coffee,” because I think it's hard to really understand what risk looks like at that level sometimes.

And again, it feels sometimes roasters do have to take the least amount of risk because we're so quality-focused. I think the way that we talk about coffee in a way that might be kind of shooting ourselves in the foot is that we talk so much about the importance of quality. And we kind of ignore anything that takes away from that narrative.

Michelle: I agree. That's why I often think of my favorite coffees being the workhorse coffees because they do their job and taste really great, and coffees that have been purchased under really sound conditions of partnership, hopefully. And oftentimes what you get from a partnership is really great quality. That means that if you're paying a high price and sharing in the risks, that means that producers can sometimes feel more confident taking on risks with riskier processing or planting a new variety or something if they know that someone else is going to share in that. And if you share in that, that often means that you get to reap the reward, you get to have some really delicious coffees where you get to consistently have high-scoring coffees because a producer being fairly compensated for those coffees and is able to fertilize at the right time, et cetera … sharing and risk doesn't mean to me only that you have to wallow in the challenges. That often means you get to reap the rewards and delight in success alongside producers as well.

Ashley: It seems from listening to you talk about how you work within the supply stream that you're also vetting roasters as well. You're making relationships with farmers and you're saying, "These are the people that we want to introduce you to," but you also have to be really careful about who those people you choose are.

Michelle: It's true. But I also think of that as part of the value that I hope that we're adding. If I sell a producer's coffee to a roaster and for whatever reason that roaster does not purchase the coffee again next year that doesn't mean that producer doesn't have a buyer—it means that I find a different buyer for that coffee, right? So I hope that's where we're adding value, but certainly, we're a small company and I feel very lucky to be able to work with almost exclusively roasters that I really like, and that I enjoy and who often seek us out because they want those kinds of relationships with producers. And because they share the same values.

Ashley: I have a couple of questions that are really big. So I want to make sure that we have time for those, but one thing I do want to circle back on—because you mentioned it earlier and I've heard people mention it recently—is that you pay producers in their local currency. I was wondering if you could talk about why that's important.

Michelle: I mean, there's a lot of reasons why it's important. A big reason to me is that we're working with smallholder producers who live their lives in local currency. There's really no context for navigating a price that is in a currency and a unit that is not familiar to them. It's just not how I want to do business to say, this is the way we're going to negotiate. And because we're purchasing locally that means that we should be working in local currency and local units.

It seems awkward to come to you and say, “Oh, Ashley, I love this thing that you're offering. I'm going to offer you X number of Euros or Canadian dollars for this many kilos or some other unit.” You would be pretty confused and the burden would be on you to look up the exchange rate and to say, “Does this make sense for me? Is this something that I want to do? Why are they doing this?”

The nature of the way that we're purchasing coffee is that we're not purchasing it on the international stage. We're purchasing it locally and we're paying those producers in their currency, into their bank account. The value that we're adding, in that case, is taking on the risk of currency fluctuations. We are transferring money in U.S. dollars into our local bank accounts in Colombia and Guatemala and taking on the exchange rate of the moment.

I don't want to mislead and I don't want to overlook some very valuable partners. So I should mention that in Guatemala, specifically, we do not have an export license. And so we use the export license of a good friend and partner there who provides the service of lending us their export license. And he happens to also own the dry mill where we mill the coffee. So he's a good partner to us, and I don't want to make it seem like we have an export license in Guatemala because we don't. But he follows our instructions and we're very grateful. So just wanted to point that out as well.

Ashley: One of the reasons that I wanted to have you on this episode is we've been talking a lot about pricing and we've been talking a lot about how we build relationships with producers.

You gave some quotes for an article that my partner Jesse wrote about essentially the parts of the coffee supply stream that we don't see—which is kind of the theme of this conversation as well. And something that I really appreciated that you pointed out is that we really talk a lot, when we talk about the justification for the price of coffee, about how a farmer spends that money.

We talk a lot about investing in communities and things like that, which seems good. But at the same time, no one asks me how I spend my salary. No one's like, “What are you doing to invest in the community?” I mean, a little bit, but no one's judging me for buying a $20 bottle of wine versus a $5 bottle of wine and saying that I'm not investing. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about some of the ways that we talk about producers and the way that we talk about pricing and why that might be a little bit misguided.

Michelle: I think there's a desire to share the price and the amount that a producer is able to reinvest in their farm. Sometimes maybe it was just a way to make ourselves feel good to say, “Look, we're paying good prices,” but that shouldn't be why we're paying good prices.

The reason why we're paying good prices should be because it's the right thing to do. And because we want to see an industry that allows producers to thrive, and that allows producers to continue growing a product that we all really love. And I think it's really great when producers can reinvest in their farms. And oftentimes they certainly do, because their farms are their businesses, and many people also choose to reinvest their own profits in their businesses. But those who choose not to reinvest their profits in their businesses, in the U.S., and to buy fancy bottles of wine or to do any other number of things that make you happy and comfortable with money—those decisions aren't really criticized or even discussed or asked about.

And I think that's what I want for our relationships to be more equitable with producers, where the expectation isn't that we are a parent who is going to ask all sorts of questions about the way you spent your money—it's that we're equal partners, both running businesses that we hope to be successful and that we can enjoy the fruits of our labor.

Ugh. I hate that I said that phrase.

Ashley: I love it.

I love cheesy coffee-related or coffee-adjacent puns, like “fruits of our labor.” I'm gonna brand something with that.

But I think just to push this point a little bit further—I like making analogies—and I was thinking about, okay, perhaps someone can be critical of my spending habits, let's say, but they would never use it as a justification to renegotiate my salary. It would never be like, “You were spending too much money on frivolous shit. You're going to get paid less this year.” And it seems like we are still caught up in this idea that we have to know where all this money is going versus like, “No, they're doing a job that we've asked. We're setting the standard for how much that should be paid and we don't need to justify the payment based on how it's spent.”

Michelle: Yeah. I certainly hope not. If your employer is making you renegotiate your salary based on the way that they think that you're spending, that's bonkers and should be reported directly to HR.

Ashley: Right, but it feels like that's the way we talk about coffee.

Michelle: Yeah. I'm not sure. I feel very lucky to be very divorced from circles that are having those kinds of conversations about pricing. I can't imagine having that kind of conversation with a producer. I will say, I'm human, I'm curious. I want to know how producers spend their money. I want to know how my friends spend their money, but I tend to either ask in a business-appropriate context or to close friends and to producers that I work closely with. I want a producer to be able to buy a new TV because I want to buy a new TV or to buy a new car because I wanted to buy a new car.

A new car is going to help me get to my job more easily. And a new car is going to help producers do their job more easily. We all have our own personal justifications for spending. And I certainly hope that we don't adopt, as you described it, an infantilizing or paternalistic relationship where we want to or deserve to know how money that we pay is being spent. We're paying for a product that we think is valuable. And we're paying the people who have that product and who create that product.

Ashley: Right. Yeah. And the idea that we pay for—there's like a lot of threads that I want to pull at, and I know that they almost … I'm mixing two different metaphors here, pulling at different thread but they all kind of fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

But not quite because I think there's also this idea of value, and we've kind of hinted at this throughout this conversation. And we've pretty much named it explicitly that value’s not necessarily inherent, it's created, and it's often determined by these other outside factors that have absolutely nothing to do with the product in front of you.

So when I'm thinking about you talking about value—value just feels like a term that I … don't know? In the coffee industry, it seems like we put so much value on quality, but does that really mean anything? I dunno, this is again, a very 90% thought-out idea I have, and then maybe when it gets to 100%, I'm like, “Oh, that doesn't make sense.” But I think there's just this idea when we talk about quality and coffee and we put so much importance on quality, we forget what value really means.

Michelle: Yeah. I think that value should be determined by our values and by how well perhaps the specific coffee meets our values. And if you have not taken time to identify your values, then I think it's especially easy to land on quality and to say that's what's important.

And certainly quality is a value that is important to me. I want to drink delicious coffee, but I also want to drink coffee that is farmed in a sustainable way. I want to value the way that coffee is farmed. I want to value specifically smallholders who have much less access to markets. So I think that value is created by your own values. And when you don't have really clearly determined values, that's when it seems really easy to fall back on quality.

Ashley: I appreciate that you mentioned that because one of the notes that I wrote to myself as we were talking about what Shared Source does—it seems that Shared Source is very value-driven. You know exactly what you're looking for—or looking to do, not necessarily what you're looking for—but you have an idea and a mission in mind and you execute based on that. And that drives the decisions that you make.

Michelle: Absolutely. For the reason that I mentioned before, which is that producers always have more coffee. We are operating in an industry that is not meeting the needs of producers. And so there are always producers with more needs who want you to buy their coffee.

For me and for the company, I think it's been really helpful to have a set of values to turn to, to say there's a million good reasons to buy coffee: to buy a coffee from someone because they're from a region that has historically faced a lot of violence or they're actively resisting an extractive mine in their area and you want to support them by purchasing coffee—there are a million good reasons to purchase coffee.

There's always going to be more coffee that's available and it's really helpful to have a clear set of values to say, “How are we going to decide who we purchase coffee from and in what way? Let's turn to our set of values that we've established so that we can try to meet them.”

I would certainly encourage any roasters to identify their values. I don't think there's any right or wrong answer. It's just a really helpful framework when making coffee-purchasing decisions to be able to turn to, to say, “Does this coffee meet my values, and are my values going beyond just quality?” Or maybe quality is the only value that you have, in which case go forth and seek out delicious coffees from many, many sources.

Ashley: Right. But be clear with those intentions, because I think one of the reasons—making everything come full circle here—one of the reasons that we're even here talking about this is that it's easy to conflate quality with like, “Oh, look at these partnerships and look at these relationships we have…” Which is fine and great … Okay, I'm just bullshitting now. I just don't have a fully formed thought. So I think I might just…

Michelle: To wrap up what I think … I kind of see that connecting to risk, right? If you're sharing in the risk, then you can have ideally great-quality coffee and if you're taking on risk, it's because you are sharing the values of the person that you're purchasing from.

And so to me, that's how you get quality and success at the same time. It's certainly not a way to only pursue quality, but if you're only pursuing quality, that means that you're not sharing in the risk. You have to make it really clear to yourself what is important to you and what the future of coffee looks like based on that.

That sounds really…

Ashley: Nope, that was great. You took a thing that I said that sounded like word soup and made it sound like a beautiful and eloquent point that puts a bow on our conversation. So thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me and for answering my questions.

Michelle: Thank you for your thoughtful questions. I really enjoyed thinking about it and chatting about it with you.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

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