Discover more from BOSS BARISTA
Sometimes, the Nearest Exit Is Behind You
On neoliberalism in coffee, moving beyond the single-exit fallacy, and why cash isn't the only way to solve the industry's problems
Hi friends! Since we’re talking about single exits and singular solutions, I wanted to mention that there are multiple ways to support Boss Barista. The most impactful, long-term option is to switch your subscription from a free to paid model—there’s a button down below for you to do that—but you can also share this post with a friend or colleague. Thank you for your support!
Lately, I’ve been in the weeds learning how neoliberalism—the political ideology that believes government regulation and intervention in markets should be minimal, and that people’s interests are better served by private actors than public groups—intersects with how we currently buy and sell coffee. It’s a humbling reminder of why I started Boss Barista six years ago: to learn about topics I thought I understood, but really only comprehended on a surface level.
I first talked about neoliberalism in coffee with Ted Fischer, author of the book “Making Better Coffee: How Maya Farmers and Third Wave Tastemakers Create Value,” but the topic came up again during my recent conversation with Brendan Adams of Semilla Coffee. One point he made was how neoliberalism has tricked us into believing that money can simply fix most problems in the industry:
I think that that is the fundamental thing that you can see where neoliberalism is involved is this notion that capital alone will solve the problems, that we just need to pay a higher price and things will be fine. I would say—and we do say—that the baseline in specialty coffee should at base be paying the highest price it can possible and that should never be the finish line.
Secondarily from that, there’s this other notion of, like we talked about before, with access. There’s an idea that within neoliberalism that sort of the cream rises to the top, that the best actors, the best people who can achieve the most, something that you see a lot in Ayn Rand’s writing, like “The Fountainhead” or something.
The creative capitalist class, the people who will move society forward, are the ones that deserve to make the wealth and are almost in a way, morally better than other people in the world because they make society possible.
So there’s this notion in which believing that we can pay a higher price to the most qualified people will always lead to the best result for society. In taking those together in the form of coffee, that’s just plainly not the case.
Adams goes on to talk about the limitations of capitalism—it’s a system we have to exist within, and it’s tricked us into believing that it’s the only way for people to be paid fairly. Before we started recording—and you can hear me tease it a bit in the episode, but we don’t quite get to it—we talked about how neoliberalism solidifies this understanding of transactional relationships, and makes us assume we can only exchange goods with others in a very particular way.
This reminded me of a talk I heard in 2019 by Dr. Janina Grabs. She describes overcoming the single-exit fallacy, or the idea that things have to be done in a certain way, or that one single solution is offered as a cure-all. She compares these singular solutions to an exit door in a theater:
Imagine you’re in a crowded theater with thousands of seats and a fire breaks out. Everyone looks around, panicked, trying to find a way out. The good news is that there is an emergency exit; the bad news is there’s only one. As everyone scrambles towards it, the first person closest to the exit gets out, unscathed, as does the second and the third. But how about the one hundredth? How about the person at the very other end of the room? The more people storm the exit, the more crowded it becomes, and clogged, and the less useful it is to latecomers.
In commodity markets, we know the parable of the single exit very well. It is the elusive goal of differentiating oneself from the mainstream, of being unique in a marketplace of interchangeable goods. Yet, more often than not, this quest for differentiation by following short-term trends just leads us to look all the more alike.
Framing one strategy as the definitive way to do something means it’ll lose value over time. Dr. Grabs talks about the explosion of coffee certification programs in the early 2000s, and how they were initially offered as a way for farmers to make more money— but they lost value as more and more farmers pursued that route. Furthermore, she notes that single-exit solutions often favor those who already have access and capital. If we follow the theatrical metaphor, the tickets towards the front are the most expensive, so the people who paid the most money would have access to the emergency exit first.
“So what’s next?” she asks. “From what I hear on the ground, pursuing quality improvements is the next secret sauce to exit the commodity market and to access specialized demand.” But she makes an ominous prediction: “Quality today is what certifications were in the early 2000s.” The solution is different, but the idea that there is only one route in is just as limiting.
Of course, we should pay more for coffee, but Adams argues the equation is not as simple as more money = better outcomes for farmers, even if current economic structures have convinced us to believe in the power of capital to solve all problems. Combining that with Dr. Grabs’ ideas on single-exit solutions and it’s clear that we need more than one blunt tool to fix coffee’s inequities. For starters, we need more ways to differentiate coffee. We need importers and roasters to reinvest in farms. And we need to make purchasing decisions based on more than quality—especially as quality metrics change based on trends, preferences, and the ever-growing threat to coffee climate change presents.
Luckily for the industry, pretty much everyone drinks coffee, so we have a nearly limitless supply of consumers and therefore myriad opportunities for differentiation. People buy and consume coffee for a million different reasons, and we can do more to address those wide-ranging perspectives and interests.
Towards the end of her talk, Dr. Grabs likens the bevy of possible solutions to installing a sprinkler system, putting out the fire, and saving everyone in the burning theater. As I typed this, I kept thinking of the announcements they make at the beginning of a flight. A flight attendant walks you through the safety protocols of the plane and motions to the emergency exits, and there’s always more than one, ensuring all passengers have access to an exit. As the flight attendants point them out, they remind passengers that the nearest exit might be behind them.
Just because a solution isn’t obvious—just because it’s not in front of us—doesn’t mean there isn’t another nearby.