Michael Rosa, Commodities Buyer at Mother Parkers Tea & Coffee and NCA Next Gen Communications Committee member, sat down with Matthew Daks, General Manager of Volcafe Specialty, for a deeper look into his journey throughout the coffee industry. Matt’s unique experiences in many industry roles give him a valuable and noteworthy perspective on the industry that you won’t want to miss!
Tell us about yourself! How did you find your way into coffee?
My coffee career started while I was in school, and I was working as a barista at a small independent shop in northern California, deep within the redwoods. While working in the coffee shop, I would regularly stop into our roastery which was just across the alley to geek out with the roaster; asking as many questions as I could before he began to grow tired of my inquisition. I couldn’t help it; I was so intrigued by the process of turning green coffee brown. There was a sense of magic and alchemy to it, and I needed to understand it more…
Years later, I found myself in the Bay Area and took a job as a barista and shift lead at Peets Coffee & Tea. Peet’s is really where my job as a barista began to transform into a career as a coffee professional. My fervent passion for coffee, and desire to learn more about it put me in a position to grow and take new opportunities to share my passion with others. By the time I left Peet’s in 2008, I was one of two Training Partners, responsible for coffee, tea, and barista training for the company.
From Peet’s, I managed to take a volunteer consulting position with TechnoServe in its burgeoning East African Coffee Initiative. In this role, I worked with a team across Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia to improve quality across the region by training cuppers and providing in-season feedback to cooperatives and their member producers. The team was also out in the field leading cuppings at the wet mills, training producer members how to taste their product and better understand the quality of the coffee they were producing and tie it back to harvesting practices as well as wet milling.
The next step in my coffee journey brought me into the coffee trade, where I spent 2 years as a junior trader with Volcafe’s operation in Kenya, called Taylor Winch. At the time, I was considering a couple of different career moves, some more financially rewarding than others, but ultimately, I chose to begin learning the trade because I felt it really helped to deepen the breadth of my experience and understanding of coffee. The decision still stemmed back to those conversations in the alley, trying to better understand the magical process of turning this hard, green seed into a brew that could instantly bring a smile to people’s faces and brighten their day.
I spent the next 5 years working with Volcafe both in Kenya, and then back in the US at Volcafe Specialty where I am today. This broadened my understanding of the trade by having a working knowledge of the processes it takes to procure and export coffee as well as the factors that impact the cost to the roaster from an importing perspective. As things go, the more I understood about the production and trade of coffee, the more I realized there were so many factors of the industry I still knew fairly little about.
That led to my next move, where I left Volcafe and took a job with the National DCP (Dunkin’s purchasing cooperative), where I was responsible for buying all of the coffee and tea for Dunkin’s 9600+ stores. I remember growing up as a kid in New Jersey, and my dad drank Dunkin’ every day. Other memories as I grew older, working as a lifeguard at the community pool, every morning heading to Dunkin’ before opening the pool, and ordering a large iced French vanilla latte. Don’t judge me 😃 And now, I was going to be responsible for sourcing all of that coffee. Little did I know how much more I would be doing. My first months were spent learning and understanding the various contracts we had with several of the nation’s greatest toll roasting operators. Not only was I learning about the contracts, and developing relationships with our roasting partners, but simultaneously I had to begin negotiating new versions of the contracts. Talk about jumping into the deep end with both feet…
I was part of the Dunkin’ strategic supply chain for three and a half years. My understanding of the process of turning that green bean brown expanded in ways I never would have imagined. Together with the Dunkin’ team, we became one of the largest supporters of coffee genetic research in the world overnight, through our commitment to supporting World Coffee Research. We deepened our connections in the supply chain through annual meetings with all participants, from producers to exporters, importers, roasters, and Dunkin’ Brands in Costa Rica, with the support of Sintercafe. We launched a brewed in-store Cold Brew program that was more successful than we could have imagined.
Then in 2019, Volcafe Specialty reached out to me, asking me if I would be interested in coming back to the green side of the business and helping in developing the team along with the relationships with roasters. Today, I am the General Manager of our business in the US and work with my team to continue to grow and develop the strategic partnerships we have with roasters of all sizes across North America. It’s been a wild ride the last few years, stepping back into the trade months before a global pandemic changed our world forever. Today, as we all know, we continue to deal with the lingering effects of Covid; the global logistics quagmire, imbalanced supply and demand, market inversions, runaway inflation, and the rapidly increasing interest rates imparted as a means to try and slow it down while trying to not trigger a recession. Back into the deep end!
What does a typical day in the life look like for you these days? Or is “typical” itself a misnomer?
Typical may be a stretch, but my days are typically spent supporting my team and our partners. That could mean Teams or Zoom calls with clients looking at implementing responsible sourcing strategies. These could be calls about how to find alternatives to coffees that seem to be stuck in various transshipment ports around the world. Often, I am speaking with our traffic and logistics team, proactively finding solutions to prevent the previously mentioned conversations. I spend more and more time with our Finance team. Not sure many folks outside of the green side of things realize just how much of a financial facilitation role the trade plays, but that tends to be a big part of the day. I try to start my day, every day, with a cup of coffee before I get things going though. Some days it could be me making a pour-over with my Kalita wave, a v-60, or a Chemex. Other days, after dropping my son off at school, I’ll stop by one of the many local coffee shops in my area. Either way, this helps center me back in the passion for coffee…
Being on both sides of the fence – trader and buyer, I feel you have a unique insight into the tools that help to succeed in either capacity. To start, which skillsets helped you as you launched your career in the trade?
By far, I think the skillset which helped me throughout my career has been the unyielding desire to learn. This can come in so many different forms, but I try to remain humble in the fact that there are so many people out there who know more than me about so many different topics. I am always looking to gain others’ perspectives and insight. I am always looking for mentors to learn from. These days I find myself listening to a lot of audiobooks. I never used to like audiobooks, because there is something special about the tactile sensation of reading a paperbound book. I have found though, between life and work commitments my time is limited and audiobooks are just a more convenient way to feed that bug inside me that needs to be learning something. Right now I am listening to Howard Schultz’s book, Onward, and reading Conscious Leadership by John Mackay.
The other skill set that I think is critical to success is empathy. The ability to see things through others’ perspectives is so important. It will help you uncover new solutions, often it will help you prevent issues from arising, and also, having empathy can help clear the path to do new and better business.
Learning from those experiences, which strengths helped you make the transition over to the buy side? Which challenges came along with that move which you weren’t anticipating?
Again, empathy, I think, was a big one. Having been on the trade side, I knew the costs and the pressures that were associated with what I was trying to accomplish in my buying role. Obviously, the understanding of supply and demand constraints or levers, having spent years as both an exporter and an importer helped me develop better strategies as a buyer.
What vision do you have for the longer-term direction you hope to steer Volcafe Specialty towards?
At Volcafe Specialty, we are fortunate to have an extensive network of operations that provide us with amazing access to great coffees, but also to a wealth of coffee knowledge and expertise. Over the last 20-plus years, we have done a great job of connecting that origin network to our strategic partners at destination. I don’t see that aspect of our business changing.
One of the factors we are seeing across the industry is the developing outlook and ideas around sustainable supply chains and responsibly sourced coffee. Our extensive network of exporting operations with agronomists implanting the Volcafe Way program, along with our dedicated teams in destination countries, allows us to be agile and adapt to consumer and client needs. Whether that be understanding, reducing, and mitigating carbon output or regenerative agriculture farmer profitability, I think in the years ahead, Volcafe Specialty will continue to be a leader in this work for the North American market.
Personally, are there industry challenges that you feel a connection towards that you want to address moving forward in your career?
I think as an industry we have a lot of work to do in several areas. Two areas that strike me as of particular importance are helping to improve the viability of the smallholder farmer and increasing access and equity in the industry. Selfishly, I hope that smallholder farmers will not only survive but thrive in the years ahead, so we can ensure that we continue to see the uniqueness of their terroir and keep drinking the amazing coffees the specialty world has grown to love. Coffee farmers are not getting any younger, and we need to find a way to incentivize and inspire the next generation of coffee farmers.
From a less selfish place, I think we also need to find ways to increase access, equity, and participation in the coffee industry. I love seeing the growing communities of underrepresented folks filling space, making their voices heard, and driving influence and innovation in the industry. As a whole, we are better served when there is a greater diversity of thought and perspective in all aspects of our business. I am grateful that there are people out there like the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity and the IWCA etc. that are moving these issues forward.
Which trends in the coffee space do you have your eye on that maybe aren’t getting the mainstream attention they should be commanding? Looking at consumption trends, market movements, sustainability, etc?
As mentioned before, I think the industry is continuing to develop the way it looks at, talks about, and promotes sustainability. I think this will continue, but I think this is something that we are already seeing and are aware of.
This is a tough one to put into a couple of sentences. One of the areas that I think will see the most movement in the years ahead is how we talk about quality. We are coming from a period of time that has seen exponential growth in the quality of the coffee we are drinking, both from a production side (varietals, fermentation, etc.) and the consumption side (third wave, single serve, e-commerce, etc.). I think the way we talk about coffee quality is ripe for another quantum leap.
For someone trying to break into coffee, or looking to work on some personal development to succeed in the industry – what advice would you have?
I would tell people looking to find a way into the industry to lead with their heart and follow their passion. Be humble, and be ready to take opportunities that present themselves, even if they may be a step backward or sideways in some regards; if it provides a new opportunity to learn something you haven’t had before, go for it. Don’t get caught up in titles or just look for the biggest pay bump. The world of coffee is vast and deep and the path is not always straightforward. Zig. Zag. Try something different. Speak to someone you’ve never spoken to. Take opportunities to volunteer your time. The NCA Day of Service is an amazing way to meet people from different segments of the coffee world. It can be an incredibly bonding experience.
A special thanks to Matt Daks for his generosity and willingness to share his story with the NCA Next Gen community!