What does the post-pandemic future hold for the hundreds of thousands of retail outlets that provide coffee to Americans away-from-home?
The most recent study we conducted, the National Coffee Association’s National Coffee Data Trends report, offers many reasons for optimism for all segments of the coffee sector – including away-from-home.
Unlike some industries – travel, tourism, live entertainment – the coffee industry, as a whole, has fared reasonably well. Coffee drinking is not only safe, no matter where you enjoy it, but is connected to numerous health benefits. In fact, a large group of independent studies associates coffee drinking with lower levels of depression – important to know during a horrific pandemic.
All of which supports America’s continuing love affair with coffee, right through the pandemic. In January of this year, 58% of Americans reported drinking coffee “yesterday,” down from 62% a year ago, a modest change – especially when considering the study’s 2.5% margin of error.
But while coffee continues to be America’s favorite beverage, it is true that the away-from-home segment has been impacted by the pandemic. This impact, though, is temporary – a direct result of the pandemic – and is already reversing.
We know this because of what the data tells us about the recent past – and consumer attitudes – towards coffee.
First, one reason the away-from-home coffee segment has suffered is because of the rolling, random lockdowns the country has experienced. These are coming to an end.
Second, the slight decrease in overall coffee consumption is linked to the economic impact of the pandemic. 24% of Americans told us in January of 2021 that their financial situation was “much or somewhat worse” than a year ago, up from 13% who told us the same thing in January 2020. Stimulus checks are in the mail, and shortages of workers are growing. Recent reports confirmed a surge in retail sales in March and dropping unemployment. The economy is poised for a comeback – the worry now is actually over an “overheated” economy, and the inflation that could ensue.
Third, coffee drinking during the pandemic has been up marginally in the morning and at breakfast – but down marginally in the afternoon. 24% of Americans reported having an afternoon coffee in January ’20, down to 20% this past January. That afternoon coffee is closely associated with socializing, work, or being out and about, and will reverse as America reopens.
Fourth, contrary to the headlines, away-from-home coffee never disappeared. In fact, over two-thirds of respondents told us in January ’21 that they were already back in their coffee shops, or anticipating a return in the near future. First responders, truckers, delivery service workers, skilled tradespeople, grocery store employees, public sector employees – those in the “Essential” parts of the economy (including many coffee suppliers, by the way) have been there all along. About 11% of coffee drinkers drank their coffee during their commute – right through the pandemic.
Fifth, away-from-home coffee has pivoted quickly to adapt to the new reality, and coffee drinkers have responded. By September of last year, 39% of away-from-home coffee drinkers had ordered through an app, up from 24% in January ’20.
But there’s more. Turning from what has been happening to what coffee drinkers want to happen, the optimism grows even stronger.
The sixth reason for optimism is that coffee drinkers miss their away-from-home coffee. In January, 2021, 35% of respondents either agreed strongly or somewhat agreed that they “miss the social aspect” of going out to coffee shops, cafes, and restaurants, 34% said that they miss their “regular” away-from-home venues, and 33% said that they miss treating themselves by going out.
Some social psychologists have speculated that the post-lockdown period could be like the Roaring 20’s – a country ready to let loose. Indulging in a favorite coffee beverage prepared by a favorite barista would be one way to do that!
Seventh, the steps that away-from-home venues can take to encourage customers’ return – while requiring some investment – are straightforward. 43% of respondents told us that having workers wear masks and gloves – and having other customers wear masks – were steps that venues can take to “encourage (me) to visit them more often.” Practicing visible sanitation protocols, and limiting capacity/crowd control also scored highly. (See our free NCA guide to safely reopening your coffee business for more on this topic.)
Bottom line? Vaccines are rolling out, even with hiccups. The economy is improving. America has not lost its love for, its need for, and its relationship with coffee. America misses its favorite coffee shop, restaurant, and café – and for the one-third of Americans who are cautious about resuming their old routines, there are more reasons every day to feel reassured.
We’ve been through the worst we ever could have imagined – but today, and tomorrow, are better for all of us in coffee – especially the men and women around the world who grow the coffee we love.
By Nora Johnson, Commodities Manager, Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA
To kick off the 2021 NCA Virtual Convention, the Next Generation Council was proud to present the panel discussion: “Ideation to Action: Sharing the risks and rewards of sustainability in the coffee value chain.” Organized by the NCA Next Gen’s Events Committee, this panel discussion was an attempt to bring the supply chain together for an earnest conversation about sustainability. As the Events Committee’s Chair, Eric Mitchell, explains “It is clear to this generation that when it comes to sustainability, we must act united as an industry—individual initiatives will only get us so far.”
Thus, NCA Next Gen invited participants from each part of the value chain: Francisco Lacayo (L53 Estates), Hugo Valdivia (HVC Exports), Esteban Jaramillo (S&D Coffee and Tea), Nathalie Gabby Huddleston (RGC Coffee), and David Browning (Enveritas). And the panel was moderated by Olivia Bartelheim of the Rainforest Alliance.
Sustainability is one of the “hottest topics” in coffee, yet, despite the topic’s forefront position in conversations across the supply chain, getting from conversation to application has proven to be challenging. These knowledgeable panelists provided experienced-based insights into how the risks and rewards of implementing critical sustainability initiatives can better be distributed and how the next generation of coffee leaders can help forge the way.
We have highlighted some key insights from each of the panelists below, but if you missed your first chance to watch the panel live or think you would benefit from a second viewing, be sure to check out the recording above.
The responses below have been paraphrased and lightly edited for clarity.
Nathalie Gabbay Huddleston, President RGC Coffee:
In response to the opening question of the panel, Nathalie shared three themes to keep in mind in order to ensure a balanced risk and reward for all stakeholders in the value chain:
Collaboration is critical – you can’t tackle the world’s challenges alone.
Listen to your partners along the supply chain and then build something that makes sense. Use a ground up approach on a wash-rinse-repeat cycle of trying, testing, and measuring as every solution is going to be different based on the situation and the community.
Start small and scale up but think big! Practice sustainability at scale.
When it comes to engaging other producers, workers, and customers, Nathalie said to “inspire the why.” Feel inspired about the initiative and the project and why it matters, then inspire others to understand the need to make these changes while backing it all up with the data-supported business case.
David Browning, CEO – Enveritas:
When asked about how companies should be using data to take on responsibility in accelerating progress towards the most urgent issues, David explained that “you can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
David contextualized this issue by metaphorically contrasting the reactions that occur in sustainability with the more proactive measures that are part of most organizations’ day-to-day business practices. Quality testing and measurements are part of the standard practices within most companies, yet oftentimes it takes a media story to trigger actions in sustainability. The scientific process with quality testing works, so apply it to sustainability in the same manner.
Francisco Lacayo, Industrial Manager – L53 Estates:
As a young professional in coffee and seeing the struggles that many generations have faced due to both price and production cycles, Francisco invested additional capital to have a higher yield despite the higher risk on his side. This translated to a lower cost per pound in the long term. In order to support the higher yield, additional labor was required resulting in a more sustainable income for workers. The increased capital investment allowed for more consistent production cycles, yielding more consistent relationships with customers as well.
When speaking on the climate crisis, Francisco encouraged others within the supply chain to visit the regions where there is less mechanization. He elaborated, sharing that we need to create more awareness for the most vulnerable populations at origin as to what climate change is and how it can affect them. We need to increase awareness through education which requires added capital investment from throughout the supply chain.
Francisco shared that although the word “sustainable” is beautiful, sharing profits across the value chain is how we will be able to sustain lives. We cannot talk about sustainability when prices are staying the same or decreasing year after year.
Hugo Valdivia, COO – HVC Exports:
Based in Peru, Hugo spoke about the importance of the price to quality ratio and of how efforts get placed on volume over sustainability initiatives and quality. As an example from his experience in Peru, by focusing on specialty and certified coffees as opposed to commercial grades, his organization was able to increase the price to quality ratio in order to deliver a fair price to the farmer.
When asked about what the sector can do to support young professionals as they confront the climate and price crises, Hugo described of how the next generation of farmers are transitioning out of coffee and into other products with less volatility. He explained of how coffee in Peru is viewed as a cash crop, resulting in limited reinvestment. In order to support young professionals, Hugo encouraged the development of shared value relationships across the supply chain.
Esteban Jaramillo, Sustainability Manager – S&D Coffee and Tea:
Sharing the risk and reward depends on the customer – not all organizations understand the coffee supply chain. We need to start by talking about the risk of not engaging in a sustainable supply chain.
Climate change is getting more attention from consumers, nonprofits, and government institutions, yet there is a gap between the understanding and the willingness to invest in sustainability. We need to make companies accountable while sharing that accountability with consumers. Risk means something different to every company – try to understand how risk impacts each company. Sustainability needs to be understood holistically, not by only one angle.
Hope for the future:
It wouldn’t be a Next Gen panel without asking panelists to share of what gives them hope about the Next Generation of coffee professionals. From increased awareness to a greater sense of empathy and innovation, our panelists guaranteed that there is much hope to be had.
To all Next Generation professionals, David Browning left us with a challenge to harness the enthusiasm and awareness of industry and organizational leadership as it relates to sustainability. The enthusiasm from leadership is there, but it is up to us now, this next generation, to be the ones to take us from Ideation to Action.
By Danielle Wood, Sustainability Manager, Dunkin’ Brands
Danielle Wood, Sustainability Manager at Dunkin’ Brands, recently sat down with Jasmine Murphy, Green Coffee Trader for The J.M. Smucker Company (JMS) to discuss her background, how she got involved in coffee, her current role with JMS, and her advice for budding coffee professionals. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
How long have you been working in coffee?
I’ve been working in coffee for eight years – two years at JMS and prior to that I worked with Nestle at an R&D center in Marysville, OH.
How would you describe your role at JMS?
I am in the green coffee trading group, but my primary role is with sustainability. I am tasked with driving and managing the sustainability strategy forward, which includes projects linked to sustainability and green coffee.
What’s your favorite memory with NCA?
I really enjoy having the opportunity to meet and see people I work with regularly, face to face, and get to know them a little more. Especially when I was first starting out in coffee, I didn’t have a lot of exposure to the trade. With NCA, you get the opportunity to learn from coffee experts. In this industry, everyone wants to help each other learn.
Being an NCA Next Gen-er yourself, what advice do you have for other young professionals in coffee?
I would say, don’t be afraid to ask questions. People in coffee typically spend their entire career in coffee, or leave and come back. It seems like a big industry, but it’s actually very small and relationships are extremely important. Don’t be afraid to use the resources and people available to you. Make sure you’re fostering relationships with people and reach out to keep those relationships strong, as you never know when you’ll interact with those people in the future.
What’s something you’ve recently learned that you wished you’d learned sooner in your career?
I wish I pushed harder for myself in the beginning of my career. Especially as a woman, it is important to advocate for opportunities for training and travel. Over time I have learned to push for myself and bring opportunities up early, and often. For example, I wish I became a Q Grader earlier on in my career as it has helped me gain credibility in my quality approvals. Don’t be afraid to fight for yourself and your development.
What is something about coffee or the coffee industry in general that you wish more people knew about?
I wish people understood how many people are involved in growing and processing and the other steps throughout the coffee value chain. So many steps are involved to get to what ends up in your cup.
Speaking of your cup, how do you prepare your coffee?
I am not a coffee snob, I am a Q Grader and cup all the time, but right now I’m drinking coffee that was made in a normal drip coffee maker and has lots of liquid creamer. I also have all of the coffee making tools including a Chemex, French Press, Nespresso, etc., but I usually use a drip coffee maker.
What excites you most about the coffee industry now?
Moving forward, even the major players are seeing huge value in sustainability and understanding how sustainability risks can impact the coffee business and future of coffee. We are seeing a movement driven by the needs of the industry and consumers, and the industry is truly trying to push progress forward. Sustainability commitments are coming out almost monthly, and a lot of big players are jumping on board.
With all the momentum you just mentioned, what technology do you see having the biggest impact on coffee in the future?
Having more connectivity for farmers. It will be imperative for producers to have increased access to phone or internet connectivity to report on their crops. We are not there yet in every origin or region. Being able to receive texts would make a huge impact especially from a sustainability perspective.
I know this is almost impossible to imagine, but what would you recommend for someone who doesn’t like coffee or isn’t a regular coffee drinker?
We see young coffee drinkers starting with really sweet drinks, coffee with a lot of creamer, or specialty drinks – try that out. There are so many ways to prepare coffee, so if you don’t like drip coffee, it doesn’t mean you won’t like a well-prepared espresso. Just give it a try, there are so many options out there, you will probably find something that you like!
What are some of the biggest challenges facing the coffee industry?
Sustainability issues, climate change, aging farmer population, really any of the sustainability challenges that we’re hoping to address under the environmental, social, and economic risk spectrum. These risks need to be recognized in the near-term. Luckily, more companies are taking this seriously to meet the short-term goals for coffee sustainability.
As a young coffee professional, what are some challenges and opportunities that come with working for such an established, well-known brand?
In my career so far, I have been extremely lucky to work for such well-known and established coffee brands. There are so many resources available as they have well-established relationships, but also have opportunities for trainings, travel, [professional] development and more. I have been able to piggyback on the established relationships built by JMS and Nestle. Growth as a coffee professional would have been much more difficult in a smaller coffee company.
We hear it all the time, “Oh, NCA has a Next Gen focused group? Sounds great—how do I get involved?” Well, here is your roadmap to get involved with NCA Next Gen.
First, what exactly is NCA Next Gen? NCA Next Gen is the arm of the NCA that focuses on engaging the next generation of coffee professionals. The NCA Next Gen has a council that is comprised of seven members who volunteer for a two-year term. The Council oversees two Next Gen committees: The Communications Committee & The Education & Events Committee. Both committees support young coffee professionals by providing resources, support, and a sense of community [For a list of current council members, click here].
You can get involved right now! The NCA Next Gen is always looking to get young coffee professionals more involved. Here are some ways to get started:
Stay Connected! Subscribe to our Next Gen Newsletter here. The newsletter format has recently been updated and will now feature content about your peers generated by fellow Next Gen members. We have a feeling this is one newsletter you will look forward to receiving each month.
NCA Convention 2021! The Next Gen Council organizes a variety of activities at the NCA Convention. This year, we have organized a panel discussion about Next Gen’s role in sustainability within the coffee supply chain. See more details about the NCA Convention here.
By Nora Johnson, NCA Next Gen member and Commodities Manager at Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA
Nora Johnson, NCA Next Gen member, recently spoke with Gustavo Cerna, Senior Manager Coffee & Tea at the National DCP. Check out the interview below to learn more about Gustavo’s experience and his advice for fellow Next Gen members in the coffee industry.
The interview below has been condensed and edited for clarity with approval from the interviewee.
Tell me more about your background. How did you get to where you are today?
I was born into coffee. My family started growing coffee in the 1990s after the civil war in Nicaragua. My dad had this idea that coffee would be a good business; he started with one farm, and that grew to 10 farms by the year 2000. It was a rough ride in the year 2000. I was young, a teenager, and that was when the coffee price crisis started. Over that time, coffee hit $0.46 per pound. That was when we [the family] really started getting involved in the business.
I was 15 years old and working on the exporting, doing the paperwork, gathering certificates of origin, going through customs, getting the quality analysis; that was what we had to do – we had to cut costs at $0.46 per pound. This experience allowed me to learn first-hand of the organization and the paperwork that it takes to get a container of coffee out from origin. I truly understand the great amount of work that happens at origin to get a container out, especially in countries where technology isn’t always friendly.
For me, going to a farm is almost like second nature. I know what is going on from the moment I step in – growing coffee, harvesting, fermenting, processing, going to farms every weekend – that was my childhood.
My coffee journey then took me to other stages in the coffee supply chain. I started at Starbucks, working not on their coffee team, but as a demand planner. Working at Starbucks really gave me the full view of what happens once coffee gets to the roaster: what it takes to serve coffee at scale. All the things that happen in the middle – it’s incredible. From demand planning to supply planning to store development to the creation of the art on the bags; it’s a whole army of people working just to develop the concept and serve the cup of coffee to customers. My jaw dropped – this is what it takes to run a coffee operation. Sometimes, as coffee farmers, we forget that it’s not simple to serve coffee; there is a whole operation to serve coffee to consumers too. Yes, it’s a profitable business, but it also takes a lot of work: distribution, supply chain, roasting.
I learned a lot there, and it was the moment in my coffee career the where I learned the breadth of the coffee industry. That’s where I explored other origins. I grew up drinking Nicaraguan coffee – a lot of farmers only drink their own coffee. Nicaraguan is my go-to, but now I have other coffees that I enjoy as well. It was when I learned to appreciate the coffee world outside of Nicaragua and how Starbucks really tries to deliver that story to the consumer, because at the end of the day, how you tell that story is also really important.
From there, I voluntarily left Starbucks to go to Cornell to get my master’s in Agricultural Economics. I was there for 15 months, but then I took a sabbatical from coffee and went into cocoa. I did cocoa for 2 years, then I saw this opportunity at Dunkin’ and went for it.
The business has changed so much from what is was in 1990, 2000, 2010. Now in the era of COVID, who knows what trends will stick. The business is upside down from what it was back when my dad started. Back then, consumers didn’t understand as much about coffee; now, the new generations have more clarity of where the coffee is coming from and they know what they want. There are more expectations for coffee: cup profile, ethical sourcing, how it is consumed. Cold beverages in coffee are king now.
There are more opportunities and more occasions for coffee, and that is giving consumers more power in today’s world. Origin diversity, sustainability targets – it’s great when consumer expectations and sustainability targets can meet. That’s my goal. At the end of the day, we can all be competitors, but if we all work towards something, it is a better coffee world and industry. All companies need to collaborate and work together to make a better coffee world. That’s why I took this opportunity – to take on this challenge.
Did you feel a pressure to stay in coffee?
I am the youngest out of four; my two older brothers still manage the farm and help my dad manage the whole operation. Generational relief had to be there – my brothers are great at doing that.
I didn’t feel that pressure. I am now using my knowledge that I gained there for the greater good in coffee. Someday I can go and apply what I have learned here back in Nicaragua. Coffee farmers need to understand that they live in a globalized world. Sometimes we want the best price for our coffee, but us farmers need to understand that it is going to be impacted by what happens in Vietnam, Peru, Kenya, etc. We need to be able to differentiate and create a product that is unique for consumers.
As the Senior Manager Coffee & Tea at the National DCP, what does your role entail? What does a typical workday look like for you?
I am responsible for working with our roasters to procure the green coffee that is needed for our Dunkin’-approved items. I work directly with five roasters to convert green coffee into the different packaging formats that we have. I also work with them to hedge that green coffee from the physical side and the futures side. Doing this requires having a good rolling hedge and a good strategy, determining how far out we cover for certain origins. I design that strategy and my roasters collaborate with me in taking those positions. It’s a constant work in progress. Outside of coffee, I also manage the tea side, which is a bit more straight forward than coffee as it is less volatile.
Finally, at the end of the day, I am responsible for ensuring that we have a constant supply within our DCs [Distribution Centers] in all formats. I need to guarantee that we have a non-issue supply chain from roaster to DC for roasted coffee from both a price and a supply perspective.
What other commodities have you managed or traded? How did you best learn and get the skillset to be a successful trader? Have any tips for an eager trader at the front of his/her career?
After Cornell, I went back to Nicaragua and managed a cocoa nursery. My goal was to start up a high-tech cocoa farm. Efficiency in production starts with having the right plant – in cocoa, by nature, you need to clone plants. It is a very diverse variety, so the seed is never the same as the mother tree. While there, I traded Nicaraguan and Ecuadorian cocoa.
Coffee people tend to only want to be in coffee. It’s always good to have a different perspective. The other non-soft commodities are more efficiently priced – coffee is in a gray area. In the other commodities, you also may have one major entity – like the USDA – regulating and controlling information. The softs are a world of their own – information is not clear, you must rely on on-the-ground information, and sometimes people don’t want to share information for that reason. My recommendation for any coffee person is to go work in another non-soft commodity. It will give you a different view on how risk is managed.
In graduate school I really focused on derivatives. I also took some other courses with FC Stone [StoneX]. Since I was 12 years old, I’ve been watching the board [futures market] – I have always been interested in futures, how coffee is priced, and what goes into it. School gave me a great foundation; I still use it in my day-to-day work. Take a course on options and derivatives – I learn something new every time I take a course on something like that.
Sustainability is a critical topic in coffee, and there are so many facets to what sustainability looks like. Given your background and experience across the supply chain, if you could unite the industry around one or two main areas in sustainability, what would they be and why?
We try to focus on all things sustainability, but at scale, we need to focus on one issue and that should be transparency. If we don’t know how our dollars are flowing from destination to consumer, then we don’t know what decisions to make. Transparency will tell us how efficient our supply chain is and where the farmer needs the most help.
We can’t just have data that gets thrown out there either. We need more tangible methods on how to tackle it. Once we know the issue to focus on – what steps do we need to take next? Do we contact a breeder? Is it a better soil management program that is needed by the farmers?
Let’s nail down one category and one subcategory and let’s tackle it one at a time with the category being reestablished on an annual basis. What we identify also needs to be the result of a group consensus in order to do it at scale, or else we are on a hamster wheel, and will revisit the same issue again in 5 years.
You mentioned your graduate degree in agricultural economics. How has what you learned in your graduate program impacted your career or supported you in your various roles?
I learned a lot, particularly about agricultural optimization and what that means for a farmer in Kenya to a corn producer in Iowa. You evaluate the decision factors that these different people have and what their decision trees look like. Cornell provided me with an opportunity to understand the decisions that different farmers make based on different factors, their location, etc. This was very well suited for coffee – it helped me understand how decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, for instance, how to compare a corn farmer in Iowa with a coffee farmer in Brazil. Cornell also had a wide range of paths and programs. I chose to go on a deep derivatives path combined with a focus on understanding farmer rationale and resource valuation. These two areas provide great value for both sustainability and futures trading.
If you could change anything throughout your career path (i.e. timing of an event, more experience in a related area), what would it be? (No regrets, of course!)
If I had the opportunity, I would not have left Starbucks to do my master’s full-time at Cornell. If there was a way, I would have remained at Starbucks while going to school.
I also would have traveled more to other origin countries. I still want more experience with Asian coffee production. I would’ve liked to start that process earlier than I did. You don’t want to get too obsessed with the countries you regularly go to – from an origin diversity perspective, it would be great to experience these other origins and get a better understanding for how they make decisions based on their socioeconomics.
Based on your career experience, what skills do you look for in a strong leader or manager?
Somebody that can listen. Listening skills are key – not just someone that hears you, but someone that absorbs and synthesizes what you said. Overall, the rest of the work will happen, but if you don’t listen to what people say and transmit that to others, it’ll be very hard.
COVID has required that we all adapt to working differently. Are there any changes or adaptations that you have made that you think will remain, even in a post-COVID work world?
I think it is all connected – work from home is giving consumers more power, particularly when it comes to coffee. Consumers can now say “I like what I tried last time at the store, and now I am going to buy it again.” On top of that, this behavior is coming at a savings to consumers and more profit to farmers.
Consider Colombia – Colombia has invested significantly in their marketing, name, and reputation. Consumers associate Colombia with good coffee – more people are drawn to buy Colombian coffee. That’s great – Colombia coffee has established this direct relationship and awareness from consumers. It is a differentiating factor in the market. Other origins will also have more direct contact with consumers now that consumers have more options in choosing what to brew at home.
What advice would you give to a fellow Next Gen candidate working in the coffee industry?
For someone that is just getting started in coffee, be open minded – don’t think that coffee is everything. Be aware of trends that are happening in other categories. Try to explore and knock on the door of other decision makers if you are interested in something. Coffee careers and jobs aren’t often widely publicized – talk to people outside of your company and listen to the problems and opportunities that others are facing. You will definitely learn something new; don’t turn down an opportunity to learn something because you think you know everything.
For people that have been in the industry, sometimes we need a break from coffee. It’s okay to take a break from coffee – post-COVID, travel, meet people in different parts of the supply chain – it will always benefit you in the long run. In coffee, we are fortunate to have this continuous learning experience. It is grown in so many countries that there is really no excuse not to learn.
Don’t be afraid to speak up – being the young generation in coffee, it is easy to be intimated, but we have a unique point of view being from another generation, so don’t be afraid.
NCA Next Gen recently had the chance to chat with Bambi Semroc, VP of Sustainable Markets and Strategy at Conservation International. The following Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Next Gen: How did you first become interested in conservation and sustainability work? Did your Peace Corps work in Togo help set you on this path?
Bambi: As I was finishing undergrad, I started becoming more and more interested in international development and in working overseas. One of my professors, however, challenged me, asking what skillset I would bring with me if I went abroad. What can you do that those in your hosting region couldn’t do better? So, realizing I needed to bolster my skill set, I went back to school to study international development with a concentration on the relationship between gender and successful agroforestry systems. This led perfectly to my Peace Corps assignment in Togo, where I was living in small, rural community located next to a protected area and worked on agroforestry and other community development programs. Returning from Togo, I joined Conservational International (CI), which was just developing its Center for Environmental Leadership in Business, and haven’t looked back since.
Next Gen: You’ve spent most of your career with Conservation International (CI) following your time in the Peace Corps. What about the work and culture at CI keeps you excited and motivated?
Bambi: Well, when I first joined CI, the idea of an environmental NGO working with the private sector was still relatively new. It took some effort to convince the corporations we approached that we were not looking to launch an attack, but rather that we wanted to collaborate with them. It was an exciting time. Overall, CI has a culture of innovation. It allows you to stake a course for yourself, and there always seems to be something new and exciting to work on.
Next Gen: How has your career at CI evolved and how did you come to lead the Sustainable Coffee Challenge (SCC)? Have you always had an interest in sustainability within the coffee sector?
Bambi: It’s evolved from an internship while in grad school to now leading the coffee program and forming a new Center for Sustainable Lands and Waters. And while I have worked on coffee the entire time, I don’t actually drink coffee. Rather than a love of the beverage, my drive comes from a love of the coffee tree. It’s a crop that can grow under a tree canopy and holds great potential for rural development. So, my role at CI is constantly evolving, and coffee is only a portion of the work I do. Leading the SCC, however, is basically a dream job: managing the coffee program, engaging with major corporate leaders, and working closely with local communities. Can’t ask for much more than that.
Next Gen: It seems that leading the SCC you wear many hats. Do you have a favorite part of the job? A least favorite?
Bambi: Overall, I could name two favorite parts. The first would be getting to meet and speak with producers, visit coffee farms, and see amazing natural areas. The second would be trying to get industry participants aligned on sustainability efforts and goals. Seeing this alignment happen is extremely fulfilling and rewarding. And, well, my least favorite part would be… trying to get the industry participants aligned on sustainability efforts and goals. While seeing the alignment happen is fulfilling, it takes a lot of time and I know that, when it comes to our gravest environmental concerns, time is not a luxury we have. So, I worry about not being able to drive collective action and alignment fast enough.
Next Gen: You’ve taken on a very exciting role within sustainability and coffee industry. Is there anything you can point to that helped you achieve this success?
Bambi: In the first place, you have to find your passion, then you have to work hard. My first role at CI was an internship in which I had one task: research how to grow cocoa sustainably in one region of West Africa. I poured my heart and soul into that internship. As a result, my research grew and grew, and I received recognition within CI for this effort. I’ve been working side by side for the last 18 years with that same manager who took over the cocoa program while I was an intern.
Next Gen: The SCC’s mission is to make coffee the world’s first sustainable agricultural product. It seems “sustainability” means something different to each actor in the industry – what does “sustainability” mean in the context of the SCC?
Bambi: SCC recognized that there was not alignment regarding what sustainability means throughout the industry, so we set out to try to establish a common framework. The framework is based around four compass points: Improve livelihoods, conserve nature, sustain supply, strengthen market demand. We are now embedding carbon sequestration more formally in the conserve nature point. However, in additional to a common alignment on sustainability, we’ve also developed a common definition for success. But yes, in the end, the question still comes up: What counts as sustainable coffee?
Next Gen: During your tenure leading the SCC, are you happy with the changes and improvements you’ve seen across the industry? In terms of sustainability, where do you see the industry heading?
Bambi: We have seen a lot of progress but, ultimately, I feel we are never moving fast enough. This is the reason behind forming the SCC: How do we catalyze more effort? We have major challenges—climate change, deforestation, freshwater degradation, etc.—but we can get there. Moving forward, we need to see more innovation around sustainability. We need to talk more about living incomes for producers and workers. We need to talk more about capturing CO2. And, in the end, we need to take a very holistic approach and ask what is good for the producers, communities, landscapes, and regions.
Next Gen: What challenges do Covid-19 pose to the work of the SCC and, more broadly, to the sustainability efforts across the coffee industry?
Bambi: Covid-19 brings tremendous challenges to the entire coffee sector. It’s changed where people drink their coffee, which has profound impacts on retailers and roasters in particular. Covid-19 also forces us to recognize the fragility of the coffee industry – from the safety and availability of workers picking the coffee to those milling and roasting the coffee. Then, it also gives us a moment to reflect on why we are so fragile and how we can find a better balance with people and nature. With regards to sustainability in general, Covid-19 only emphasizes how important the work we are pursuing is.
Next Gen: What advice do you have for someone trying to get involved in sustainability within the coffee industry?
Bambi: Again, first you have to find your passion. If you want to get involved in sustainability, find exactly what it is within the space drives you and gets you excited. Then, on a very practical level, field experience in invaluable. It gives you empathy and an understanding of the reality on the ground in some of the world’s most vulnerable places.
Next Gen: What changes would you like to see in the coffee industry moving forward? The audience of this interview is comprised of the young coffee professionals that will drive the coffee industry in the future—what message do you have for them?
Bambi: I see so much hope with the younger generations. These are generations in which the majority actually care about social and environmental issues. So my hope is that this generation sparks a new wave of sustainability in the sector – that harnesses this interest and passion to truly transition the entire sector to a sustainable and resilient future.
The following is an interview between the NCA Next Generation group and Phyllis Johnson, co-founder and president of BD Imports, a roasted coffee importer serving the food service, hospitality, wholesale, and retail markets.
The following Q&A has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
You grew up in a farming family in Arkansas. Did your agricultural background play a role in your choosing a career in coffee?
Initially I didn’t fully understand or see the connection, but it didn’t take long before I realized that I could have a greater connection to coffee based on my background. I didn’t embrace my upbringings of having to work on the farm as a child. Ironically, I was 35 years old, educated and well-established into my career when I was comfortable acknowledging parts of my upbringing. Having to work hard on the farm as a child wasn’t something that I was proud of, and it was hard for me to talk about it. I remember riding on the back of a truck going through dusty fields, callouses on my hands from working so hard.
I’m not totally sure why I found that part of my life embarrassing — hard work should be respected. I think it reminded me of our position in life. A Black family working on the land of White farmers, my mom referring to the landowners as Mr. and them calling her by her first name and being paid low wages for incredibly hard physical work. Growing up I always wanted to be someone different that who I was born to be. Coffee has allowed me to go back in a weird sort of way and truly appreciate that part of me that I wanted to run away from, I believe that’s why I found comfort working in coffee.
There were very important lessons I learned in those years of my life of working on the farm — not only hard work, but perseverance — and seeing my mom, a strong leader, who made lots of hard decisions. I learned the value of humbleness, appreciating the simplicity of farm life. My past gives me respect and empathy for coffee farmers.
How did you get started in coffee? Were there any mentors in your past or present who helped you get here?
From day one of starting in coffee I had empowering mentors. Having a mentor makes all the difference in the world in someone’s life. I have had mentors throughout my entire life both personally and professionally. Some more significant than others. Soon after becoming a mom, I realized that I not only wanted to encourage my children to live their dreams, but needed to be an example, so I pursued my dream of being a business owner. Both me and my husband shared the same dream of being business owners. A Kenyan man introduced me to coffee, and I became a student of coffee and it’s taken me on a journey around the world, but mostly back to my childhood experiences of working on the farm in Arkansas.
There was a slightly older couple who lived in our community, and they became mentors. They’d lived in Africa when they were younger; they taught at the local college and had a background in African American studies. I believe they were the first to plainly speak to me about the history of coffee as I was trying to find my way. I can hear them saying now, “You know, coffee is a product that was produced by the enslaved,” and they would go on to tell stories based on their education and life experiences.
Coffee is a friendly industry, not to be confused with it being relentless when it comes to business and trade. I was fortunate to have several mentors, one in which continues to help guide me today. She’s been my mentor for the past 17 years, she always says, we’re “coffee sisters” and whenever I’m thanking her for her time and effort she says, “It takes a team, we’re a team Phyllis.” Having great mentors have taught me how to be a good mentor to others. I’ve also learned that the best mentors are those who uplift others with no expectations in return other than to see that person do well and go on and give back to others, we call that the ripple effect.
We’re in the midst of a massive cultural shift in the way people of color are being seen and treated in society today. How do you think this transformation will impact the coffee industry in North America?
Maybe this cultural shift allows us tosee people of color, or should I say, Black people in a different way. The reality for Black people has been consistent throughout our history, racism morphs into a slightly different form with each generation, almost to a point to where it’s not seen by some as racism in society and often just totally denied.
I’m not totally sure how this enlightenment will transform our industry or society. We’ve had hopeful moments throughout history. Hope and optimism are sometimes all we have in our darkest moments. There are no quick solutions, and I’m afraid that we may think resolving years of racism all comes down to that one new hire at the company. While I can appreciate good intentions, change will come from first an examination, then intentional actions to dismantle systemic racism.
Certain words and phrases make us uncomfortable and I believe that our first step is to become comfortable with not only words, but reality. It’s not personal, and if you’re uncomfortable that means it’s meant for you to do something about it. That’s how I see it. We all have a great deal to get out of this shift or enlightenment. This moment in time isn’t just for Black individuals to feel a sense of empowerment but it’s for everyone to grow and think of ways to build a better and more equitable society.
Working in coffee affords us even greater opportunities because we have an industry that would benefit from more participation by Black Americans, many of the coffees we touch are from Black and Brown producers so there are opportunities to rid ourselves of centuries of oppressive business practices. We have some work that will keep us busy for a while. We need better solutions; more talent from Black Americans can deliver that. We have a track record of delivering something extra to everything we do.
In 2018 you wrote an award-winning article titled “Strong Black Coffee: Why Aren’t African-Americans More Prominent in the Coffee Industry?” – What, if anything, do you feel has changed since writing that article?
The biggest thing that’s happened since that article was written is that more young professionals have been inspired on their journey in coffee. I understand that companies are now using the article as a resource. It was such a personal journey to write the article. I believe the writing proved its value with the recent racial unrest that we’ve experienced in this country and the need to examine ourselves to be more inclusive. I believe more individuals are comfortable speaking up and Blacks in coffee are becoming more visible. That’s what we need.
I don’t think that we can ever really quantify the value and impact of an article that speaks to the heart of an issue. I realize what was missing for me when I came to coffee and I tried to create that for others so that they could find their way more quickly and become productive contributors for themselves and to the industry. I gave up trying to quantify the effects of work after working on women’s empowerment in East Africa. Trying to quantify the impact of that work was like counting granules of sand, because women are continuing to run with opportunities far beyond my imagination, and that’s what so cool about empowerment.
You echoed your calls for racial justice and better representation in coffee in your recent open letter titled “An Open Letter to the US Coffee Industry on Racism”. What has been the response to your letter so far, and what changes or actions have you seen from the coffee industry since it was published?
I am humbled by the response to the open letter. The enthusiasm and interest in building a racially equitable industry has continued well over a month since the letter was released. When writing the letter, I didn’t think so much about how it would be received, but the need for us to acknowledge racial inequality and we needed a call to action. Also, I wasn’t looking around for someone else to take the lead on this. This was a leadership moment for the work that I not only engaged in but the essence of who I am, a Black woman who has been trying to find my way in the US coffee industry for the last 21 years. I believe that we have started working towards change and it’s my hope that we never stop in generations to come.
The biggest change that I’m seeing is the examination of where we are and how we got here. There’s more tolerance around discussions on inclusiveness, we have actions to take and I’m working on the formation of an organization that will address these issues.
How can the coffee industry turn their calls for racial justice and inclusion into action? What do you feel the industry should be doing that it isn’t?
Let me start by saying, I’ve not been harboring all the answers to this century-long problem in my head and only willing to release the answers in this interview. This is a complex problem, and the complexity isn’t wrapped up in what to do — the complexity rests in a will or desire to act or see a different future.
One thing the coffee industry must do is to stop normalizing a lack of diversity. See it as the problem it really is, a systemic problem that we get to help solve as best we can. See a lack of racial diversity as missing solutions to important problems. See a lack of racial diversity as one of the highest risks to your business going forward. It must be a priority, not a far-off wish or challenge that you’re trying to figure out with a dwindling budget during a pandemic.
We must rescue ourselves from our own helpless attitude toward racial diversity. What should we do? I’m hopeful that we can come together as an industry and work on solutions. This is a non-competitive initiative that will bring us to new level. Solutions are unique and meant for each of us to work towards our own best solutions based on our situations.
We don’t have the option of staying silent on this issue of racial inequality, hoping this all blows over and then move on to something else. Racial inequality is what built our country, and is what our industry is rooted in. It’s not up for debate or finding better words to make it sound better, it is what it is, it’s why we are where we are today.
We must not only see ourselves as inheritors of systemic racism, but also architects who can build a better future. We are not without power.
What words of advice do you have for the next generation of coffee professionals who are just entering or considering entering the industry?
This is one of the most dynamic industries you can be involved in. I would say to this next generation to get everything you can out of coffee, and by that I mean understand your position and power in the industry. Know that you yourself may have chosen coffee based on your family heritage, or just somehow passionate about the beverage. Coffee isn’t a choice for everyone — understand the value it holds for others who may never have the opportunities that you have. Educate yourself on the history of coffee, chose to look beyond what is obvious and you’ll see more. Allow yourself to ask hard questions about coffee, but mostly allow yourself to tackle the hard problems in our industry.
I’d also say good luck, carry the banner forward, bring all of you to this work, if you so desire. To the young men, make room for the brilliance of others to join in this work. You are the leaders that you’re looking for.
Finally, as a seasoned coffee professional, how have you been coping during the pandemic? Any tips, tricks, or advice for our readers to help them get through this crisis?
Many of us will be able to proudly say one day that we not only lived through a major pandemic, but an economic recession, and racial strife all at the same time. That’s a lot. There are really some beautiful moments in all of what we are experiencing. I’ve had special moments with my family as well as professionally. I had a video call not long ago with a young Hispanic woman, a new entrepreneur whom I’d never met before. She started to share her experiences trying to get through the pandemic and it brought tears to our eyes. I immediately felt connected to her and her struggle. That would not have happened had we met at a coffee conference. We put up a strong face most of the time when there’s a lot going on in business and life. The pandemic has made me unapologetic about my emotions, and I’m enjoying that.
I’m getting through this time just simply trying to be more human, connected to a purpose that’s bigger than me. I’m focused on using all that I’ve been given to uplift others, be a good mentor, and be part of the solution. The only way that I know how to survive is to help others. This time in my life there’s more clarity about who I am and my purpose. I wish that for everyone, because I know how difficult it can be trying to discover your place in life. I’m enjoying this time knowing there may be more times of confusion, but the one thing I’ve known for a long while is that it’s not just about me.
A message from the International Women’s Coffee Alliance and the National Coffee Association
During this time of challenge and significant hardship, sheltering in place has brought us closer to our families and loved ones. Coffee continues to provide comfort, health and perhaps the one routine that continues uninterrupted. And so it is this week, the week we mark the International Day of Families, that the National Coffee Association (NCA) and IWCA share a message to connect and empower.
THE SHARED CHALLENGE
Every part of the coffee community is feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, from furloughed baristas to frontline grocery and delivery workers to the farming communities where coffee is grown. Across the industry, we are all working to adapt to rapidly changing government responses, community health concerns, and many other significant challenges.
Coffee farming supports the livelihoods of an estimated 125 million people around the world and 1.7 million American workers. Behind every one of those people is a family and community. Well before the pandemic, coffee farmers were facing serious challenges ranging from building resilience in the face of a changing climate to struggling to achieve the profitability necessary for sustainable livelihoods.
“…The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems which are in turn amplifying the impacts of the pandemic…Compounded economic impacts are felt especially by women and girls who are generally earning less, saving less, and holding insecure jobs or living close to poverty.”
THE OPPORTUNITY AHEAD
Americans and consumers around the world have prioritized coffee as a daily staple during these uncertain times. Continuing this strong demand is a key to the economic survival of our favorite stores and brands. What is less well known is that strong demand for coffee is also critical to support coffee farming communities, including members of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA), as they also work to weather the pandemic.
So, as we join the United Nations in marking the International Day of Families, to honor the strength and resilience of all families, from those who work tirelessly to grow the best beans possible to those who count on a daily cup to start their day. Wherever this message finds you, as you pour your next cup, know that you are connected, and empowered, through coffee.
Thank you from the National Coffee Association and the International Women’s Coffee Alliance.
ABOUT THE NCA
The National Coffee Association of U.S.A., Inc. (NCA), established in 1911, is the leading trade organization for the coffee industry in the United States. The NCA is the only trade association that serves all segments of the U.S. coffee industry, including traditional and specialty companies. A majority of NCA membership, which accounts for over 90% of U.S. coffee commerce, comprises small and mid-sized companies and includes growers, roasters, retailers, importer/exporters, wholesaler/suppliers, and allied industry businesses. Please visit ncausa.org to learn more.
ABOUT THE IWCA
The International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) is a global network of organizations united by the mission to empower women in the international coffee community to achieve meaningful and sustainable lives; and to encourage and recognize the participation of women in all aspects of the coffee industry.We represent more than 25 countries, the majority of which are coffee growing. Together, we achieve empowerment through leadership development, partnership, and amplified market visibility. www.womenincoffee.org.
New research out of Harvard Medical School shows coffee drinkers are less likely to be depressed than non-drinkers.
“Don’t talk to me till I’ve had my morning coffee.”
We’ve all heard that cliché before – but a new review conducted by Dr. Alan Leviton, Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School, of existing, independent research, suggests that coffee doesn’t just give you a much-needed jolt in the morning — it may actually help you stave off clinical depression.
In the times we find ourselves living in, it’s no surprise that reports of anxiety and depression are on the rise. Between the constant barrage of negative news headlines and very real concerns over the health and well-being of our loved ones, the coronavirus pandemic doesn’t exactly lend itself to good cheer and contentment. National Mental Health Month couldn’t have come soon enough.
But America’s favorite beverage could help with that. The results of Dr. Leviton’s independent research shows that coffee drinkers are less likely to be depressed than non-drinkers – and that the more coffee you drink, the less likely you are to be depressed, with the benefits peaking right around 13 oz. each day. That’s slightly more than your go-to Tall coffee from Starbucks.
Let thy morning coffee be thy medicine.
The results don’t just lend credence to the “don’t talk to me till I’ve had my morning coffee” quip — they also carry profound implications for how we understand coffee’s role in our mental health.
According to Dr. Leviton, there are several factors that could be contributing to coffee’s mood-boosting effects. For example, coffee is known to be rich in antioxidants. Depressed people tend to have higher levels of stress-related oxidants in the body and are more likely than others to have diets low in antioxidants – attributable, at least in part, to lower coffee consumption. The antioxidants found in coffee may very well help offset that deficiency.
Coffee also has anti-inflammatory properties, some of which have been directly linked to improved mood. Depression and suicidal ideation are both correlated with higher levels of inflammation, research shows, so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that some of the anti-depression effects of coffee are due to its anti-inflammation effects.
And then there’s caffeine. One might assume it’s the stimulation caffeine provides that brightens one’s mood, but a compound in the blood called adenosine is a more likely explanation. The more caffeine one consumes, the higher the concentration of adenosine in the blood. Depressed people tend to have lower concentrations of adenosine than non-depressed people – and one study found that the more severe the depression, the lower the concentration of adenosine. As if we needed another reason to skip the decaf (kidding, of course…).
Dr. Leviton says some of coffee’s mood-boosting effects are present right there in the mug, but other positive effects of coffee are only unlocked as coffee interacts with our bodies[W4] . You may have heard of probiotics before – they’re those little pearls you can buy at the pharmacy that promote a healthy gut microbiome. But there’s also prebiotics and postbiotics, which, like probiotics, provide health benefits once properly processed. The prebiotics found in brewed coffee, for example, are readily metabolized by organisms in the gut. This process transforms them into short chain fatty acids or other metabolites, including brain-penetrating neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA, and dopamine – the four major regulators of our mood.
Dr. Leviton’s study goes into much greater detail, and is a worthwhile read for the curious. His findings are welcome news for anyone seeking a little comfort in these uncertain, turbulent times — so burr up those beans, fluff those filters, and put a fresh pot on – trust the research, it’ll make you feel better.
Agricultural research and development (R&D) are critical for securing the future of coffee. World Coffee Research has created a global survey on agricultural research priorities, designed with input from coffee industry organizations that are also helping distribute the survey to their members to ensure as much participation as possible. Your participation is critical for helping shape global coffee agriculture R&D priorities, ensuring that the global research agenda supports the needs of the industry, drives increased sustainability and prosperity, and makes coffee better.
The survey questions focus on agricultural issues in coffee, the supply of coffee, the qualities of green/roasted coffee, and how they impact business. The survey takes between 5 and 10 minutes to complete.
The survey is completely anonymous—no information is collected that could be used to identify you personally or the organization you work for. Results will be used to inform the development of a five-year R&D strategy for WCR; anonymous aggregated survey results may be incorporated into the public strategy document. Anonymous data may also be shared with industry associations involved in the survey design.