Coffee has been a long-standing personal interest of mine that has run adjacent to much of my professional and academic career. Since making tenure in September 2022 however, I decided it was time to make it an integral part of my academic career.
Given much of the academic research on coffee is in horticulture, agronomy, or international political economy and development, I noticed little business perspective/critique on the industry itself. Some academics such as my colleague Zeynep Arsel, Ted Fischer, Paige West, and Peter Roberts have looked at the industry from adjacent perspectives such as the sociological consumption of coffee, coffee production in an anthropological context, or organizational perspectives that affect coffee markets.
Yet as a long-time coffee prosumer whose research has focused on issues of marketplace justice, I see room for a different academic perspective. Nonetheless, I remain acutely mindful of– and acknowledge that– my perspective is a white cishet male from a coffee consumption-dominant country. I understand that, despite my best reflexive intentions, my perspectives come from a place of privilege and cultural dominance, particularly with regard to the coffee industry.
So “why coffee, why me?”
learning about Coffee as My “Third Place” (2000-2004)
My first foray into coffee was during my undergraduate work at McGill University in Montreal (despite what many think, I am not Canadian). Functionally, my interest was spurred by a small Quebecois chain called Café Dépôt, which had a shop only three blocks from my apartment on a pedestrian-only street. The shop was right amid the heart of Montreal nightlife, had floor-to-ceiling glass, and was open 24 hours, seven days-a-week.
Their coffee wasn’t spectacular and my tastes weren’t refined. But as with most undergrads, for a coffee newbie like myself, it was the first time I was really exposed to a) coffee as a beverage b) coffeeshop/cafe culture. Since the drinking age in Montreal was 18, by my third and fourth year there, I was mostly “over” the bar/club scene. Instead, I was spending until 2-3am chatting with the baristas, ordering frappes and sugary macchiatos, and watching the nightlife going in and out for a respite from the cold. In some respects, this shop was already teaching me the value of a “third place.”
Yet, as a political science major (comparative government) in a fairly liberal city, the combination of my coursework studies and cultural context left me conflicted about the role of business in society. When I returned home to the US, it was difficult for me to square the idea that corporate interests could ever “do well” for people. The state of corporate markets as solely profit-maximizing engines conflicted with my Jewish values rooted in tikkun olam – repairing the world. While tikkun olam has its more traditional interpretations, commonly associated kabbalistic interpretations point to a responsibility for societal welfare.
Starbucks, Corporate Social responsibility, and Fair Trade (2004-2011)
Like many undergrads after graduation, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out “what I wanted to do with my life.” I picked up a job as a senior bank teller, at which point, I did a lot of reading in my spare time. One of these books was Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz’s Pour Your Heart Into It which was essentially an autobiography of Starbucks. Reading this book was the first opportunity where I recognized corporate social responsibility (CSR) meant business could have a positive role in a sustainable society. In essence, businesses could “do well by doing good.”
In reading what Schultz had to say about coffee, I found it was one of the industries where there was a lot of potential for sustainable impact. In particular, I was intrigued by the fair trade model, where a price premium was paid to farmers on top of the coffee auction price. I decided to pursue an MBA, gain a practical understanding of CSR (which was in its infancy as a business strategy, following Enron), and ultimately work for a business that focused on sustainability (Starbucks?). I worked at the bank in the day, went to Starbucks in the evening to study for my GMATs and talk to the baristas, and then went home to my parents’ for dinner.
My MBA brought me to St. John’s University, Queens, New York, where I became obsessive about Starbucks at that time. In fact, I was so obsessive about Starbucks, I ultimately got to meet my then-hero, Schultz, at the launch of their Pike Place Roast. I finished my MBA with a thesis comparing the CSR communications of US and European multinational firms. But instead of working in CSR, I was hired full-time in the Marketing Operations department at a mutual fund company in Manhattan. When the Great Recession of 2008 hit, I was a last-in, first-out casualty to unemployment and ultimately pivoted to pursue doctoral studies in marketing at University of Massachusetts Amherst (how I chose to pivot from industry to academia is another story for another day).
Pivoting to direct trade (2011-2013)
At UMass Amherst, I pivoted from the strategic side of sustainability— CSR— into wanting to understand consumers and why/how they made sustainability decisions… or not. It seems like it should be easy to say that consumers will buy sustainably, but only if the price is right. But the truth (and research) is more nuanced. It turns out, consumers are complex and so are their consumption behaviors.
About a week after I started working on writing my dissertation, I made the switch to a local coffee shop across the street from my Starbucks. (A customer service note: the reason I switched is because a new manager decided to turn off power to the electrical outlets used by customers at the bar, such as me. Something as acutely idiosyncratic as that can affect customer loyalty.) After this, I never looked back.
The shop, Sip Coffee, had just opened a week earlier and served Counter Culture Coffee. This was the first time I had pourover coffee, the first time I started drinking coffee black, and the first time I heard of the direct trade business model. In direct trade (or relationship coffee), roasters buy their green coffee (the term for coffee before it is roasted) directly from the farmers, rather than at arms’ length at auction. Eliminating the auctions from the purchase meant that farmers could potentially make more money, establish long-term buying relationships, and improve stability/security in their own livelihoods. It also meant the quality of the product started to increase. My dissertation research focused on consumer perceptions of fairness (justice) in the marketplace, and my broader research focuses on concepts of tikkun olam, or responsibility for societal welfare. So the idea that there was a model for coffee that could potentially be more equitable for coffee farmers than fair trade was an intriguing concept to me.
At this point, Sip became my “coffice” (coffee + office) — my third place between my campus and my home offices. It was a place where I could have some ambient noise to work, enjoy good coffee, and discuss it with the baristas. It was also when I became a convert to specialty coffee. I bought my first blade grinder to grind whole bean coffee and brew it on a Capresso MT500 Coffee Maker or French press.
learning leaps into a more just coffee marketplace (2013-present)
When I finished my PhD, I moved across the state for back-to-back visiting positions at universities in downtown Boston. In moving to Greater Boston, one of the first things I did was try to figure out where the closest local specialty coffee shop was to me. The nearest shop was George Howell Coffee in Newton. At the time, I had not known who George was or how he was involved in specialty coffee, but I was instantly hooked on the light-roast coffee he was roasting out of Acton. Further, George had relationships with farmers that spanned decades. For example, his relationship with the Mathagu family in Kenya allowed him exclusive green coffee buying of Mamuto coffee.
The more George Howell Coffee became my new “coffice,” the more I was able to learn about coffee as a product and service, and also about coffee as an industry that was facing critical issues of long-term sustainability and inequity. With more than 40 years experience in the industry, George was among the few who understood that the concepts of seasonality and terroir (micro-level growing conditions) expressed in wine-making are applicable to producing a high-quality product. There is something rather poetic when he speaks about coffee and his experiences in the industry. I’ve gotten to attend several of his local seminars, including one where I got to meet Raul Perez of La Soledad. This was the first time I had met someone from coffee origin and hear a firsthand perspective about the industry itself.
Not only was I understanding more about the industry, but I was also digging into coffee brewing itself. I toured the roastery, learned about coffee cupping, took palate training classes, even got to side-by-side cup multiple vintages (2014-16) of the Mamuto AA crop– part of an experiment he conducted to determine how freezing coffee affects its taste. When he opened his third shop in Boston’s Downtown Crossing, I even got to cup coffees in different water chemical compositions created by then-MIT chemistry postdoc Chris Hendon. I bought a new Baratza Encore burr grinder and a Chemex to start making pourovers, before switching to Kalita Wave 185. I also had an Aeropress with Fellow Prismo to make espresso-style shots. But when the manual espresso maker company, Flair, came out with an entry-level NEO on Kickstarter, I started pulling my own actual espresso shots. I now use the Baratza Encore ESP to grind for manual shots on a Flair 58, using the Subminimal Nanofoamer PRO to make milk-based espresso beverages.
By September 2015, I landed a tenure-track position at University of Massachusetts Lowell. I was starting to interface (largely though Instagram, but also at multiple roasteries/cafes in cities where academic conferences were located) with different industry stakeholders, ranging from people at coffee origins, importers/exporters, different roasteries around the world, folks who worked at the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), and so forth. I messaged regularly with a producer in Nicaragua… a sales rep at a major importer… In April 2019, I gave my first seminar at the SCA Expo, “Explaining Consumer Indifference toward Sustainability in the Specialty Coffee Value Chain and What Might Be Done to Overcome It,” where I started to combine some of my marketing expertise with what I knew about the specialty coffee industry. I also got to meet a variety of industry stakeholders in person.
In September 2019, my family got a cat after our old one passed. I was opposed to getting another cat, so they let me name it as a meager compromise. His name is Yukro (YOU-crow), after a coffee producing kebele (community) in Agaro, Ethiopia, and he effectively acts like a dog. As COVID disrupted my weekly downtown visits to George Howell, I branched outward around the country and started ordering Yukro coffee from every roaster who featured it. This broadened my connections around the industry as well as allowed me to learn more deeply about where my coffee was coming from.
During the stay-at-home stage of the pandemic, I presented two webinars for the SCA (COVID-19 and Specialty Coffee: The Importance of Communications During Business Interruptions; Coffee Retail Summit: Marketing Principles for Environmental, Social, and Financial Sustainability) and was twice-invited as a guest on the Keys to the Shop podcast (ep 215: Communication and Marketing Master Class; Sustainability Series #4: The Consumer). And in April 2022, I again presented seminars at the Re:co Symposium/SCA Expo (“#yukrowithyukro: What My Cat Has Taught Me About the Specialty Coffee Value Chain and Defining Specialty Coffee“).
Though I had not formally done research on coffee, my industry presentations were based on areas of the industry that were ripe for fresh critique–especially from a marketplace justice perspective.
After being tenured and promoted in September 2022, I felt it important to gain practical firsthand knowledge and industry insight regarding the coffee value system at coffee origin. The stakeholder conversations I was having were no substitute for putting “boots on the ground.” So I applied for (and was awarded) both a Spring 2024 sabbatical and a Fulbright Scholar grant to Colombia. The purpose for my Fulbright is to study the role of farmer agency and autonomy in coffee value systems. As part of/beyond this central objective, questions that intrigue me also include:
- How does the industry look at aligning consumer choice (including choosing commodity coffee vs. specialty coffee) and cafe/roastery worker rights with producer-side equity?
- What agency do producers have in making/shaping post-colonial markets (e.g., vertically integrated production at origin for direct-to-consumer sales) and how are these strategies successful at improving equity?
- What value do laborers such as pickers actually actualize? How much value is retained by intermediaries in the value system, as opposed to equitably sustaining production?
- Is there value in consumer-driven (alleged) demand for coffee data/transparency or is it a neo-colonial form of value extraction? Are tech implementations like blockchain a useful burden for improving equity for producers (saleable production data?) or an expensive security blanket to placate consumers?
- How does the industry grapple with value when both consumer and producer markets are cross-nationally heterogeneous (ie, export policies differ across origins, yet consumers have choices across origins)?
- Production trends are often influenced by climate trends (that are often negative, of late), but how are they influenced by market trends (that are shaped by consumer tastes, such as advanced coffee processing methods (eg, 168hr carbonic maceration))? How does this impact smallholder farms vs. larger estates– especially given the differences in capital required?
Billions of cups of coffee are consumed daily across the world. Its consumption is global, yet its production is limited to a narrow band of optimal growing geography. It is commodified and it is specialized. It is enjoyed and savored by some and seen as a “caffeine delivery system” by others. It can be experiential but it can be habitual. In one way or another, it is a consumable almost everyone understands. And in all facets, coffee value systems and their stakeholders intersect with so many issues of societal welfare– climate justice, labor justice, gender justice– that are taken for granted by marketplaces in consumption-dominant countries.
Coffee is a confluence of my personal and professional experiences, my personal and professional interests, and my values. That’s why coffee, that’s why me.