Monday, December 17, 2012

Inspiration Outside The Coffee Box

I just read a few blogs and they inspired me to write about something that I have been thinking about and working on this past year.  The blogs were by Nick Cho & James Hoffmann.  Nick's blog is here & James's is here.  I have not really paid much attention to "coffee blogs" lately, but a Twitter alert led me to them.  I was intrigued by Nick's thoughts as they explore a very different path than one that most specialty coffee professionals have been on the past several years.  Regardless of agreeing or disagreeing, these are the types of thoughts that might be considered out of the coffee box.  Then I read James's blog which also has some very good points.  And I might add that they are always so eloquently presented.  I am so jealous of people who are able to write so well.  Like a pro golfer who makes a 300 yard drive look effortless.  He talks about the World Coffee Research project, which is once again, an idea that is outside that coffee box.

This past year I have found myself a little uninspired by the specialty coffee industry.  Now don't get me wrong.  I still love what I do and enjoy spending time with my friends and colleagues in the specialty coffee industry, but I feel like the industry has been in sort of a rut.  The most revolutionary developments have been pour overs and multi-roaster shops? Saturday, I had some coffee with my buddy Tyler Wells from Handsome Coffee and we talked about these things.  It was great to get his perspective as a roaster-retailer.

So with all of that said, I set out on a mission earlier this year.  I made a list of people, products and brands that I admire.  There was no criteria for selection, other than I wanted to learn more.  Oh, and that they were outside the coffee industry.  They include everything from Nobel Energy to Home Slice Pizza to Yeti Coolers.  My goal was to find inspiration.  To rekindle that fire that I had 10 or 15 years ago, as the SCAA was creating barista classes and Gold Cup certifications.  Back in the days when I felt like I was learning so much that I would never retain any of it.  I got on the phone and started requesting meetings with people.  I did my best to explain my goals and offered to meet for coffee or beer.  This way, the time commitment was minimal and if the person I was meeting wanted to bail after a pint, no problem.  I was also very clear that if they were not interested or did not have time that I would not take that personally.

I made a very long list, assuming that I might get one meeting for every ten phone calls.  Much to my surprise it was exactly the opposite.  These CEO's, business operators and entrepreneurs were not only willing to meet, but invested a substantial amount of time.  The stories that I have heard and the things I have been learning are EXACTLY what I was looking for.  Everyone has a story and often times they are fascinating.  I have a whole new level of inspiration and so many creative ideas that I have problems shutting my brain off long enough to sleep some nights.

I try to schedule one meeting every month and do my best to take diligent notes.  My hope that I can create some coherent thoughts and share some valuable ideas & lessons with other people who might be on a similar path of discovery.  Now I must say that writing is one of the things I enjoy least in life.  It is always a slow, painful process for me to write down or type out my thoughts.  For this reason, I am going to do my best to force myself to write something about each meeting, every month.  So bear with me as I do my best to share my search for inspiration.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fair Trade, Direct Trade, Relationship Coffee and Facebook Friends

For the past three weeks I have had this issue eating away at me.  I keep pushing it aside, but then something happens and makes my wheels start turning again.  As I normally do, let me start with a little background/history.
About three weeks ago, a journalist did a short story about Cuvee Coffee and a couple other roasters here in Austin.  The story was all about Fair Trade, Direct Trade…you know, the usual buzzwords.  The message was completely diluted and inaccurate, but not because she is a bad writer.  It is because she needed sound bites in order to take a very complex subject and simplify it into a few sentences.  No big deal.  These things happen and I moved on.
Last week I attended Barista Nation in Dallas, TX.  One of the tracks was about “Relationship Coffee & Direct Trade.”  The talk was good and the farmer (that the presenter is buying from) was there (which was really great because I have know & been cupping coffee with Ernesto for the past 6 years).  Then a question from the audience about “Direct Trade.”  That is when things got derailed.  I listened to the speaker say that he did not think it was that important to make personal visits. Then came all of the things I have heard over and over like, “my business is small” or “I have a family” – all of the why I can’t travel excuses.
Lastly was an article I read online about a new shop opening up in Dallas.  The article was very well written and the message was wonderful.  Problem one is that the roaster the shop is using started talking about “going beyond Fair Trade” and “Direct Trade.”  Problem two is that I know for a fact there is no substance behind it.
As the buzzwords “direct” and “relationship” permeate the specialty coffee industry, a lot of people grab those terms in order to use them as marketing and they end up meaning nothing.  The word relationship becomes…well… meaningless.  I compare this with Facebook “friends.”  It’s like, oh man, I went to grade school with this person and even though I have not talked to them in 30 years…click “friend.”  Personally, I have hundreds of Facebook friends, but only 4 are true friends.  The rest are acquaintances.
In closing here are a few points:
1.       You can still have great coffee even if it is not Direct Trade
2.       Meeting a farmer at an SCAA event or Roasters Guild Origin Trip, does not qualify as a relationship
3.       Just because an importer has a direct relationship with a farm and gives you all of the vital information, that does not equal a relationship.  This is not the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
4.       If you have to use caveats or explain how it sort of is a direct relationship, but not exactly, it is NOT.
5.       A copy of an importer contract does not show the price to farmer so stop misleading people with the price paid to the importer.
6.       Stop disrespecting the pioneers of Direct Trade and everyone who follows the model as it was originally defined/intended.  It’s like saying you were a Navy SEAL when you were not…OK, maybe not exactly like that, but you get the idea.
7.       If you want to have a real direct relationship, then do it.  No one is stopping you.  And stop using excuses like time and money.  Lots of people find a way.  If it is truly important, you will too.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Coffee Industry & Entertainment Industry Are Very Different

Dangerous Grounds, featuring Todd Carmichael, debuted on the Travel Channel this week. There was some chatter leading up to the show and it has seemed to pick up recently. Since I have been working on a TV concept for the past 2 years, I thought I might share some of my recent experiences, but first a brief history.

Like a number of other people who travel extensively for the coffee job, I had an idea to create a No Reservations style travel loge, documenting the life of a coffee buyer. Let’s face it, we travel to places that most people will never see, we interact with lots of different people, are immersed in the culture, eat the food, but is that really all that exciting? I regularly watched Anthony Bourdain’s, No Reservations and enjoyed the shows, but personally I am a huge fan of, and relate more with Mike Rowe’s Dirty Jobs. So the concept shifted away from that poetic travel loge to more of a fun, fast paced theme, yadda, yadda. I finally landed on my message and defined my concept. Meet the people, places & products that make coffee a multibillion dollar industry. The show is not about Mike McKim and definitely not about Cuvee Coffee. My pitch all along has been that the coffee industry is riddled with colorful characters, innovative products and transcends every culture on the planet. The show is Dirty Jobs meets How It’s Made. Teach the viewers as much as possible about every aspect of the coffee industry, but do it in an entertaining way. But is that really what the networks are looking for? I am fortunate enough to be working with Each Productions, which is a husband and wife team. Armie Hammer and Elizabeth Chambers are two amazing people who have been very successful in the entertainment industry and simply because they believe in my project, Wild Coffee (working title), they have been working to help me find the right partner. Working with them and WME, we exposed the concept to a number of really great production companies who have been successful creating content for different networks. I have learned that this is how the chain of command normally flows. I spent the better part of this year bouncing back and forth between Austin and Los Angeles, meeting with all sorts of people and pitching my concept. We had interest and were making some progress. Then Dangerous Grounds was announced and everyone went into a holding pattern.

History lesson over. Here is what I experienced and learned. Most everyone I met was interested in the concept and felt my passion for the project. I mean it is a pretty simple recipe and makes a lot of sense. But there were 4 questions that I got consistently. What is the conflict? Where is the drama? Can you be loud and obnoxious? What about your company, can we film you yelling at your employees? It seems that these are the things that every network is looking for. I have heard it referred to as the Honey Boo Boo syndrome. I have kept my message constant that the drama presents itself. Whenever you travel, something challenging always happens. I think every coffee buyer can attest to that. Sometimes the challenges are minimal, sometimes that are huge, but either way they are there and don’t need to be fabricated or scripted. Why do I have to be loud and obnoxious? Mike Rowe isn’t either one of those things and his show is great. Why can’t I just be a fun host? My company is irrelevant and there is no need for it to be included. The real people in the coffee industry are the characters and we all know that there is every type of character imaginable. I think that one of the reasons that Brew Masters did not continue on. It was a great show, but it was all about Dogfish Head beer. It wasn’t about the beer industry.

Now I don’t know Todd Carmichael personally. I have heard people say nice things and heard people say not so nice things. I have never spoken to him personally so this next part is all speculation, but here it goes. I bet Todd’s concept is different now than when it started. He is obviously an adventurer and I am sure that was a key element, but in order for the Travel Chanel to put it on the air, he probably needed to add those elements that the network wanted. Conflict, drama, over the top personality. Yeah, the show is not 100% accurate. Some of the stuff he says and does make you shake your head in disbelief. When you are a material expert, it is only natural to want to correct things that are incorrect. My father is a pilot so anytime we watched a movie that had a scene in the cockpit, he would passionately explain to me all of the things that were not realistic. So now we (coffee professionals) are faced with a choice. We can call him a sellout, make fun of him and pick apart every inaccuracy over the next 7 weeks. Or we can acknowledge that he did what he had to do in order to get a show, about coffee, on TV. We can hope that enough people find it entertaining so other networks will want to pick up a coffee show. Personally, I opt for the latter because I hoping that I am next in line!