Thanksgiving Coffee is one of the original direct traders, selling coffee built on close relationships with coffee farmers since 1972. The company on the Northern California coast was recently honored as one of the top coffee roasters in the world winning Roast Magazine’s Roaster of the Year for 2017.
Forty years is a long time to maintain your drive, to continue reinventing your business as the landscape changes around you. In that time, coffee has gone from a morning necessity of little consequence to a specialty product with consumers seeking out unique tasting notes from interesting origins. Thanksgiving Coffee has played a major role in that shift with a focus on people first.
“Thanksgiving Coffee’s motto ‘Not Just a Cup, But a Just Cup’, sums up the company’s entire philosophy. For over forty years Thanksgiving Coffee has led the specialty coffee industry in sustainability, innovation, quality and spirit,” said Connie Blumhardt, publisher of Roast Magazine. Thanksgiving Coffee was one of two roasters selected out of more than 100 submissions for the honor of Roaster of the Year.
Prior to the 1980s, few coffee roasters explored or understood where their coffee came from, even less so consumers. It was around that time that Paul Katzeff, made his first trip to Nicaragua to visit the coffee lands. Paul and his wife Joan owned a growing coffee company. They had made big strides in how coffee was sold, emphasizing freshness by printing roast dates on their bags, and creating innovative bulk coffee displays.
But it wasn’t until he had booked his trip to Nicaragua, after sampling beans from Jinotega, that the stage was set for Thanksgiving’s defining moment. Paul arrived in Nicaragua focused on sourcing high quality coffee for bargain prices and returned an evangelist for relationship coffee that treats farmers as equals.
While there, Paul met small-scale coffee farmers and their families, and began to understand the problems they faced, the hunger, and the unfortunate results of always trying to source the best coffee at the lowest prices. After that trip, Thanksgiving’s motto ‘In search of the perfect cup’ morphed into ‘Not just a cup, but a just cup.’
Relationships Built on Trust
Thanksgiving believes that good coffee is built on trust and this comes from standing with farmers year after year. In the case of Dukunde Kawa, a Fairtrade cooperative in Rwanda, Thanksgiving has been working with them for over 12 years. The Solidaridad Cooperative in Nicaragua has been supplying Thanksgiving for 20 years.
“I’ve been able to stay with co-ops over the long-term and we understand that you have good years and bad years,” Paul said. “You can’t expect a co-op to produce perfect coffees every year, year after year, so you have to be able to support that co-op and sustain that so they can plan for the future.
“The important thing is that we’re into people first and coffee second. Quality coffee comes from quality of life.”
When Thanksgiving is looking to source new coffees, they approach a cooperative with an eye to the future. This means meeting with the management and members and developing a deep understanding of the community.
Thanksgiving Coffee was the second coffee roaster in the United States to sell certified Fairtrade coffee (the first was Steep & Brew in Madison, Wisconsin). Currently, about 80% of the coffees at Thanksgiving carry the FAIRTRADE Mark, and they source the majority of their coffee from Fairtrade cooperatives.
Paul attributes their dedication to two reasons:
“One is very self-serving. We’ve grown with the Fairtrade brand. It saves me a lot of explaining because people can see it right on the package. We’ve built our followers with Fairtrade, that community is my community.
“The other reason is I believe in cooperatives. In my heart. It’s about organizing people and community.”
Success Rooted in Dedication
Thanksgiving Coffee continues to adapt their business and innovate. They give back to the community through cause coffees where a portion of the proceeds go to non-profits. In 2015, they became Bird Friendly certified by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center and went through the rigorous process of becoming a certified B Corp.
Which is what led the company to submit themselves for Roaster of the Year. In working toward their B Corp certification, Thanksgiving realized the breadth and depth of what they had accomplished and decided to throw their hat in the ring.
“This is not our thing, we don’t go after awards, this isn’t going to change who we are. We’re trying to be a sustainable model. It’s not what can we win, but what can we do,” Paul emphasized.
“Our company has a soft heart. We want to make a difference in a community because we are asking people these people to give us their best.”
Roast Magazine’s Roaster of the Year competition is based on more than just the quality of a company’s coffee (expertly handled by head roaster Jacob Long in the first photo). Additional criteria include the roaster’s mission, their commitment to sustainable practices, dedication to employees and education, and contributions to the coffee industry.
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