Responsible coffee roasting

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How many people were responsible for bringing you your cup of coffee this morning? If you're drinking coffee from Simpatico, a Holland-based roaster, you can be assured it came directly from the hands of the farmers and that your money is going back into their pockets.

A trip to Oaxaca, a mountainous rural state in Mexico, left Simpatico's founder Alex Fink with a newfound interest in creating a business that would not only provide consumers at home with high-quality coffee, but also provide sustainable financial support to the farmers and the environment they tend.

Fink entered into the coffee trade at a time when it was becoming the fastest growing segment of the beverage industry. Since October 2010, the commodity price has practically doubled.

Much of the profit from this spike isn't finding its way to the farmers, however. Fink noted that even fair trade companies are pressured by big conglomerates to keep their price points low.

Because of Simpatico's "straight-trade" pricing structure, the company was able to eliminate about four to five changes of hands in the importing process, putting that money toward paying a better price to the farmer and accepting only the highest quality beans in return. Fink said Simpatico paid its farmers 30 to 50 cents per pound more than fair trade last year, bringing small rural families to the global market.

Fink has found that using responsible business practices isn't necessarily cutting into profits.

"Consumers are looking at the whole product. They understand our story and are supporting us because we're trying," he said. "It's definitely on people's consciences."

Fink anticipates doubling Simpatico's number of employees by next year with the rate of growth the company currently is experiencing.

Hope College, a recent addition to Simpatico's client base, has doubled its coffee sales since making the switch in coffee providers. Adam Kragt of Hope College Dining Services noted that, beyond taste preference, customers seem more inclined to support a company with a mission.

Fink considers coffee exporter and business partner Pedro Cortez the catalyst for Simpatico. Cortez was the first to introduce Fink to the industry, taking him on tours of Mexican coffee ranches, explaining the process and the opportunities an endeavor such as Simpatico could provide for Fink, in terms of his own gain and the benefits to Oaxaca.

"Mexico is a cohesive family unit. If you're infusing capital into Mexico, people will naturally support each other," said Fink. He said that many large multi-national corporations will attempt to do good without taking the time to ask locals the seemingly obviously question: What do you need?

"It does no good to create a clinic without any way of keeping it staffed," he said by way of example.

At an increasing rate, environmentally and ethically conscious business practices often are the most economic choice. Despite the upfront cost of Simpatico's state-of-the-art roaster, Fink said, the zero-emissions machine that operates at a cost of less than 1 cent of energy per pound of coffee will pay for itself in five to six years.

Recent Articles by Alissa Lane - Special to the Business Journal

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