Just Coffee Co-op, located at 3701 Orin Rd, has grown over the years to 35 employees who roast beans from small-scale farmers in more than a dozen nations from around the world, including Nicaragua, Mexico, Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia and Guatemala.
“Our business model is built around mutually beneficial relationships,” says Just Coffee co-founder Matt Earley, a Lexington, Kentucky native who moved to Madison to get his master’s degree in Latin American Studies at UW-Madison. “Coffee was just a vehicle. Our goal is to build long-term relationships with small-scale coffee farmers to make a truly incredible cup of coffee. In that order.”
Coffee farmers were getting just 25 cents a pound in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico when Earley first visited. Last year Just Coffee’s farmer partners received over $2.44 a pound. In 2016 Just Coffee was able to return more than $10,000 in donations for farmer-led community development projects in the producing countries and thousands of dollars more in premiums for grants to farmer co-ops for production improvements.
“We want to have a real effect on the people we work with, both farmers and people in our own community,” says Earley. “You can’t have political democracy without also having economic democracy. Otherwise there is an unequal power relationship. We want people to think about the fact that when we buy coffee, tea, blue jeans, or whatever, we are supporting a system and a group of people with our purchase. What kind of system do we want to support?”
The success of Just Coffee was not always obvious. Earley said when he approached officials at UW-Madison’s Small Business Center in 2001 for help in starting his business, he got a lecture instead.
“The whole interaction lasted just five minutes. After I outlined our business ideas the man put his arm around my shoulder and walked me to the door and said ‘Son, you can’t make a living off selling coffee to a few dozen hippies on the East Side of Madison.’ It would be fun to show him our P&L (profit and loss) sheet now.”
Just Coffee is a for-profit company by design and this is very crucial to them. Earley said that it is important for the cooperative to show that they can be profitable and successful by any standard business measurement. From its inception the owners wanted to show a company could thrive while still working for the greater good at the core of its mission. Toward that end the cooperative just received recognition as a certified “Benefit Corporation”, or B Corp, by an outside auditor. The certification documents and codifies their efforts on four measurements: how they treat workers and how they interact with suppliers, the community and the environment. Just Coffee is the only “B Corp Certified” coffee roaster in Wisconsin.
“This certification locks us into our mission even more strongly,” said Earley. “Think of it as a fair trade certification for our entire business, not just for the coffee that we buy and sell.”
Earley noted that the cooperative has also upped its business sense, admitting that there were sometime missteps and errors along the way.
“When we started we had no business acumen nor coffee acumen,” said Earley. “We had no vocabulary for how to talk about our coffee quality, compared with how we could talk about our relationships with farmers. Since then we have invested heavily in our cup quality. We have a master roaster who provides consistency to our product and a Q Grader (quality control expert) who cups and scores our coffee when it comes in and who works with the roasters to find the best flavor profile for each lot of coffee.
“Those changes have made a huge difference,” he said, adding that their commitment to transparency, equality and human dignity has some national grocers sniffing at their brand. “We can sit at the table with anyone now based on our coffee quality, but our business ethic gives us an edge over other roasters. The stubbornness of trying to do the right thing has always carried us through.”