Thoughts from the 2005 USBC - Part Two

(Important note... this was written a while back. I've been thinking a lot since then about whether or not I really want to share it with everyone. After a lot of talk and some input from people whose opinions I value and who I trust, I've decided to post it. Please keep in mind that this is just my opinion, does not represent any sort of official viewpoint or statement by my employer or any organization.)

Here is the second section of my post-USBC report. As I’ve mentioned, it’s taken me a while to wrap my head around what I experienced in Seattle.

As a warning, I am 100% confident that I’m going to manage to piss off a lot of you at some point in this. Please understand that what I’m writing here is not only just my own opinion on things but that it’s entirely not personal and not directed at any person or people.

Specialty Coffee in the US – thoughts on the community, the people and the structures.

The coffee industry in the US is filled with some of the most incredible, passionate and intriguing people I’ve ever met. And there is a community here that is wonderful to be a part of. For me, the best part of events like the USBC is getting to be around all these amazing, committed people. I loved looking up at the top three finishers getting their trophies and realize that all three were people I like and respect – people I care about and consider friends.

This also clearly demonstrates that this is a very small world as well. Everyone knows each other, there are a lot of incestuous relationship. There is a lot of baggage.

It’s also a very young community. While there are the old-timers and the gray hairs, a huge number of the people in this industry are young. The energy that results is amazing.

Looking at all this I see the potential for the most amazing industry and a community of business leaders who really care about doing the right thing and who are really pushing to get coffee in the US to the next level.

The trouble is that this potential is not being realized.

The combination of the incestuous nature of the industry, the youth of the industry and the politics that currently exist seem to, instead, be creating a community that is fragmented and which spends more time fighting itself. The infighting and political gamesmanship that goes on in coffee right now is, in my opinion, not only juvenile and pointless – it also has the potential to be profoundly destructive.

As with any community, right now there are two loosely definable forces within specialty coffee. The first could be defined as Defenders of the Status Quo while the second are the Outsiders. The former tends to focus on incremental change, protection and exclusivity. The latter, obviously, tends to focus on revolutionary change.

From everything I have written, you can draw the easy conclusion that I tend to be more aligned with the forces of revolution. In my opinion, in the current business environment, specialty coffee cannot afford stasis. Stasis will equal death for most high-end and quality focused coffee businesses. In addition, on a personal level I’m far from satisfied with the current state of the industry. If I were to grade specialty coffee in the US as a whole, I would give it an F. There is so much that is wrong, so much that is bad, and almost everything needs to be improved.

Being at the USBC brought this all home to me.

It was incredibly frustrating to see the horrible, destructive and profoundly unprofessional political nonsense that was going on around me. Comparing this to the wonderful people within the industry and the enormous potential for good was enough to drive me into a depression. We should all be supporting each other rather than tearing each other down. There are far fewer people trying to do the right things with coffee than there are greedheads who just want to drive the c-market down another point so they can skim some more money off the near-indentured servants that are growing cheap robusta.

Looking around me I came to realize that things really need to change. And I see only two ways that this change can occur for the better.

Option one is for the existing organizations and structures that represent the companies in this industry to see a radical shakeup and restructuring. Option two is for the companies that are opposed to the status quo to leave the current organizational structures and create something new.

Obviously, I vastly prefer the former solution. We’re two small to survive a schism with any focus or power or leverage. So we need to shake things up. How?

Well… the SCAA needs to change (first and foremost). I have a ton of respect for the employees of the SCAA. Folks like Michelle Campbell are the life’s blood of this industry. But the current governance, board and committee setup is severely broken. To a large degree it seems to be geared around protecting existing power bases and reputations and egos – around supporting and abetting conflicts of interest… in other words, it is your traditional profoundly corrupt political organization. There are some people involved who are trying to change things – there are some good politicians. But they are the exception.

As a result of the corruption and political nature of the organization, you see things like the institutionalized lack of interest in communication with and education of the consumer base. You see things like the pandering to certain vendors and the undue influence of certain vendors and organizations. You see stagnation in programs and offerings. You see an organization that is not leading the industry, but rather trailing the industry (and in the cases of the quality focused coffee companies, doing so rather severely).

These are all bad. And they are all a profound failure of the mission of an organization like the SCAA.

Given this, we really need to see not just a change in personnel at a governance level but also some structural and procedural changes as well.

I had some hope with the recent elections, but even that was (honestly) a long-term and incremental change that was unlikely to solve anything in the immediate future. Now that the results have come out, it is clear that nothing is going to change in the near future. As one person said, “the trouble with the old guard is that they all vote.” So now what do we do? People have to change. It didn’t happen in the election so I guess it’s going to have to happen in a bit less orderly of a manner.

When it comes to structure and procedures, we really need far more transparency and far more accountability. At a certain level, there is a Kremlin-esque quality to the SCAA that is really disturbing to me. The people working in this industry tend to have no idea what the SCAA committees and boards are doing, what the goals are – and there is little or no accountability when it comes to results.

This then creeps out throughout the industry and infects all other organizations. As a result, the USBC ends up being incredibly secretive, political and insular. I’m afraid we could even end up seeing the same thing happening to the BGA.

Reading back through this I realize I sound very angry. And that isn’t quite true. I’m frustrated. I feel like there is so much potential in this industry and so much energy and passion in the people in the industry. But I feel like the organizations and structures that are in place to support, promote and represent us are failing to help us all get where we need and are instead creating a junior high school sideshow drama that is getting close to the point where quality focused companies have no choice but to simply jump ship.

Honestly – given the caliber of people in this industry – we deserve better.

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