From skeptical business advisors to staring down the barrel of a gun, it’s been an interesting road from the highlands of Mexico to Madison for Just Coffee Cooperative.
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Coffee was not where Earley expected his career to wind up.
“Over my life my imagined job trajectory went from paleontologist to pro baseball player to rock star to college professor and in reality looked like busboy, horse stall cleaner, lawn mower, gardener, and for many years dishwasher,” says Earley. “Starting and co-owning a coffee roasting business — or any business for that matter — was not on my radar in the slightest until our friends in Chiapas persuaded me to try it. Without a lot of dedicated co-owners, employees, and customers over the years, it never would have worked out the way it has. It is great to have people who have your back and who can sometimes carry extra weight when it slips off your shoulders.”
Madison is also a long way from Mexico, but the community has also been integral to Just Coffee’s sustained success, Earley notes.
Just Coffee co-founder Matt Earley, left, with a farmer from ANEI Cooperative in northern Colombia.
“Especially in the beginning, there are and were a lot of people here who want to connect with the people who grow or make the things that they use and who want to try to make sure those people are not being exploited,” he says. “When we started out I believe that our business model only could have been supported in a handful of cities.”
Like standing up to paramilitary forces though, even the local business ecosystem presented obstacles for a coffee startup, notes Earley.
“When Mike and I were writing our business plan and looking for support I went to the UW-Madison Small Business Development Center for advice and help. I expected that our ideas might not be totally familiar or smiled upon by the retired businessmen who volunteered to help startups in need. I sat down in a chair across from my assigned volunteer business expert and waited for some feedback.
“I had sent the plan to him a few days before so that he could get an idea of what we wanted to do,” Earley continues. “The expert put the plan on the table and pushed himself back in his chair. He slid his glasses down his nose, peered at me over the frames, and asked, ‘You said you guys want to start a ‘for-profit’ business, right?’”
“‘Yes, that’s right,’” Earley replied, starting to feel like a misbehaving second grader in the principal’s office.
“‘Right. Well, there is a major problem with this. You want to be a ‘for profit,’ but you have a plan that — at its core — will drastically limit your profits.’”
“‘Well, we think that we can pay more for our coffee, make a little less money, create community around our brand, and really show how trade can work for all involved,’” Earley told him.
There was silence. He looked at Earley with a mix of pity and fatigue. After a moment he spoke up.
“‘Here is the thing. There are six or seven other coffee roasters in town that already know what they are doing. You are coming into a full market where there is no space for you. You mention this term ‘fair trade’ over and over in your plan, but you have to realize that most people don’t really care about it. Did you know that 80% of food-and-beverage startups fail in the first three years?’”
Then he paused and hit Earley with this gem that Earley says he will never forget: “‘Listen, son, you cannot make a living selling coffee to a few dozen hippies on the east side of Madison, Wis.’”
“With that our session was over,” says Earley. “He pushed our plan back across the table and reached for my hand. After a firm businessman handshake, I started for the door trying to make sense of what had just happened. As I reached the doorway, the expert clapped me on the back and said, ‘Come back and see us when you have another idea. Or better yet, maybe write this up as a nonprofit.’”
Earley thanked him and left.
“We didn’t want to be a nonprofit,” Earley notes. “We wanted to show that it was possible to be a successful for-profit business with an unconventional idea of how to operate. We persevered stubbornly and started up by the bootstraps. Although we have stumbled some along the way — and found out that within business exists an unstoppable force called ‘basic math’ — we have become successful by any standard business metric, and we have done it with our mission and core values intact and leading our way.”
Above, a Loring roaster at Just Coffee. Below, bags of coffee ready to ship.
Fifteen years later, Just Coffee sells its products nationwide, although its biggest presence is from the Twin Cities to Chicago with a focus on Madison and Milwaukee. The company has a large presence in food co-ops across the U.S. from Seattle to Portland to San Francisco to Austin to New Orleans to Lexington, Ky., and, of course, here in Madison, notes Earley.
“We have around 30 people working at Just Coffee. Some are worker/owners of the business but the majority are not. We work with between 22 and 25 farmer co-ops every year. The majority of these co-ops are in Latin America, but also in Asia and Africa. And we still buy from the co-op of farmers we started up the business to support, as well as the co-op of farmers who are survivors of the Acteal massacre.”
Earley personally visits a number of farmer co-ops every year and Just Coffee still imports directly through an importing company it co-owns called Cooperative Coffees. To boot, Earley’s Just Coffee co-founder Mike Moon is now the head green coffee sales person at Cooperative Coffees, too.
Just Coffee is also a national leader in worker safety, a natural offshoot of its mission to improve the lives of the coffee growers it purchases from.
“We have been working with the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to measure and mitigate naturally occurring, but potentially hazardous, compounds in the workplace,” explains Earley. “We are currently consulting with them on the best ways to approach this and we have already put several things in place to cut down on the presence of dust and of these compounds. We are the first specialty coffee roaster in the nation to invite the NIOSH team into our facility, and we are really proud to be leading the industry on this issue.”
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