2020 - A Pivotal Year

A Pivotal Year | |

It’s Not Too Bad Here

Oscar Garcia in Guatemala

The year 2020 started off very well. In my role as Green Coffee Buyer, I visited many of our coffee friends and partners in Ethiopia and Kenya. The harvest season was nearly complete, which meant we could cup dozens of outstanding coffees together. We were excited to set up direct exports from Limmu, Ethiopia and Kiriga, Kenya.

In late February, several of our team members from Seattle joined me on a visit to coffee farms in Guatemala. It is always wonderful to see people who spend their days making coffee in cafes, when they get to pluck a ripe coffee cherry off a tree for the first time. They got a close look at how challenging it is to properly dry and prepare coffee beans. Two of the farms we visited, Esperanza and Rosma, placed 3rd and 4th in the 2020 Guatemala Cup of Excellence! We are proud to partner with these farms, which now provide our "house" coffee, in addition to special featured coffees!

Seattle Coffee Works team members visited Finca Rosma in February 2020

It was difficult when the pandemic hit. I could no longer travel to coffee farms. We had to scale back our coffee purchase in summer 2020. Fortunately, our coffee farm partners, many of whom have worked with us for several years, have been very understanding and supportive. We are so grateful to them!

At this point, Covid is not too bad in Guatemala and many producing countries. I still can’t travel, but I'm in touch by with almost every partner. This year’s coffee harvest seems to be going well in Africa and will soon commence in the Americas.

    Pivots and Pirouettes

    Pipo Bui in Seattle

    2020 was the year that I joined Seattle Coffee Works full-time. After supervising the construction of our four cafes (and multiple smaller renovations) over the past 15 years, my new project was to revamp our website and grow our small mail order program.

    Kyle Smith turned plywood into art at our downtown cafe.

    Boy, did that change in March! We closed our cafes, distributed our perishable foods to food banks, shelved our nearly-complete wholesale bakery, and buffed up the website as best we could. At the cafes, we put up plywood, covered it with art, then took it down. We installed plexiglass, and re-arranged our manufacturing space to accommodate a ten-fold increase in mail orders. We could not have survived this year without the kind support of many friends and customers. Thank you!

    Meanwhile, we also filled out two dozen grant, loan, and insurance applications. One day, while sweeping the glass shards of a broken window in our downtown cafe, I realized this was yet another chance to pivot, to change my point of view. Broken glass can look a lot like jewels… 2020 gave us a rare chance to participate in rebuilding a more equitable society.

    At the end of this year, I hope that both our website and our brick-and-mortar cafes feel as welcoming, inclusive, and cozy as possible. I hope that the packages of coffee we mail out bring as much joy to people’s homes as the lattes we make in our cafes.

      Looking Forward - Hindsight is 2020

      Sebastian Simsch in Seattle

      2020 was the year I almost gave up. It was a very tough year. But there were some silver linings:

      • Our team has stayed healthy. Thanks to our previous efforts to provide living wages, and the state’s robust SharedWork program, many have been able to stay on a relatively firm financial footing.
      • We came up with creative ways, like the Coffee Works Club, to safely provide coffee to our customers in their own homes or in our cafes.
      • Our coffee has gotten better than ever! Despite everything, we’ve been able to increase the proportion of direct trade coffee to almost 95%, and improve roasting quality and consistency.

      Going forward, here are some principles I see:

      Healthy Work

      2020 taught us to value health more than ever. That means living wages, improving working conditions, focused work, and making sure we all take our “weekends” to rest and recuperate.

      Dump Tipping

      If hospitality is going to work in 2021 and beyond, it has to become a more equal partnership between customers and hospitality workers. The Downton Abbey upstairs/downstairs dynamic in restaurants is past its prime. Service workers deserve real wages and recognition for their expertise. Tipping is wrong. Not long ago, Andres Oppenheimer described a bleak scenario in his book about automation and jobs: a society divided into adaptable elites who benefit from technological innovation; poor people whose jobs are replaced by technology; and a class of workers who provide personalized services like massage, meditation, meals, and music lessons and to the elites. 2020 made that dystopian vision disturbingly real.

      What we provide is not just that next cup of coffee; we provide community and a (space for) human connection. Internet-only companies, and any large companies that treat their workers like replaceable robots, will become commoditized. Any of us small passion-project companies will continue to fill an increasingly large void of human connection, and we'll be able to charge a higher price for that work. We've long left the $15-minimum-wage target behind us. As of now, we're at an average of $22 per hour for our cafe teams, once fully certified. We've set our eyes on $26.50 per hour by the end of 2022; we consider it our big hairy audacious goal to achieve $38.50 per hour ($80,000 per year at full-time) by the end of the decade.


      Just as we are committed to paying coffee farmers what they need to live and do their work sustainably, and to recognize and undo systemic oppression in our own business practices, we also need equity to be restored across large and small businesses. It makes no sense that well-funded mammoths like Amazon, Facebook, Google, GrubHub, Yelp etc. are milking small retailers for advertising dollars and fees. This power dynamic makes small business unsustainable and unattractive, ultimately squashing innovation.

      Gratitude and Kindness are the Antidote to Fear

      We’re deeply grateful to all the people who’ve stepped up in so many ways this year - our friends, families, coffee growing partners around the world, and customers who’ve contributed your insights, talents, and caring.

      Blog post
      Coffee Bar Professionals like Arlette Barajas, who passed her espresso certification during the pandemic, are the future of specialty coffee! Each and every day, they are risking their health on the front lines to give people hope.

      Most importantly, we appreciate the courage of our frontline cafe team. Each one of them takes a substantial risk, every day, to smile through their masks and layers of plexiglass - to give a cup of caffeinated joy and a heartfelt welcome to each person who walks in our doors. They are working harder, with more professionalism and grit, than ever before. They are the frontline in a very long struggle against fear. Each and every day, they are standing up for hope.

      May 2021 be a good new year for you and your loved ones. Please stay healthy and keep hope flowing!