In Defense of the Middle Man
We hear it all the time in almost every industry:
“Remove the middle man; make your business more efficient and increase your profits.”
That’s not an unfair statement in most industries. However, the coffee industry has created a unique list of issues for the importer, just like it has for the producer and the retailer on either end. Coming from a barista and third-wave café manager background, I always viewed the relationship with the farmer to be paramount. I imagined myself going to the farms and exchanging handshakes and laughter for jute bags full of green coffee. This—much to my chagrin—is just not a realistic representation of the life of the average roaster. I know; I’m as disappointed as you are.
For the small to midsize roaster, handling the logistics of international freight is a daunting enough proposition, but when you add in the exorbitant cost per pound associated with shipping anything less than a full (~37,500lb) container, the navigation of governmental restrictions, the idea of tying up tens of thousands of dollars months before you might receive the coffee, and the years and patience it takes to build a relationship with a producer, it quickly becomes unsustainable to populate your menu with directly-sourced coffee. The time and costs you incur grossly outweigh the cost of working with an importer.
Probably the most time-consuming—yet most rewarding—aspects of developing farm connections are the relationships. These relationships are built on trust and mutual understanding, as well as a passion and love for coffee. These farmers have, by far, the most work to do to make sure that what ends up in your cup is a beautiful start to your morning. All things considered, importers are going to spend a lot of time developing relationships, but they can only manage so many. If a diverse list of unique coffees is what you’re looking for, a single source is probably going to limit your ability to accomplish that. That may seem like a strange suggestion from an importer, but it’s just a reality. At Royal Coffee New York, we’re always looking for a way to fulfill new needs as they arrive, and we do our best to have the right coffee for each type of person.
Familiarity with the coffee is another consideration. We spend a good chunk of time every day with cupping and quality assurance. In any given week, we could cup between 50-100 different coffees. This allows us to have a mental library of similarities from which we can draw lines to similar coffees in a way that someone who only cups occasionally, or only a couple coffees at a time, wouldn’t be able to. The beauty is we can’t do everything; no one can.
With the chain of coffee, every link needs to be strong, or it all falls apart. We’re proud to be able to be a part of that.
By Dave Planer, Marketing Director of Royal Coffee New York, Inc.