Jeff Chean: An Organic Point of View

Co-Founder & Chief Coffee Guy, Groundwork Coffee Co.

Jake: “Jeff Chean is the Co-Founder and Chief Coffee Guy at Groundwork Coffee Co., a fully organic coffee roaster based in Los Angeles, CA… Frost in Brazil… Go.”

Jeff: I’m headed to Brazil in a couple of weeks. It’s raining in Brazil, so the market has been declining, and prices are coming down. The frost was impacting the price. However, I pay more attention to the relationship between the Real and the dollar—also, different cost inputs of petroleum and fertilizers and the basic greed of the shipping lines.  


Jake:  Coffee in California, a reasonable reaction to climate change?  

Jeff: Not really. One reasonable response, perhaps, is to advocate for genetically modified coffees to make them more resistant. Organic cannot use GMO ingredients; however, grafting and hybrids are Ok for organic.  


Jake:  New emerging origins?  

Jeff: Maybe not new origins but growing origins. Thailand is going to have a Cup of Excellence competition now. Philippians, Nepal, and Yemen coffee is coming back.  


Jake:  What are producing countries doing to adjust to climate change?  

Jeff: Crossbreeding and intercropping. One of the farms we work with in Nicaragua is also growing Star fruit, cocoa, and bananas and all these things are good for the soil. So regenerative farming is also part of this.  


Jake: Explain Regenerative farming 

Jeff: We brought in one of the first coffees with the Regenerative Farming certification. Plant survival is vital for the farmer. There are many layers to Regenerative Farming that include instituting specific agricultural practices. Some of these involve doing less, like not tilling the soil. Not tilling is good for the soil and allows the earth to hold on to carbon emissions, so it benefits carbon sequestration. Not tilling also allows the mycelium networks to be created and survive, which is also great for the soil. Social equity is the other side that is also part of regenerative farming. It’s all about sustainability on all sides.  


Jake: Are we willing to settle for Robusta yet?  

Jeff: I have had Robusta before, but I did not like them. Timor and Catimor were successful hybrids that worked, so I could see using those.  


Jake: How is inflation affecting your business?   

Jeff: It’s ruining our margins seriously. Everyone is waiting and seeing if and when we should raise prices. Bags are more expensive; labor costs are rising. Expenses for workers are also increasing. We are paying $7/gallon for gas, which is costly for people trying to get to work. All of these little hikes in each part of our lives are affecting business.  


Jake: How are you adjusting to the change?  

Jeff: We did an 8% price increase on all our products. We gave raises in wages for our staff to help ease the fluctuation. At the same time, other businesses are popping up and recruiting staff and making crazy offers way above pay scale. Sometimes staff come back saying the other company wasn’t sustainable. We always keep the door open for people to return.  

Certain prices never go down. Restaurants will not go down. Labor will stay high. There is going to be a new normal with the equivalent shift in demands. The percentage will change as the dollar changes, and eventually, the % will be the same.  


Jake: War in Ethiopia 

Jeff: It has not caused any issue in the availability of coffee for us yet. The war is more in the northern area, which is not where the coffee is. The war in Ukraine has been more of an effect as it has contributed to the inflation we are experiencing.  


Jake: Tik Tok  

Jeff: Yeah, it is. It can be a great educational tool: making coffee in different ways and exploring coffee theory. People making different drinks and cocktails with coffee. Our company needs more of a Tiktok presence. I’m at the age where my kids use it; I just see some of this on Instagram.  

I liked the coffee emulsion using a better freeze-dried coffee. Specialty freeze-dried coffee is interesting. Anything that brings joy to people is a good thing. You find your joy where you can.  


Jake: In Specialty coffee, how do we elevate coffee while cashing in on trends?  

Jeff: I’m an egalitarian in most things. Specialty is unique for the taste. Just point people in the right direction, and they will do what they do with it.  

Trying to capture a trend while it’s trending and delivering it well is not easy. Certain companies are better positioned to do it as they have achieved a certain scale. Making your own oat milk cold brew is expensive to create with minimums and R&D costs. Capitol is a difficult thing to access to play at this level. Retort lines don’t exist everywhere.  


Jake: Thoughts on Barista Unions?   

Jeff: Unions are about human dignity. The question is, are workers’ and union interests always aligned? Unions have to remain viable and in order to do that, they need to become more extreme over time.  

Interview by Jake Leonti

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