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Redefining Quality: Bridging the Gap to 21st Century

In the market today, there are nuances in the definitions of quality that vary among different market sectors. Gerry LaRue, coffee buyer for Partners Coffee in Atlanta, Georgia points out that “For growers the term quality typically means the variety of coffee tree, the characteristics of the land on which it grows (soil and altitude), and the climate. For roasters, quality means a consistent product with no defects and that develops in the cup through roasting. For consumers, quality is value of a product that is predictable and good tasting. The roasters’ job is to tie grower aspirations to consumer expectations - to link these divergent definitions in the creation of a quality product - an increasingly complex job, which is made somewhat easier by experienced importer support.”

The experience of specialty coffee is what draws consumers. As Fulmer points out, “Consumers will go to a coffee shop and pay a per cup price that is many times more than the cost of brewing specialty coffee at home. It is the convenience, ambiance, and allure of specialty that customers are willing to pay for.”

From a consumer’s perspective of quality, there are often subjective elements that lie in their interpretations of a quality product, and increasingly these subjective elements involve environmental and social issues. This is where roasters can find flexibility to begin to work with changing consumer expectations to fit the long-term needs of the industry. Emerging market niches such as organic, shade grown, and fair trade coffees have given a growing number of companies a new quality definition and point of differentiation on which to compete.

Preparing seeds, Finca Pastores, Antigua, Guatamala
Depending on their particular market niche and company mission, companies can create an image of quality that incorporates various factors that appeal to its customers. For example, Peet’s Coffee adheres to strict quality standards for its “deep roast” beans. Other companies like Adam’s Organics, Taylor Maid Organics and Beantrees Café, among numerous other “organic-only” companies, have built their definition of quality around taste together with the environmental responsibility of organic production. Companies like Thanksgiving Coffee and Equal Exchange have created an image of quality based on taste in conjunction with social justice issues. Their success has been based on making quality coffees “with a conscience” more accessible to consumers, and then educating consumers about these issues - a recipe that has also proven successful in the European market for more than a decade.

Incorporating Sustainability & Social Responsibility

As the specialty industry arrives at the crossroads of the 21st Century, a truly comprehensive definition of quality is needed. No longer is it sufficient to offer just a good tasting brew under the banner of “specialty coffee.” Ted Lingle, SCAA’s executive director says that “all of us should realize that in the next millennium, good won’t be good enough anymore. If we are going to prosper as an industry in the future, we need to set our sights on a commitment to excellence and total quality, which encompasses quality of life, quality of the cup, and quality of the environment.”

While this kind of all-encompassing view seems far-fetched to many at present, it does resonate with a growing number of industry participants. “There is certainly cynicism over [this kind of statement], and support from many at origin as well as here in the U.S. At the beginning, specialty coffee didn’t originally fit into the mainstream either” recalls Fulmer, “and now it is the only segment where there is excitement and growth. Hopefully this idea will do the same.”

The true impact of this evolution toward total quality will come from specialty coffee businesses incorporating sustainability and social responsibility into every day transactions, not just as an afterthought. This means supporting growers in their businesses throughout the year, and as a complement, based on profits, making charitable donations to community development projects in coffee producing regions. In this way, the successes of the industry are shared across borders and make specialty coffee a win-win for all players for the long run.

This idea of total quality for specialty coffee may be an idea whose time has come. As Paul Katzeff, president of Thanksgiving Coffee believes, “The specialty industry is the caring part of the industry”, compared to the big commercial roasters. “When the SCAA board resolved, without deliberation, the theme of Bridge to the 21st Century - Quality, Sustainability and Social Responsibility for the 2000 conference,” he continues, “it was as if to choose our point of differentiation, and the difference between them and us is a caring component of sustainability and social responsibility. This will be the point of differentiation for the specialty coffee industry for the next century.”

Next month the series will look at sustainability issues for the specialty coffee industry.

Kimberly Easson is president of JavaVentures, a marketing consulting firm with a mission to strengthen the relationship between coffee producing and consuming countries. JavaVentures also offers educational coffee tours to Latin America and Hawaii, and tours to the U.S. for coffee producers. Kimberly has been an active coffee industry professional for more than eight years, four of which were spent in Costa Rica. She can be reached at: Tel., (415) 824-1484, Fax, (415) 264-8121, e-mail: keasson@javaventures.com.

Tea & Coffee - February/March 2000

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