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Coffee
With A Cause

BY LARRY LUXNER

Veteran coffee roaster thinks the 40-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba is illogical, impractical and immoral.

That's why Katzeff, c.e.o. of Thanksgiving Coffee Co. in Fort Bragg, California, recently launched a new line of beans called "End the Embargo Coffee." The brand, which retails in selected U.S. specialty shops for roughly $9 per 12-oz. package, brazenly features a picture of revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara in his trademark beret, along with a photo of Fidel Castro embracing Pope John Paul II and six paragraphs of text explaining why the embargo is morally bankrupt.

Yet for all his idealism, Katzeff isn't stupid.

The 64-year-old New York native, whose company made a name for itself in the 1980s by circumventing the U.S. embargo on Nicaraguan coffee, says he has no intention of violating the law by attempting to import Cuban coffee beans.

As a result, the coffee inside bags of "End the Embargo Coffee" actually comes from Nicaragua, Mexico and Guatemala, countries that "have also endured the effects of unjust U.S. economic policies."

"My purpose is not to risk everything I've worked for over 30 years. That would be absurd," Katzeff said. "The point is that someday, there will be Cuban coffee in that package."

So what's the difference between defying U.S. law during the Reagan years and defying it today?

"When I broke the embargo on Nicaragua," he explains, "there was a loophole, and I used it. The loophole was that if you shipped green Nicaraguan coffee to another country like Canada and they roasted it there, the product became Canadian. Under the Helms-Burton Act [a controversial 1996 law which significantly tightens trade sanctions against Cuba], that loophole has been closed."

Thanksgiving Coffee, founded 30 years ago, roasts a million pounds of coffee annually from 15 countries, but has been marketing "End the Embargo" coffee only since 1998.

"This project was developed by a team of four interns that I took on one summer from four different colleges: Stanford, Oberlin, Bennington and UC Santa Cruz," recalled Katzeff. "One of our projects was to bring awareness to U.S. consumers on Cuba issues. So these four students created 'End the Embargo Coffee.' They started the idea from scratch and linked us to Global Exchange, which was the first benefactor of this project. So for the first three years, Global Exchange received 15 cents for every package we sold."

About a year ago, Thanksgiving Coffee made a switch and decided to promote a different organization: the US-Cuba Sister Cities Association (USCSCA). This non-profit group has helped 14 municipalities ranging from Mobile, Alabama, to East Hampton, New York, establish sister-city relationships with similar-sized cities across Cuba - despite intense pressure from Cuban exiles who accuse such groups of giving the Castro regime credibility.

"Why doesn't he send his money instead to an organization that wants to get rid of Fidel Castro? Then there wouldn't be an embargo," suggests Leonor Gavinia-Valls, vice-president of F. Gavinia & Sons in Vernon, California. In 1960, at the age of 8, she was forced to flee Cuba when the Castro regime nationalized Cuba's coffee industry and took over her family's extensive coffee holdings.

"Having a picture of Che on the label is completely out of line," adds Gavinia-Valls, a past-president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). "He was a communist, and there's no freedom whatsoever in Cuba."

The Gavinia family isn't alone in its resentment of Katzeff and his political leanings.

In 2000, the SCAA - by then under Katzeff's direction - reached an agreement with the U.S. Agency for International Development to help improve the quality of coffee beans in Third World countries.

"When Jesse Helms found out that I was president of the SCAA," said Katzeff, "he directed USAID not to sign the memorandum if my signature was going to be on the document."

But, like Castro himself, the aging revolutionary is unlikely to be dissuaded.

"I get irate calls from South Florida all the time," he says. "I tell these people that isolating Cuba is not the answer. They're only hurting their own families."

Adds Johanna Schultz, the company's director of social and environmental policy: "I heard through the USCSCA that a woman walked into a store in Wisconsin and started crying hysterically when she saw the image of Che Guevara. She thought he was a terrorist. They had to take her into a back room to calm her down."

Schultz says that only encourages her company.

"It's good to get a reaction because it gets people thinking," she says. "Since we can't import Cuban coffee directly, we're using it as an awareness tool to educate customers about the embargo on Cuba, and get them questioning why can't we have Cuban coffee in the U.S."

Thanksgiving sells around 30,000 packages of "End the Embargo" Coffee a year. That translates into roughly $200,000 at wholesale prices, and $270,000 at the retail level.

"These are in the top 15 of our packaged coffees," says Katzeff, who has a master's degree in social work and runs the $5 million company with his wife, Joan, and 53 employees. He said around 60% of Thanksgiving's customers are in northern California, with the other 40% spread across the nation.

"Coffee is one of the best mediums for carrying a message. It's America's national drink," he explained. "A long time ago, when we were breaking the embargo on Nicaraguan coffee, Daniel Nunez, president of Nicaragua's national farm workers union, told me he wanted the coffee to be as sweet as the revolution. But you cannot sell a revolution on junk. You must have good coffee."

To satisfy his largely upscale, socially responsible market, Katzeff offers three varieties of certified organic, shade-grown coffees: dark roast, light roast and decaffeinated. All are cultivated without the use of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers and harvested by small farmers' cooperatives in Nicaragua, Guatemala and southern Mexico.

"Cuban coffee is excellent, like the quality of Cuban cigars. But that's deteriorated, and now the best cigars in the world come from the Dominican Republic," he says. "On the other hand, Cuba's coffee potential is phenomenal. The climate hasn't changed. The soil hasn't changed. And it's all organic."

Someday, Katzeff would like to enter into its own twinning agreement with coffee cooperatives in the province of Santiago de Cuba, allowing Thanksgiving to not only serve as a corporate sponsor of USCSCA, but also to help develop a sustained relationship with counterparts on the island.

"When the embargo is over, I want to be there. Right now, my objective is to show those cooperatives that I'm willing to risk something on their behalf," says Katzeff, adding that his project director, Nick Hoskins, has been to Cuba many times, and that his company has already begun developing contacts in Cuba's coffee-growing regions.

"I'm not doing this to make money. We really believe in this," he says. "This company's history as an icon for social justice and environmental sensitivity is long and deep. We're trying to create models that other companies can use and benefit from."

Larry Luxner, a regular contributor to the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal, is editor and publisher of CubaNews, a monthly newsletter on political and economic developments in Cuba. He can be reached via e-mail at larry@luxner.com


Tea & Coffee - October/November 2002
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