Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Company Spotlight- Middlefork Roasters

My first company profile is about a great company that is near and dear to me, Middlefork Roasters.  On the surface, to you, the consumer, they are just another specialty coffee company, and in Seattle, they seem to be a dime a dozen. Coffee is sort of a big deal up here, not sure if you've heard. However, when you meet Matt and Macky, the co-owners, you realize they are the perfect example of small business owners living for their passion, and from day one I have tried my best to support them.
Coffee is a funny commodity.  It doesn't really provide calories or any nutritional value, and it is not widely consumed in the areas is grown. It also takes a lot of water to grow relative to other crops. So, it may not seem like the greatest thing ever for a locavore or environmentalist to consume. However, the coffee industry has some good things going for it, such as shade growth for birds, widespread sustainable farming practices, and the ability to participate in fair trade and organic certifications.  It also provides work for thousands of bean freaks, eager to share their philosophy on bean characteristics and roasting techniques.  Moderate consumption of coffee also has shown significant health benefits (with admittedly, some risks).  Overall, I think we can admit that coffee is pretty awesome and if we all had to choose one luxury in our attempts at being more disciplined coffee would be a popular choice.
So, accepting coffee as acceptable, the important thing to look for is generally a fair trade and organic label, right? Well, keep in mind that these labels are purchased by the farmer as well as the processing facility, and while oversight on these claims is important, it is not comprehensive.  The USDA won't certify something organic out of the goodness of its heart.  And in fact, it is illegal for any company that may be purchasing organically grown coffee to say that if the company or the farm is not certified. So, while it's understandable that the certification process can be costly, the regulations are asking the people with the least amount of discretionary income to fork out cash they don't have in order to secure your peace of mind as the consumer.  As far as I know, there aren't any grant opportunities or programs to ease this burden on new startups.  Then suddenly, you are wondering if these regulations are a result of large companies lobbying to block the threat of entry into the market? That is a fanatic insinuation, however, and has no factual backing.

So the alternative here is to embrace the small.  In most cases I think we can assume cheap and crappy is more or less covered by the economies of scale, so this is where Middlefork steps in.  They don't have the buying power to compete with Millstone or Starbucks, so they are already paying at or above market value for their green beans, which is mostly what fair trade covers. They build relationships with farmers and assure the beans are grown sustainably.  They are constantly out in the community, sampling their product at grocery stores and farmer's markets, and creating custom blends for cafes.  They are building relationships, and creating a customer base that trusts they are doing the right thing.  Not to mention their outstanding work ethic and their devotion to their company.
Last month, Macky and Matt threw a benefit for the Red Cross for Japan relief.  Macky and their other associate Theresa are also camp counselors for children with diabetes.  In the six months I have known them I have personally witnessed them giving time, product or money to no less than four charitable causes, including donating to a cause I had solicited them for, without hesitation.  Their custom-built roaster is made to reduce emissions and exhaust than traditional roasters.  All four of them are charming, considerate talented fans of the Seattle area and their company, and that is worth more than looking for a seal on a bag.  They are a new company, less than three years old, and already have been able to attain high coffee standards.  They will, I am sure, obtain organic certification this year or next, but in the meantime I support their mission to deliver the best possible coffee to our homes and our cafes.
Middlefork is an example of how you can go to local roasters, farmer's markets and supermarket demos to build relationships with the people providing your commodities.  You can learn who to trust, and go beyond labels and marketing and price tags.
I am, by the way, in no way related to Middlefork, they have not paid me in cash or merchandise to write about them, and they will probably be embarrassed by this post when (if) they read it.  Having said that, Middlefork has the Conscious Consumer Seal of Approval, which is free.

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