This year, Peace Coffee celebrates its 20th year in fair trade coffee. Throughout its history, the Minnesota-based company has expanded from one roaster to two, delved into the retail space, and added two locations. But one thing still remains the same: its focus on creating great tasting, ethically sourced coffee that supports the coffee farmer. With values centered on quality, community, sustainability, transparency, and individuality, CEO Lee Wallace talks about how those values have evolved and what’s next for Peace Coffee.
The Growler: How would you say Peace Coffee has changed over the years?
Lee Wallace: We have over 50 people now. That’s always different as we grow, expand, and try to fit into our new size. I don’t think that’s really changed the overall spirit of the company, but you definitely have to figure out how to continue to be a good employer and find better systems to talk to more employees.
I also think our reach has expanded. When I started working here 10 years ago, people didn’t always know who we were. Now, it’s just great to see that people have a lot more awareness. Our work still isn’t done. We’re still getting the word out there to people about who we are, what we do and that we’re a Minnesota-based company.
G: How would you say the mission and values have evolved since the company started?
LW: I think, if you look back at the first business plans for Peace Coffee, the idea was to import a variety of products. I don’t think we had a really strong brand, and I think we’ve figured out how to be more focused and disciplined and just focus on coffee farmers.
G: How do you manage to continually expand without sacrificing the values and mission of Peace Coffee?
LW: We’re really focused on the fact that our job is to buy more coffee from coffee farmers. We partner with communities that have co-ops in them that have a vision for how to make that community a better place. If you go and talk to a coffee farmer, they’ll always tell you that there’s always more coffee to be sold. Our core value is figuring out how to buy more coffee from coffee farmers, and I think the other piece of that is being a good employer and a good community member. Those are just built into our DNA. I get asked this question a lot, and I think it’s really about the fact that we were started as a social enterprise with a focus on these things. It’s never been a question for us. It’s never an either/or. It’s just that we believe you can do both—grow and have values. That’s what we’re created to do: to show you can do both.
A big part of that is being one of Minnesota’s first public benefit corporations. What’s been really interesting is that though we used to be kind of quirky, the rest of the world has caught up with us. We say we exist to benefit small-scale coffee farmers. I think in a lot of ways we’re on trend in a way that we didn’t used to be.
G: Fair trade has become this big buzzword in coffee. There’s this third wave of coffee, focusing on sourcing. How is Peace Coffee different from other fair trade rosters or ethically-centered coffee companies?
LW: That one’s super easy for me! The big thing to know about our business model—and it’s technical and wonky—is that we actually own the importing organization we use to get our coffees here. To my knowledge, there’s really no other coffee roaster, unless they are extremely big and do it all in-house, that can claim that they actually buy their coffees as directly as we do. We established that co-op company in 1999 in Minnesota, and there are 23 coffee companies that own this importer together. The goal is really to be as strategic, thoughtful, and focused as possible. Then, the question is how do you import coffee in the most ethical way possible? We’re all very aligned around that, so it’s great. We’re not running this company to finance anybody’s college education or anything like that. We’re literally able to drive as much money into farmers’ hands as possible.
It’s also the fact that we’ve been doing this for so long. We have logged hundreds upon thousands of hours of conversations around what’s working, and what’s not working. We get regular updates from our producer partners. We’re just experienced at this, and I think that sets us apart from anybody who’s getting into the business today.
G: How do you see Peace Coffee continuing to drive the conversation around coffee and coffee farmers? What’s in store for the next 20 years?
LW: We’re going to continue to find new ways to support small-scale farmers. We’re focused on getting high quality, fairly traded, organic coffee into more people’s hands. We’ve been expanding into grocery throughout the upper Midwest, and it’s really exciting that more people are interested in knowing where their food comes from and having transparency.
More from inside Peace Coffee HQ:
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