Rob Tuttle

Helping coffee farmers THRIVE.

By Hope S. Philbrick

A coffee movement rooted in Georgia is driving positive change for coffee farmers in Central America. Based in Roswell, THRIVE Farmers Coffee has built a revenue-sharing business model that exceeds fair trade to provide sustainable income for coffee farmers.

THRIVE’s mission is to connect the farmer to the consumer. Think farm-to-table coffee.

By connecting farmers to the market value of coffee, farmers earn five to ten times more in profits—all while quality goes up, costs go down.

In 2012, THRIVE Farmers sourced 328,000 pounds of coffee grown from Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica. With more than 400 farmers across six regions in three countries, Thrive Farmers is on track to represent every major coffee growing region in the world.

Rob TuttleWe chatted by phone with Rob Tuttle, THRIVE’s vice president and resident coffee expert to learn more.

After a successful career working for companies like Neiman Marcus and Home Depot you leapt into the world of coffee in 2003, opening your own coffee house. Lots of people like coffee, what made you take it to a whole other level?
Realizing how rich the world of coffee is and for the new challenges. With coffee there are so many different things to learn, it’s a never-ending pursuit.

How did you gain coffee expertise?
When I left corporate America, I was working at Ralph Lauren at the time. But I wanted to open a coffee shop. I didn’t know anything. Eleven months after writing a business plan I was open and in business. Once the shop was open I realized, ‘Wow, I don’t really know anything about coffee.’ So started my love affair with coffee and getting to know different things about it. That’s how the whole progression happened.

Why did you open your own coffee house? It’s such a competitive business.
Back in 2003 coffee shops were opening all over the place and it sounded like something fun to do. I wanted to be able to take that attention to detail that I learned in corporate America and mix it with passion. My wife said, ‘If you’re going to work 60 to 70 hours a week, you should love what you’re doing.’ I took it to heart. She was a big supporter.

That coffee shop is in the past, I don’t own it anymore. I moved into distribution and consulting and now work with Kenneth Lander and Alejandro Garcia at THRIVE. It was a chain of events.

You’re involved with the U.S. Barista Championship and the Specialty Coffee Association of America. What is the criteria for judging coffee?
Most people talk about flavor, but that’s only 10 percent of what we look for. The different criteria include fragrance/aroma, flavor, after-taste, acidity, body balance and then overall considerations like is the cup clean, is there uniformity? It’s the whole presentation.

Do you use that same criteria when choosing product for THRIVE?
When I’m judging coffee in terms of whether or not I’ll bring in product from that farmer, we do what we call cupping which involves certain procedures such as we put the grounds in a cup, pour water over the top and let it brew for four minutes then we move the grounds aside—they’re still in the cup—and taste that unfiltered.

Are baristas during competition serving black coffee or fancy drinks?
Each competing barista makes 12 drinks for four judges: They make four each of espresso, cappuccino and then a signature beverage, which is whatever that barista wants to do. They prepare and present all those drinks in a 15-minute time period. They’re judged on how coffee tastes, the other criteria we discussed, as well as professionalism and attention to detail, coffee knowledge and how well they work with the equipment.

It is a lot of fun.

There’s also a newer competition called the Brewers’ Cup. During a compulsory first round baristas are given coffee but they have no idea what it is, it’s kept a secret, but they have to brew it best they can. It’s a whole bean coffee and they’re judged according to how well they extract the coffee.

THRIVE press materials say that the company is “moving beyond Fair Trade.” For anyone who may not know, what is ‘fair trade’?
Fair trade is basically an insurance policy, it’s a ground level agreement that a farmer won’t receive less than X dollar amount no matter how low the market goes. Fair trade is set up so the farmer gets paid at least a little above what that floor level will be.

How is your approach different and better?
The difference we do is we let the farmer participate in the entire value chain, so when coffee comes in the farmer sends us the coffee and once we sell it roasted we split that revenue that comes in. So if we’re selling it online for $15 a pound, the farmer is getting $7.50 a pound—which is well above what they’d ever receive with any other type of business model.

Why hasn’t that 50/50 split been done before?
Because people didn’t think about it. It’s a totally new way to bring coffee in. Back in the days when it was first traded here in the U.S., coffee was set up as a commodity. So the way you brought in coffee was like a Wall Street type of thing with traders. Coffee was thought of as a regular commodity item. Eventually people started to see it more farmer-driven, but there was still an importer process and still middle men. We wanted to go the next level and make it truly a partnership with farmers. One of the best ways I like to describe the model is now coffee farmers are coming to market; we’re not telling farmers what to do, it’s farmers telling us what to do.

How long has THRIVE been operating?
About two years.

Is it going well?
Very well, yes.

Where can readers buy your coffee?

-Photos courtesy THRIVE Farmers Coffee

HopeP_144Hope S. Philbrick is founder and editor-in-chief of Getaways for Grownups. She became a freelance writer and editor because she believes that work and fun should not be mutually exclusive. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications nationwide. When not writing, she can usually be found on the road or savoring something tasty.

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