Building Trust Along the Specialty Coffee Supply Chain

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece titled, How to Get More People to Choose Specialty Coffee. For as long as I have been in the coffee industry, this question has been at the forefront of many a conversation. And—even at times when it’s not overtly stated—the issue of attracting more people to specialty lingers quietly beneath the surface of everything we as coffee professionals do. We want to share what we love with more people. We want and need to grow our businesses—more buyers, more customers, more readers, more money, more listeners. And, we desire to have a greater impact on coffee and the world—wherever we find ourselves along the supply chain. But, sometimes it seems like our efforts to get more have the opposite effect and we feel stuck fighting an uphill battle.

As I surmised in my article, I believe the way to get more people to choose specialty coffee is by putting the focus on building trust. The reality is, most people don’t want to think about our area of expertise as deeply as we do. So instead, we need to carefully build a mechanism—one action at a time— that allows our guests, customers, or clients to be comfortable and willing to defer their choices about coffee to us. Yes, building trust across the coffee counter between the barista and guest is hugely important, but trust is just as critical at every other juncture in the coffee supply chain—from the human who plants the seeds, to the human who makes the cups.

Trust is a human to human solution that sounds basic, but it turns out that trust is a very complex topic—what exactly does trust mean? Don’t we have it already? If not, how do we define and build trust?

Currently, I see many of the trends and community movements in specialty coffee as efforts to understand and establish trust. Importers and roasters are beginning to share pricing transparency reports which disclose they are paying fair (or fairer) prices to farmers and/or producers. This is both a way for a business to be more communicative with customers and an invitation to other roasters and importers to step up to the plate. Conversations around diversity and inclusion as well as women in coffee are also indirectly tackling trust. How can we trust the leadership to make sound decisions on our behalf if it doesn’t represent our membership? Including more voices in the conversation ultimately produces solutions we can collectively have confidence in. Blockchain is another hot topic in coffee and also a great example—our industry is adopting this technology with the end goal of traceability and accountability along the supply chain. In other words, blockchain is a tool to help facilitate building trust between us.

In an effort to explore this topic deeper, I was compelled to reach out to 10 people that I respect and trust in the specialty coffee industry and ask them each to weigh in on the topic at hand as it relates to their work. They all answered three questions that go roughly like this—

  • How do you choose who you work with?

  • What steps do you take to build trust with your clients?

  • What are your thoughts on building trust along the coffee supply chain?

I compiled the resulting series of interviews on a dedicated page on this site named, Coffee Trust Project. My hope is to keep this project rolling and open to anyone who would like to contribute their voice to the conversation (…if that’s you, please don’t hesitate to send me a message!).

As you read through the Q & A’s you will see some themes emerging around the topic of trust: taking a leap of faith, communication, time, relationship building, delivering on promises, transparency, quality, managing expectations, making mistakes, and consistency. To me, all of the interviews reveal one detail about trust that is incredibly important—it takes a significant amount of effort, time, and intentionality to build and earn trust. Showing up is a start, but it’s not enough in itself. How we show up matters.

I also hope this project is as much of an inspiration to you as a reader as it has been for me. I am so grateful for each and every person who took the time to contribute to making it possible. Ironically, it took much longer than I had originally communicated to bring this collection of interviews to life. Alas, I hope that I did right by all of the participants and presented their words in a way that increases their confidence (and trust!) in participating in projects like this in the future. As I am building my coffee career, I am getting a daily (often humbling) education in trust building myself—there are lots of places where I can do better. That said, I can think of no greater goal to work toward in my life—personally and professionally—than making effort to understand and take action toward building trust.