Innovating Context: Whole Bean Offerings

(This post is part of an ongoing series on the need to innovate the context in which we sell coffee. The first post is HERE)

Admittedly: I have never run a green coffee buying program, I have exactly zero Roasters Guild certifications, and I’ve never mastered the art of blending. This post, then, is more about ruminating, and hopefully, engaging a little conversation.


Roasters: I would like to suggest that many (not all!) progressive coffee roasters today are holding in their operating model two beliefs that cannot simultaneously be true, and are unnecessarily spending time and money trying to reconcile this impossible tension. These two beliefs are:

A: I have to carry coffee x ( where coffee x = dark roast, Sumatra, Hazelnut, any coffee you sell but wouldn’t drink. Many roasters have multiple examples of coffee x.) 
B: We have to help our customers learn about good coffee

On the face of it, these ideas don’t seem like they are at odds with one another, and I think many operations will readily admit that they subscribe to them both. We can pick them apart a little more, however. Presumably, roasters want to carry coffee x not because they are necessarily proud of coffee x, but because they can sell coffee x. After all, if you are carrying a coffee you aren’t proud of, and that coffee isn’t selling, you shouldn’t be reading this blog, you should be finding a new green broker. So let’s change idea A to:

A: I am carrying coffee x because my customers buy it

There’s nothing wrong with idea A – in fact, hopefully your customers buy all of your coffee – but I’d imagine there are coffees in your portfolio where sales alone are not the only factor – perhaps there is a compelling narrative, or a great direct trade relationship, or simply an astonishingly good cup. Idea A describes a coffee which you sell simply and solely because you know it will be purchased.


We can similarly break down idea B: it’s a complicated idea, after all – why do we want our customers to learn about good coffee? Well, probably because it tastes better, but also because it is a revenue source that is more meaningful – when you sell something you think is good, it feels good, rather than selling something because you think it will sell. So we can adjust idea B to something like:

B: I want my customers to buy good coffee, from me.

So our setup is now:

A: I am carrying coffee x because my customers buy it
B: I want my customers to buy good coffee, from me.

Remember: the definition of coffee x is a coffee you are not super excited about, but carry for its cash flow properties. I would suggest that the more examples of coffee x you have in your catalog, the farther away from achieving idea B you are. But I’m genuinely curious if this is a real tension that roasters experience: can you sell coffee you love and coffee you don’t love? How do you maintain a quality-centric brand while including your coffee x?

My suggestion would be to reject the Starbucks model of 18 blends and a few single origins, all of which are merely OK, and rather embrace a much smaller selection of SO’s and blends, all of which you’re excited about. I believe that this is possible and profitable when done well, even in small-market settings.

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One thought on “Innovating Context: Whole Bean Offerings

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