Olympia Coffee's Fair For All Program: An Interview with Honor Forte
Olympia Coffee Roasting Co. has long been a Seattle Coffee Gear favorite amongst the roasters featured on our website and in our subscription service, supplying our customers with dynamic single-origin offerings and fantastic blends. Beyond just their delicious coffee, the company has challenged themselves to provide the best working conditions and wages possible to all people involved in the creation of their product through a new program called Fair For All.
We met with Olympia Coffee's Director of Sales, Honor Forte, to chat more about Fair For All and how it will affect those involved in the farming and processing of their coffees, as well as what customers can expect with the implementation of the program!
Thanks for sitting down today, Honor. Can you share what you do for Olympia Coffee Roasters?
I am Director of Sales for the company, so I help any of our wholesale partners. Anybody that’s not our coffee shops that serves our coffee, I help them through onboarding and getting connected with training. I do consulting to help people build their bars efficiently, using the experience from our own four coffee shops—soon to be five. I do outside sales. So, finding new clients and directing inquiries to become partners. And I also do daily marketing. Not so much our big marketing plans, but I do our Instagram posts or interact with magazines or publications that maybe need photos of us or whatever else.
I studied photography and printmaking—that’s what my degree is in. I just love photography and want to do that, so I basically do that because I love talking about the brand of Olympia Coffee and I love taking photos. It puts a creative element into my daily life, which I like.
So, you went to school for Photography and Printmaking. Where did coffee come in to play?
I sort of got recruited for a coffee shop job. I knew the person who was hiring baristas. This was 2008, and I just had a normal coffee job. I liked it. It was fun. But it wasn’t a career path or anything like that. I don’t think I had a career path or plan or anything at that point. (laughs)
I went to Philadelphia after going to school in West Virginia and started working at a place called Ultimo Coffee that served Counter Culture at the time. I learned a lot really fast and realized I wanted to work for a roaster, someone that was sourcing green coffee in a Direct Trade model. That was really appealing to me. At the time I thought, “Direct Trade is the name of the game in coffee right now. Who’s doing it?” That brought me to a point where I became aware of Olympia Coffee and what sort of things they were trying to pioneer in Direct Trade.
When I was looking at where I wanted to go work, Olympia had just been bought by two of its employees—Sam and Oliver, the owners. They were moving towards a 100% Direct Trade model. Their goal was to get to a place where every single coffee they sourced was Direct Trade. They were in a small, appealing town. They had a lot of things going for them. I also really liked that it was baristas who bought the company, managed by people who came from the bottom of the company, up.
I moved out to Olympia in 2011 and started as a barista, moved into delivery driving and sales, and now I’m Director of Sales seven years later.
You talked about Direct Trade. Olympia is introducing a Direct Trade requirement called “Fair For All.” What exactly is that, especially for those who may just think of it as Fair Trade?
That’s one of the first things we talked about: is this just going to evoke images of Fair Trade? We think the answer to that is yes, and that’s good. Customers are so familiar with it and think so highly of it, we think it’s okay for people to think about that.
Let’s talk about Direct Trade. It’s this awesome thing that happened in the industry as we moved away from this idea of working with huge co-ops and having coffees blended together. Fair Trade was a response to unfair values, slave labor, and people being taken advantage of at farm levels. But Fair Trade has always been limited to co-ops, big groups of people, and also has set values. There aren’t necessarily scales that depend on how high the quality of the coffee is.
Direct Trade is a response to that. It’s awesome. What Olympia Coffee has been doing for the last seven years is building relationships to create new coffees at the farm level and pay prices appropriate to the quality level of that coffee. That’s resulted in us paying more that double Fair Trade prices to all of our coffee farmers. We crossed a point in 2016 where one hundred percent of our coffees, including our decaf, were Direct Trade. That’s where every single coffee in our lineup is built from the ground up, with the coffee farmer, paid at more than double Fair Trade price, and with continued partnerships existing around those coffees. We return year after year to build new coffees or new systems in place to make that relationship better with the farmer.
If you would’ve asked me two years ago—this is the dream. You know people aren’t being taken advantage of and farmers have an opportunity to grow a better quality of life through working with our company. They have incentives to want to increase the quality of their coffee to make more money.
Oliver, our green coffee buyer, started to see a breakdown into who was still left out of this story. That’s what Fair For All answers. Fair For All is our commitment to work not just with coffee farmers, but also with laborers. This includes coffee pickers, coffee processors—any hand that has a role in creating one of our products. We want to make sure that those people are making sustainable wages.
A really easy to understand example is that a Geisha can go for more than $50 per pound as opposed to a more traditional coffee at $2-4 per pound. But the people who actually picked that Geisha varietal might be making a less than sustainable wage at the farm. So, we’ve always incentivized farmers, farm owners, and co-ops wards to create higher quality coffee. But we’ve really left a whole group of people out of the story as an industry. So Fair For All is us creating written and verbal agreements depending on the culture and the location where we say we aren’t going to purchase coffees where people were taken advantage of in any part of the creation of that product.
How is the quality control maintained when these farms are all over the world?
We’ve already visited our coffee farmers for years. Since 2016, one of our standards of Direct Trade is that we visit each of our farmers at least once a year. So we’re already aware and in contact with those farmers. We will now guarantee a sustainable minimum wage to all laborers involved in the production of our coffees (pickers, processors, and farm workers), set seasonally with the farm owner or cooperative board.
The thing that makes this possible, I think, is a lot of our exporting partners—people like Caravela in Colombia—are on the ground there to uphold the things we are requiring. They’re the ones that are there all year round saying, “Olympia Coffee wants to pay this amount of money if the people you hire are paid this amount. Can you agree to that?” They are basically upholding our vision.
It takes a lot of infrastructure worldwide to be able to do these things. But we’re at a point now where we know all of our partners, and the seven countries we work in regularly (nine we’ve worked in during the last year), have these processes in place to ensure these systems move forward. We can say a coffee is Fair For All and know that is true.
The other thing that I haven’t said is that we will only work with farmers who provide safe working conditions free of unnecessary danger, oppression, and violence and with access to clean water and healthy food.
How has it been received by the people you’re working with?
A thing worth clarifying is that we started this essentially last year. We didn’t have the term Fair For All nor did we know how to communicate it with the public, but we’re already in the middle of releasing a lot of coffees that are Fair For All. They already meet these standards because these things have already been in place. Especially in places like Colombia where there is a ton of infrastructure and traceability. It’s just a matter of really communicating our goals and what we’re looking for in places like Kenya or Ethiopia, where we are working with really big groups of people and co-ops. They are a little bit harder to trace what’s happening and I’m guessing that Kenya and Ethiopia will be some of the last coffees to go Fair For All in our program since we’re not working with as many small, individual farms. I think it’s going to be more complicated than it is “hard.” People aren’t responding badly to it, because once again we pay more than double the Fair Trade price for our cheapest coffees.
We’re interested in really incentivizing these things so that no one feels like they are being taken advantage of. It’s not just another regulation. We want to pay appropriately for these coffees.
I feel like I’m constantly seeing Olympia Coffee being recognized in different publications. You guys were just on National Geographic’s website, you’ve been all over Sprudge. It really shows that all of the effort that you guys are putting in to your programs is worthwhile, but that’s been happening for years. I guess a question that I have is why? Why add this next step, especially as you guys continue to scale larger? What drives you to want integrate a program like this that could be seen as more challenging?
That’s a great question. You know—we always view ourselves as a quality of life company. Anytime we’re asking “Should we do this? Should we do that?” in any sort of planning meetings, we’re always talking about quality of life for farmers, staff, and customers. I’ve found it to be true that Olympia Coffee’s ownership, management, sales team, anyone onboard really—the decisions we make to exist the way we do come down to better quality of life for all people involved. So I really think that this is just another way that we can move forward in improving the quality of life for more people with our products. And that’s really cool to me.
Beyond the official word, honestly I think Oliver and Sam (the owners of Olympia Coffee) really just want to create a better world and want to look at their company and know that they are making decisions that are really good for the people around them. We are ultimately a corporation that exists to thrive. We have to make money. We’re a business. But all wrapped up in that is the desire to really benefit the people that we work with.
I’m convinced of that more and more. I’ve been with Olympia Coffee for almost seven years. The whole time I’ve been there, when I see Oliver and Sam presented with questions about where Olympia should invest itself to better specific things at the farm level, I’m always really proud of the decision that are made. Even if it costs us more. Even if it costs us profits. All I can say is that I really think they want their company to be something they’re proud of.
They are going to see labels on our bags that say “Fair For All” instead of Direct Trade. We’ve decided to move away from using the phrase “Direct Trade” just to simplify it and give people one thing that they can trust and know exactly what it means. Fair For All encapsulates everything that we want to be. Our goal is that every single coffee that we offer will fall under the Fair For All program.
I don’t think prices are going to increase. This is really a system of verifying what has already been happening at a lot of our coffee farms versus adding a new price level. What you’re going to have as a customer is more traceability and clarity on what you’re buying rather than a higher price.
Right on. What exciting coffees are coming down the pipeline that people can expect to see soon?
Our very first Fair For All coffee was roasted on January 22nd. That coffee is called Colombia Aldemar Rodriguez. It is a micro lot from a single producer in Colombia. It’s very traceable already, so we’re able to have it meet our Fair For All standards because we know this person. Aldemar has created coffee specifically for Olympia Coffee and his micro lot is fully traceable by Caravela in Colombia. After that you’re going to see a string of several micro lots in Colombia that all meet our Fair For All standards and are labeled as such. All of them from single producers. All of them scoring more than 90 points on Coffee Review.
Beyond that our Colombia San Sebastian Resereva, which is a product we have about 80% of the year, is also meeting Fair For All standards but is not labeled as such yet—because it’s brand new. And then slowly throughout the year, we are going to add that to all of the coffees we can verify. Hopefully within the year you’ll see it in the entirety of our line.
Burundis are here too and are also Fair For All from Long Miles Coffee Project. You might see those in coffee competitions through out the year as people often compete with our Burundis.