Why Intelligentsia

Why Intelligentsia

This was a big year for me.  After nine years living and working overseas for a non-profit, I moved back to the United States to work for a coffee roaster.  The move prompted lots of questions from friends and colleagues, but three were most common.  I have answered the first two of them here over the past two weeks: Why the private sector? and Why Direct Trade?  Today I answer the third: Why Intelligentsia?

To start with, there is the company itself, which has built one of the very best Direct Trade models in coffee. Its relentless pursuit of quality has driven a series of signature innovations that make it a leader in the specialty sector: think Intelligentsia Direct Trade, In Season and the Extraordinary Coffee Workshop.  The restlessness that is baked into the company’s DNA keeps it constantly tinkering and fine-tuning: we will be refreshing our Direct Trade commitments in 2017.  As I have traveled throughout the United States over the past decade, I have visited countless places that speak the language of Direct Trade and seasonality and relationships that Intelli helped introduce to the specialty lexicon.  These places offer delicious coffees with sterling pedigrees and compelling storylines served with intentionality in beautiful spaces.  But after kicking the tires a bit and taking a good look under the hood, I came to find many of them lacking in horsepower.  The gleaming exteriors are seductive, but most of them seem to be built on the same chassis.  Intelligentsia is one of a small number of roasters that stripped the model down and rebuilt it from the cylinder block up.  The engine that drives the business today is uniquely Intelligentsia’s and is powered by relationships that embody what is best and truest about the Direct Trade narrative: long-term relationships based on mutual commitment to quality, transparency, clear incentives, risk-sharing and clear, constant communication.

Then there are the people in the Intelligentsia Direct Trade network, anchored by the inimitable Geoff Watts.  Geoff isn’t just a visionary who was one of the chief intellectual and material authors of the Direct Trade model.  He is also one of the most knowledgeable coffee people in the world. Few of the pioneers who built the Direct Trade model from its origins are still grinding at source the way Geoff is.  For more than 20 years, he has been traveling to established and emerging coffee origins around the world, building lasting relationships, hungrily gathering information and generously spreading the good word when he sees something insightful, inspiring or innovative.  He does for our collective understanding of coffee what bees do for its production — he carries ideas from one coffee field to another the way bees carry pollen, cross-pollinating our origin work, bringing the best available ideas to bear in every situation and catalyzing innovation.  When I was leading the Borderlands project in Colombia, I invited Geoff and other buyers with dog-eared passports to offer their advice precisely because there is so much to learn from road-weary coffee professionals who carry insight from one coffee origin to another.  The other important thing about Geoff is this: he is kind and patient and generous in sharing what he knows, and he has has helped to build a team of coffee buyers and a network of trading partners who work with the same selfless spirit.

Then there is the role itself: Director of Sourcing and Sustainability.  I can count on one hand the number of people I have met at coffee roasting companies who have direct responsibility for both sourcing and sustainability, and I have never met anyone who has led both functions.  Yet that is precisely the mandate for the role — to lead the buying team for one of the industry’s most iconic brands while building out a formal sustainability program.

Finally, there is the timing.  I arrived at the company less than a year after it was purchased by Peet’s.  On-boarding during an acquisition may not seem like a selling point, especially in a specialty coffee sector that embraces punk rock’s fierce anti-establishment creed, elevates all things indie, celebrates the DIY spirit, believes small is beautiful and reacts reflexively against consolidation and growth.  But the Peet’s investment and the mandate to grow one of the pioneering Direct Trade brands read like an opportunity to me — to help Intelli take its model of Direct Trade to a more meaningful scale, to test the limits of growth for a relationship-based approach to the coffee trade and to do so while getting more diligent about measuring inclusion and impact.

It all added up to a formidable challenge and an irresistible opportunity.