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Calvin alumni in the coffee business will tell you there’s a whole lot more to the industry than finding a corner far enough away from Starbucks.
There’s deciding what beans to use, how to roast those beans and seeing that the hands that grew them aren’t left empty.
These five baristas, roasters and distributors shared their stories of making a living by coffee, through the filter of Faith.
Kevin Kuyers ’81 met his Kenyan business partners, James and Philip Gitao, in 1998 through Partners for Christian Development, a spin-off of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee. The organization links Christian business people from the United States and Canada with their counterparts around the world.
“They wanted to get their coffee into the U.S. and I wanted a business of my own, so we hired a marketing company and did a lot of research,” said Kuyers, who studied business at Calvin for two years. In Kenya, the Gitaos own the Theta Country Estate farm. Since it sits on a ridge, the two decided to name the business Theta Ridge Coffee Company. Kuyers then imports green coffee beans—the product’s raw form—from the farm to sell to roasting companies of all sizes.
John Van Tongeren’s entrance into the coffee industry was less premeditated.
“I didn’t know anything about coffee or nuts,” Van Tongeren said. While he, too, arrived on the Burton Street campus with a business degree in mind, graduating in 1978, Van Tongeren never wanted to be a corporate professional.
A former owner of Ferris Coffee & Nut asked Van Tongeren and his wife to jump into the coffee business and take over the company upon his retirement. They bought the business in 1985.
“I wasn’t a guru of coffee and yet God put me in the coffee business,” Van Tongeren said.
Founded in 1924, Ferris had already made its mark, having grown a large customer base by the time the Van Tongerens came around. Even though specialty coffee wasn’t big in 1985, the couple “fell in love with it”.
Ferris handles the growing, roasting, and distribution of their beans, selling to offices, grocery stores, restaurants, coffee houses, distributors and convenience stores in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.
Thetaridge, Ferris doesn’t farm the beans, instead buying coffee
green by spreading its business around the world to producers in every
country coffee is grown, said Van Tongeren. Ferris then processes the
coffee in this country.
There is a widespread belief in the industry that the tastiest brew burbles through Arabica beans. When they are ground, most industry experts say, the beans release a sweet, mellow flavor. The more acidic Robusta, the other major bean, is better known for its bitter aftertaste.
Chris Postmus, owner of C&S Coffee in Hudsonville, said the water we pour into coffeemakers can make or break a good cup of Joe. Bad pipes and high chlorine content can influence coffee’s taste for the worse. Postmus had time to consider the importance of good water for coffee making the time he installed a coffeemaker in a Grand Rapids Public Schools office, housed in the old Calvin library on the Franklin Street Campus about six years ago.
“I punctured a pipe and water shot straight out at me and continued to shoot out for about an hour while I sat with my finger over the hole,” Postmus said. “We couldn’t find a plumber.”
The plumbers did not leave the valve for shutting off the water intact, and a drenched Postmus hadn’t the proper tools to do it.
“It didn’t dribble it shot out straight at me. It wasn’t funny at the time.”
Luckily, the GRPS staff was not moving into the office until the next day. By that time, Postmus “had it all taken care of.”
After graduating from Calvin in 1986 with a business major, Postmus got an internship with Stewart Coffee in Chicago. Today, he runs his distribution business out of his home. He said it just “fell into his lap” after initially hoping to be a sales representative for the company.
“After graduation, job-wise, there wasn’t anything coming up,” Postmus said. “Stewart suggested a coffee business in Grand Rapids because, hey, people always drink coffee.”
C&S, a Stewart distributor, sells varying blends of organic, French roast, Colombian and flavored coffees to offices across West Michigan. On his client calls, Postmus meets different people while cleaning coffee machines and pots and setting them up with another cycle. This is one of his favorite parts of the business.
“It gives me an opportunity to talk to people. I’ve had people tell me their whole life story before,” Postmus said. “It gives me an opportunity to share my faith and the hope I have, which is especially good in the times we're living in.”
Although four Calvin alumni founded Four Friends Coffeehouse in 1994, current owner-alum Suzi Bos wasn’t one of them. What she does have in common, says Bos, is her view that the venture gives her the opportunity to tell and show people what she stands for.
“We try to be a place where anybody is welcome,” Bos said. “Homeless people spend a lot of time here. Technically, that’s not good for business. We’ve had people say they won’t come here. But [homeless people] need a place to come, too.”
Taking classes at Calvin, Bos, 24, plied her trade at the downtown coffee shop for a year and a half as a barista. In 1998, the owners asked her to take the reins. “I was 20 at the time and I didn’t think it’d be possible, but I really wanted to do it. I loved working here. I loved everything about it.”
Bos was pursuing a degree in business and communications when she left to run Four Friends. Since then, she’s gotten a hands-on education in the delicate business of coffee. Discovering where to get the best beans was Bos’ first lesson.
“We get our coffee from the West Coast for a reason,” said Bos, who claims distributors there offer the top product. “I think people can tell if brewed coffee is really good or really bad, but not so much in the middle. We want to be exceptional.”
Four Friends taps distributor Kobos Coffee out of Portland for basic brews and D’Arte Espresso in Seattle for espresso-based drinks. “Our roasters are from Italy. A lot of Europeans will come in and say it’s the only coffee they’ve had since they left home that they like,” Bos said.
From roasting to brewing, espresso leaves a lot more room for error—and that makes—a good espresso a rarer commodity than a good coffee, Bos said.
Bos’s main cast of patrons, downtown business people and college students, sometimes order their favorite espresso drinks from other coffee shops. Bos’s crew politely asks what the drink consists of and concoct their own version. A chalkboard of the most popular requests, given clever names, hangs behind the counter.
Greta Schuil ’81 wasn’t trying to forget hometown Grand Rapids during her East Coast years. She was just looking to change jobs. The daughter of a gourmet foods businessman, Schuil grew up with exposure to people and foods from all over the world.
After a 10-year stint in Boston following graduation, Schuil assumed the lead role of Schuil Coffee, founded by her parents two decades earlier. The coffee heir—who has petted the burro of coffee icon Juan Valdez—buys beans from Central and South America, Africa, Jamacia and other coffee-growing regions. Schuil uses Arabica botanical beans exclusively. That’s rare among coffee companies: most use at least a small percentage of Robusta, she says.
Schuil’s main customers are grocery stores, coffeehouses, offices, schools and restaurants throughout the Midwest. During her Calvin days, she studied English literature, crediting former professors Henrietta Ten Harmsel and Stanely Wiersma with her later success. “They believed in me and told me whatever I wanted to do in life, I could do,” Schuil said.
Perhaps it was educators like these who encouraged the future coffee-hawkers to be discerning business people. Each alum is careful to keep the chain from grower to consumer a clean one, trying to ensure the farmers at the end of the bean trails are financially happy ones.
Yet a growing gulf exists between growers and Western retailers in a coffee market experts agree is depressed. “It’s sad in the world of coffee right now,” Kuyers said. “Prices are so low they don’t even cover what it takes to grow coffee.”
Coffee kingdoms like Starbucks buy beans at the commodity price, when the actual cost of growing, picking, washing and exporting the beans can be more than twice that, they say. Such companies deal with massive amounts of already cheap beans—to the point they can control farmers and set prices. By roasting the beans very dark, the character of the coffee is destroyed, and the poor taste gets masked by over-roasting, Schuil says. There’s no point in buying high-end beans if they are going to be destroyed, she adds. To this extent, big companies have created their own problem.
“People have enough choice on where to get beans,” Postmus said. “It’s market driven: If they can pay 80 cents per pound rather than $2, some people will do that.”
All of the companies
mentioned here deal only with high-end Arabica coffee beans, which always
require the price farmers need to sell their crop, making it a “fair
Bos said federal labeling is mandatory starting in October, flagging whether or not coffee meets fair-trade standards. Four Friends’ distributor, Kobos, carries some fair-trade coffees, but Bos says not all fair-trade products amount to quality coffee. “It’s hard to find a company that is good quality and really active in fair trade. We really struggled with it.”
The Specialty Coffee Association of America, a guild assembled of the majority of the nation’s vendors is pushing for heightened industry awareness of what farmers are earning. Bos said a conference two years ago focused on fair trade. In coming years, she said, the SCAA will implement and enforce substantial improvements throughout the U.S. industry.
Now in the thick of a retail season where everyone seems to be holding a logo-clad paper cup with the familiar plastic lid and oh-so-necessary Java Jacket, it’s easy to forget the questionable practices underpinning the many species of our beloved black potion.
But hope is sprouting slowly for those on the less lucrative side of the coffee industry with the likes of these coffee sellers nourishing awareness in their own small corners of the kingdom.
“It’s a lot of work, but I love it. I meet people from all over the world,” Schuil said. “Coffee is such an interesting product. There’s never a day I don’t learn something. Once in a while I have one, but not very often.”
— Melissa Kruse is a freelance writer for the Grand Rapids Press.