May 23, 2017
If you've ever visited our warehouse, you may have noticed coffee bags with logos other than the "Sweet Maria's", or our sister wholesale business "Coffee Shrub" logos. These are the bag marks of exporters and importers who provide us with logistics services to get our coffees to the Port of Oakland.
A long time ago, we considered doing our own importation. It's not that difficult. But it can also be a major distraction when things go wrong. We realized after a few containers we arranged ourselves, that wrestling with the importation logistics wasn't worth the effort, or the risk. And those shipments were for merchandise over relatively easy transit lines, unlike the routes that serve coffee ports.
In brief, we find using coffee importers as "logistics service providers" allows us to focus our efforts on what we're good at, like selecting the best possible coffees we can. Plus, in the shipping world, volume counts. If we use an importer who is already moving many containers from a place like Colombia, buying coffee for their own "Spot" position (meaning, the coffee is not pre-sold, but available for purchase from a storage facility in the US), or bringing in coffee for bigger clients like Green Mountain or Starbucks, they have clout to get things moving promptly. What incentive does a shipping line like Maersk have to deal with our 1 container (40k lbs) versus 10 containers from Olam, Ecom, or Volcafe?
Importers write up contracts between us and the farmers we buy from, which helps manage financial risk at both ends of the transaction. For the farmers, they make sure the price we agree on for their coffee is paid. And for buyers like us, they make sure the coffee we select is not only shipped in a timely manner, but that the quality of the shipped coffee is on par with the original offer samples we taste.
Once the coffee is stateside, Importers handle the paperwork needed to pass inspection with government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration, United States Department of Agriculture, and Customs and Border Patrol. Coffee is a food product after all, and there are strict guidelines as to what foods can be imported. Employing the help of importers is crucial for us here, as they are experts in navigating the myriad of paperwork involved, ensuring all documentation, bills of lading, certificates of origin, and so on are in order to avoid any hold ups when our coffees land ashore.
This added link in the supply chain might seem to challenge the term "Direct Trade". But like many other small coffee merchants, the services handled by import and export companies are part of what allows us to meet the challenges of remaining relatively small. We buy most of our coffees direct, provide extensive lot info for each and every coffee, and ship orders as small as 1 lb of coffee locally, to pallets of coffee internationally, all with just a handful of individuals. So if you see the names "Olam", "Falcon", "Volcafe Specialty", and others printed on our bags, remember that it's these partners who allow us to do this work, and to do it well.
-Dan and Tom