Monday, November 19, 2007

Seattle restaurateur spills the beans on the coffee industry

Saturday, November 17, 2007 staff

SEATTLE – Michael Hebberoy is known in the Pacific Northwest for his underground dining projects.

He operates One Pot, a roving restaurant of sorts that operates away from the eyes of health inspectors and serves meals in unexpected places, like abandoned Seattle garages and glass studios.

But a project with Seattle coffee roastery Caffé Vita is taking his dinner events as far away as Guatemala, Ethiopia and Brazil.

He's accompanying Vita on buying trips where the roastery is forging relationships with coffee farmers. Along the way, Hebberoy cooks for the locals, and gets them talking about the state of coffee in their country. He is documenting what he learns in an online media project that's just getting started. Through photos, video and journal entries, he aims to help coffee-drinkers learn a little more about where their favorite beverage comes from.

"For me, it's the opportunity to tell stories that aren't being told," he said. "(Coffee) is this great thing, well appreciated and a lot of us need it daily. It is also the second most valuable commodity traded on the planet next to oil … It comes from very war-torn, controversial, conflicted areas on the planet."
Caffe Vita has decided to buy its beans directly from the source, eliminating all coffee brokers and middlemen. This is important because, "there's sometimes anywhere between 10 and 15 hands that touch the coffee before it gets to final consumer," Hebberoy said. "It does a number of things in regards to quality."

Vita employees say the trips allow them to see the actual farms where the coffee is grown, how the workers are being treated, and whether the farmers are socially and ecologically responsible.

"We're able to pay them what they deserve without any money going to any other exporter or importer," said Daniel Shewmaker, a Vita employee who went on the trip to Guatemala.

Besides the Web site, Hebberoy plans to produce small books to distribute in coffee shops to tell the story.

The highlight of each visit is a dinner party he throws together, inviting all the players in the coffee trade – from writers and bankers to fair trade organizers, politicians and farmers. Once he rounds them up at the dinner table, he cooks with them. During the meal, he gets them talking.

In his journal, he describes the dinner party in Guatemala this way:

"The table erupted. the exporter had much to say. So did the Yale-educated granddaughter of a coffee baron, as did several of the more flush estate owners – the actual farmers were mostly quiet. The “vocal set” as we will call them ripped into the side of fair trade – denouncing it as a corrupt system, a flawed system, where often the “premium” price does little more than line the pockets of such and such cooperative manager.

"The exporter had much to say about the quality of the fair trade beans he had received in the past, uneven and dodgy, and the lack of accountability with ever changing management structures. The more vocal diners raised voices in a passionate disgust at how the “developed world” uses their countries impoverishment as a marketing tool."

The drying porch - where coffee is put after it's harvested - at a farm called Finca Nuevo Viñas in Guatemala.

Hebberoy, 31, dove into the project knowing nothing about the coffee trade. For this reason, he calls his project "An Unprofessional Study of Coffee."

Vita employees met one of the farmers they're doing business with at the Guatemala dinner party.

"It's doing business in a very – manner that's so much more human," Shewmaker said. "Sitting down at dinner enabled that to happen."

The project is ongoing. Once back in Seattle, Hebberoy hosts a dinner to present what he learned on each trip. Guests eat the same dish he cooked in that country (in Guatemala - a Mayan stew), drink the coffee they acquired and view video footage .

A trip to Ethiopia is planned for January, and in February the group heads to Indonesia.

"We are in a global economy," he said. "The more of a relationship we have to the products we consume, I think the more the world will change."