Editor’s note: I was thrilled when Bill Fishbein, founder of Coffee Kids, who now operates the Coffee Trust, agreed to be the subject of our Master Q+A series in the February+March issue of Barista Magazine. Bill has been around the specialty coffee industry for a while now, and he’s one of the folks we have to thank for lots of the good things going on right now, like compassionate involvement with coffee-producing families, and sustainability across the chain. Bill has so many great stories to tell that we couldn’t fit them all in the Master Q+A space in the February+March issue, so we decided to make his interview into a 5-part series. The first part appears in the print issue (and you can read in online for free by clicking HERE). And this is part 2. Look for part 3 on Tuesday, February 11; part 4 on Tuesday, February 18; and part 5 on Tuesday, February 25. Now, I welcome you to join in this amazing conversation about one of coffee’s true legends, and how he came to change the industry.
(This first question was only partially answered in part 1 of this interview. Here is Bill’s entire response:)
Sarah Allen: In your bio on the Coffee Trust website, it says of your Coffee Exchange time: “As the business grew, he was faced with the reality that his income was directly related to the struggle faced by small-scale coffee-farming families.” Can you please explain this? What in particular happened? Were you going to source to buy coffee or visit farms? How did you first become aware of the plight of the small coffee farmer, and your role in the chain of the product?
Bill Fishbein: Your question points to the fulcrum of my life and within it how my life changed.
It was 1988 and business was good. I had spent my life struggling with my family in search of the American Dream. But it was always 2 steps ahead, and 3 steps back. We never gave up. We always dreamed of a better life. Then one day, after struggling for so many years, there was a line out the door. I had a hundred dollars or so in my pocket with no debt against it. And I knew that there would be more the following week. I realized I had never been in that position in my entire life.
I was hardly rich. But I felt that coffee had carried me across a line, a line I had struggled against for as long as I could remember. I felt I would never have to struggle like that again. One might think I would be elated. But instead, I went into an emotional turmoil. I didn’t feel I had the right to leave the struggle. I felt there was honor in the struggle.
So, what does one do under those circumstances? I went to the theatre. I didn’t do so with any intent. A friend asked me to go. So I did. I saw a play that literally changed my life. The play was Camino Real, by Tennessee Williams. It’s a tough play, one that makes a person look at him or herself. In fact, in the opening scene, there is a huge wall with the following phrase written on it. I’ll have to paraphrase it, but it went something like this: ‘Once I found myself lost in the forest, and I came upon the most horrifying beast of all. I came upon myself.’
Historically, half the audience leaves after the intermission. For some people, it’s simply too uncomfortable. I stayed. Over the following days, I saw myself is so many of the characters as I faced the various challenges in my day. Tennessee Williams did his magic on me. I met myself in the middle of the forest, and I didn’t like what I saw. In the days following I noticed patterns in my behavior, patterns in my feelings. There was one resounding message I got over and over again. I was afraid of losing things, people, even relationships. I was motivated not by my desires, but by my fear of losing.
As I drove to work one day, my life changed literally before my eyes, or at least in my mind’s eye. While driving, I imagined a circle in front of me with 4 quadrants. (I didn’t plan to do this. It just happened.) In the upper right quadrant were the things I did to please others that had actually worked out. The resulting feeling was that of emptiness. Whatever I gained from those behaviors left me cold. In the lower right quadrant were all the things I did to please others that didn’t work out. The resulting feeling was anger. I did what I was supposed to do. Why didn’t it work out? In the lower left quadrant were all the things I did that didn’t work out, but had been done because I wanted to do them. I wasn’t elated, but I felt I had learned something. It was a valuable experience. And finally, in the upper left quadrant were all the things I did because I desired to do them and they had worked out. The resulting feeling was joy.
I realized that everything I did on the right side of the quadrant left me either empty or angry, while everything I did on the left side of the quadrant left me fulfilled in one way or another or filled with joy.
Before I arrived at Coffee Exchange, I decided I would never live on the right side of the quadrant again.
I began immediately. And immediately I felt as if an enormous burden had been lifted from me. In fact, so great was the burden lifted, I felt as if I were flying. No drugs. Honestly.
But I was scared. I never felt so free or empowered in my entire life. My friend Beverly Serabian recommended that I get away. So in April of 1988, I holed up in a bed and breakfast in Chatham, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. I took a few books with me, all written by John Steinbeck. In my free and vulnerable state, Mr. Steinbeck engraved a bit of himself in my heart. If I learned anything from reading Steinbeck, it was that I felt I had neglected my neighbor. I learned that each of us has a simply responsibility to our neighbors, to those around us. And, if we were just a little more caring, we wouldn’t be living in such a pathetic world where selfishness is king. Driving home, I passed a car broken down on the side of the road. I just drove by. Later on, I realized how selfish I was. I could have stopped to help, but I had just kept on driving.
That night, I fell asleep with the TV on. In retrospect I think I was more awake while sleeping that when I was awake. At some ungodly hour, I was awakened by an infomercial. A non-profit was looking for contributions for starving children in Africa. I got up, went to the TV, and shut it off.
But this time, I couldn’t go back to sleep. I had done it again. Those horrifying images of children starving had meant nothing to me. Don’t bother me. I’m sleeping.
I got up. I turned the TV on again and watched the entire infomercial. I wasn’t going to donate one penny to this organization. After all, they probably spent most of it on administration and salaries. Then I thought I was going to get up in a few hours and spend a lot more money on muffins, which I considered an investment. But to help a child survive, to me—that was a risk. I sent in the money.
A week or so later I received the literature from the organization. They had projects in Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, everywhere I bought coffee. I said to myself, ‘I must be nuts. I have to help the people where my coffee comes from, coffee that has pulled me out of a financial disaster.’
Desperately, I called one non-profit after the other to support a project in a coffee-producing community. Many would tell me they worked in coffee-producing countries, but none could guarantee that my donation would help a coffee-producing community. After a while, I was beginning to annoy a lot of organizations as I kept asking for something they didn’t have. On one call, I left my name and the operator called his superior and said, ‘Hey! It’s that Coffee Kid guy again.’ That was the first time I ever heard the name. It stuck. I thought, ‘Coffee Kids. Hmmmm.’ Coffee Kids was born. Of course, I still had nowhere to support.
My friend David Abedon told me to contact Foster Parents Plan. They worked in Guatemala and had projects in El Progreso and Zacapa, Guatemala, both coffee-growing communities. They were planning a trip to visit Guatemala and asked me to join them. ‘Me? Guatemala? You’re nuts,’ I said. ‘They have guns in Guatemala.’ I refused to go. They called again and again. I told them I would send them money, but I wasn’t going to Guatemala. The last time they called, they said it was my last chance. I said, thanks but no thanks. They said, ‘Oh, too bad. We’re staying at the Camino Real Hotel.
The what hotel? Camino Real. The name of the play that was still busy at work changing my life. To their shock I said, ‘Book my fare!’ I was nervous and scared. I had never been out of the country except for a day or so in Montreal one time and Tijuana at another. But I felt I had just received a letter from another world. Of course, before going I still began to think of any excuse not to go. Really, I was scared. I had two dreams that kept me on course.
In one dream, I was working in a coal mine when the foreman pulled me out of line. He brought me through the bowels of the mine to the top of the mountain where he showed me a house made of gold. ‘That is your home. You will never have to worry again,’ he said.
Then I found myself in a free fall until I hit ground. I landed unhurt in a large, flat, green field. To my left there was a knight on a decorated horse. To my right was an old broken down hut. The knight started galloping toward me. He reached down and pulls me up on his horse. He dropped me off at the hut. I entered a small home. Dirt floor, no things inside, except a wooden table in the center of the room. Behind the table stood an old man, a very old man. He wore tattered clothes and had a long white beard. He stepped out from behind the table and walked directly up to me.
‘Everything you are about to receive came from us,’ he said. (And, I knew he meant that I, too, was included in the word ‘us’.) Then he pointed his boney finger at me and, gently touching my chest, said, ‘Do not forsake us.’
A week or so later, I was half asleep when I found myself playing stickball with my boyhood friend, Tommy Feldman. Tommy had this weird screwball that would come in right at my head and curve right into the strike zone. I used to complain vehemently because I felt as if I could either be hit in the head or take a strike. In my dream state, Tommy was throwing one screwball after the other. He was mad. I said, ‘Cut it out!’ But he kept throwing it. I screamed, ‘No fair!’ But he kept throwing. Finally he said, ‘You owe me.’ I said, ‘Huh? I owe you?’ ‘Yeah’, he said. When I died, you told me I could live my life through you.’ Tommy and I had gone to Boston University together. We inseparable. In the spring of 1967, he was killed in a car accident. I was devastated. And I had made that promise to him as I walked up Commonwealth Avenue on a day shortly after he died.
‘I know. And you have been able to,’ I said. Then he said, ‘You know, I’ve been dead for 21 years and you’ve been alive. But quite frankly, there hasn’t been much difference. Up until now, your life hasn’t been worth living. But this Coffee Kids thing. This is worth living for.’ Then he threw one more screwball to my head. Strike three! And, I was going to Guatemala.
In Guatemala, I met coffee farmers and their families for the first time in my life. I was both shocked and amazed. I saw poverty that I still have difficulty dealing with. (Coming back at the end of the day and staying at the Camino Real 5-star hotel didn’t help dealing with the discrepancy.) I also met extraordinary people with a spirit of life about them, singing to the marimbas, offering whatever meager food they had in their homes. I learned about generosity from the poorest of the poor. I learned that generosity is not measured by how much one gives, but rather in comparison to what one has. These farmers gave whatever they had to a visiting stranger.
I felt I had so much more to learn from them. I started Coffee Kids because I wanted to help in any way I could, but more so because I wanted to remain connected to a people, and a culture that I felt had so much more in their lives than I did. I actually wondered who was more impoverished.
When I returned to Providence, I was on fire. I held fundraisers at Coffee Exchange. I stopped everyone I met and told them of my experience and what I was up to. I did everything I could to support Foster Parents Plan, the organization that brought me to Guatemala. My friend David Abedon helped organize my thoughts as most everyone who knows me understands that I am not exactly the most organized person on the planet. Later on, David introduced me to his friend, Dean Cycon. Dean was a firebrand. He had already had many years of experience in international development and was my teacher for some time. Dean was a lawyer and used his law firm to apply for and get our non-profit status. The lesson I learned from Dean that has resonated with me for 25 years is never mix commerce and development. There are simply too many conflicts.
Susan Wood joined us shortly after we received our non-profit status. Susan became the executive director and literally made friends with an entire industry. When I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, Susan continued in her position. However, as it became apparent that I was not coming back to Providence, Susan took an executive position with Coffee Exchange and has been there ever since.
When I consider the foundation of Coffee Kids, I think of the 4 of us: David, Dean, Susan, and me. I consider that the 4 of us are all founders of Coffee Kids. I am well aware that I could never have done any of it on my own. Still, knowing that Coffee Kids was born from deep within me, a result of my past business failures and the struggles I had with my family, the result of a Tennessee Williams play, some John Steinbeck novels, a bizarre quadrant, a series of mysterious and defining dreams, and the Camino Real Hotel, I have a hard time sharing the role of founder. I recognize that it is a weakness of mine. I have the deepest respect for David, Dean, and Susan. And I know that left to my own devices, I could never have accomplished it on my own. I did assemble a good team. And while it was not always a bed of roses, there is a very special place in my heart reserved for the 4 of us.
SA: What was the coffee scene like in Providence in 1977 when you opened Coffee Exchange?
BF: Back in 1977, we were still selling coffee at Cooks Connection, and we were the talk of town. Back then we were the only coffee scene in Providence. Customers would come in and say, ‘why should I pay $4.00/lb from you when I can buy it at the supermarket for $2.00/lb?’ But we would say, ‘just try it.’ Of course, they liked our coffee. But it wasn’t until they went back to supermarket coffee that they were hooked. After trying real coffee, they were actually disgusted at what they had been drinking. They were customers for life. Many still come to Coffee Exchange, which is right down the street from the original Cooks Connection.
And, say what you will about flavored coffee (Coffee Exchange no longer sells flavored coffee), but Swiss Chocolate Almond broke a lot of ice. The less adventurous customers may not have believed that just any coffee was worth more than $2/lb, but they would try a flavored coffee. Of course, those flavored coffees were pretty rude, and sooner or later, customers would want to try something else and explore other choices like Colombian Supremo, that was all-too-often spelled with a ‘u’ instead of an ‘o’, or a Kenya AA. Before they knew it, they were hooked.
It was a shame we couldn’t keep Cooks Connection going. The spirit created in the space and the coffee scene was exceptional, second only to what my brother Charlie has created at Coffee Exchange.
SA: What was the specialty coffee scene like in the United States in 1977? Were you aware of a community outside of your own local one, i.e. what was going on at the time with Peet’s, the Coffee Connection, etc.?
BF: I knew about Coffee Connection. That was a destination for any of us going to Boston. I knew about Zabars. And, I had heard about this place in New York called Gillies. But, I knew precious little about what else was out there.
SA: When and how did you first get involved in the larger coffee community?
BF: I first became involved in the SCAA when I started Coffee Kids. I decided that we should attend the SCAA conference and trade show in New Orleans in 1989. I didn’t do any research whatsoever. I had no idea that it was the first trade show of the sort sponsored by SCAA. I had no idea what the association was. The only experience I had with trade shows was attending housewares and restaurant equipment shows at McCormick Place in Chicago. I arrived in New Orleans a day earlier than everyone else. I was shocked at how small the venue was. What was I going to tell everyone else from Coffee Kids who was coming? I invented a story that I knew it was going to be small and that at small trade shows, you don’t get overwhelmed by the crowds and that we would be able to meet people easier. I had no idea that the story I had invented was absolutely true. I met some of my most trusted friends at that first SCAA show, which beat any event I ever attended at McCormick Place.
SA: Before you founded Coffee Kids, did you do any outreach through Coffee Exchange, such as fundraisers for farmers or any customer education?
BF: Nope. I was totally focused on developing the business. To me, coffee came from the back of a truck.
SA: Were any other socially conscious roasters doing outreach like that, that you were aware of?
BF: I was not aware of Paul Katzeff and Thanksgiving Coffee Company on the West Coast at the time. Nor was I aware of Equal Exchange in Massachusetts or Max Havellar in Europe. In their different ways, each was deeply committed to social change through their commercial enterprises. But I knew nothing of them.
There were no non-profit development organizations working at origin specifically dedicated to small-scale coffee farmers.
SA: In your introduction at the MANE Conference, you mentioned how Rik Kleinfeldt of New Harvest was a barista for you at Coffee Exchange. Can you tell me about other early coast coffee connections that were made in the late 70s, early 80s between the guys (and women) who were establishing specialty coffee culture in the area back then (you, George Howell, …?).
BF: First of all, thanks for including me in the same sentence as George.
Secondly, I made few, if any, coffee-connections, in the late 70s or early 80s. I was totally focused on my work on Wickenden Street in Providence.
I would say the earliest connection I made was Garth Smith in the late 70s. I met Garth Smith when I was still at Cooks Connection, long before I started Coffee Exchange or Coffee Kids. He used to sell organic coffee to the health food store up the street, The Golden Sheaf. He used to come down the street to try to sell us organic coffee. At the time, I thought organic coffee was some sort of macrobiotic thing.
In 1984 Gerra Harrigan started work at Coffee Exchange. She was 15. She was as amazing at 15 as she is today working for Rob Stephen. Her mom had to get special permission from the state to allow her to work at such a young age. I’d take her back under any circumstances in a New York minute.
Beyond Gerra, in the mid 80s I met Michael and Nicole LaDonna who had a bakery and roastery in Newport, Rhode Island. We had a great friendship. Michael was one of the first coffee businesses to contribute to Coffee Kids.
I would have to move on the late 80s to recognize the connections I made. Rik Kleinfeldt was one of them. I’d take Rik back in a New York minute, too.
The following is a long an incomplete list of the many connection I made after I started Coffee Kids. I can understand why you wouldn’t have room for it, but here it is just the same.
• Dean Cycon was my mentor in the development world, and I introduced Dean to the coffee trade. Dean had a long history in development and mine was in business and coffee. In some Shakespearean twist, I have since followed a life in development and Dean has built Dean’s Beans into a great organic, coffee business.
• Misha Elmendorf showed up at my door looking for a job with absolutely no experience in coffee, no experience in retail. He had never run a cash register nor even made change. But he did carry a bag of green beans in his trunk that he would buy from time to time from Jim Reynolds at Peet’s Coffee that he would roast in his home oven. I hired Misha on the spot. He has been a friend ever since. Misha has his own roasting operation in Alexandria, Virginia: Misha’s.
Once we started, David, Dean, and I decided to send some letters out to the few specialty coffee roasters in the country at the time and an article came out in an obscure newspaper. I received 3 replies.
• I got a letter from Paul Katzeff who wrote that he had read the article and thought he was reading about himself. Paul is an icon and I consider him one of my dearest friends.
• I got a letter from Dan Cox, a pseudo competitor at the time. Dan wrote that he didn’t know what I was up to, but if he could help I should let him know.
• And I got a call from Donald Schoenholt who said, and I quote because I will never forget his words, (spoken with a thick New York accent) ‘I’m not gonna tell you that I finished your lettah and called you right away. Because I haven’t finished your lettah yet.’
Donald, Dan and Paul were mentors for me. They ushered me into the world of specialty coffee. They were members of the Coffee Kids Advisory Board for years. I could never have accomplished what I did without their help or their friendship. Never forget who brought you to the dance.
• Jonathan Rosenthal (co-founder of Equal Exchange) and I used to argue over what was best, fair trade or development. Jonathan said trade. I said development. Over the years, our arguments evolved into a deep respect for each other as well as each other’s point of view.
• At a different trade show in New Orleans, I realized I didn’t pack a shirt for my presentation. Looking for a shirt on the streets of New Orleans, I ran into Michael Rozyne. Michael is also co-founder of Equal Exchange. He literally gave me the shirt off his back. On the street!
• I used to argue with Rink Dickerson, the other co-founder of Equal Exchange. Today, we support each other’s work.
• Bob Bernstein came to me at the Seattle trade show in the early 1990s. I don’t recall the exact year. Bob was looking to go into the coffee business, but was discouraged at the living conditions for farmers and it seemed to me as if he was about to choose another trade. I told him he was the kind of person the coffee trade needed. Bob opened Bongo Java in Nashville, Fido’s, and several other businesses. He is an icon in the trade and if you ever want to have fun in coffee, go to Bongo Java. I’m not sure exactly what influence I may have had in keeping Bob in coffee. But if I have had any influence whatsoever, I would be more than proud.
• Charlie Fishbein is my best friend ever.
• Karen Cebreros was another organic coffee pioneer. She was and still is a powerhouse. If you ever want to know about powerful women in coffee, see Karen.
• You’ll know Carolyn Fairman. But you may not know Lynee Busta, Jenny Sanborn, Julia Meridith, Matthew Hess, and Stephanie Melmed. All were instrumental in the development of Coffee Kids.
• Rick Peyser was a PR guy at Green Mountain when David, Dean, and I met him. Since those early days, Rick has climbed the ladder a bit. I have travelled with Rick, bunked with Rick, and laughed with Rick. Rick was president of Coffee Kids for years. We were both board members of Fundacion Ixil. He knows my family, my kids, even my dogs. I’d like to think I had some influence on his shift from PR to CSR.
• Bob Stiller wrote me more checks than I could have ever imagined. He had faith in me at the outset when I had no real track record to show.
• Jonathan Rosenthal introduced me to Carlos Murillo in the 1992. Since then, I have undertaken numerous projects with Carlos, and/or pursued projects with his advice. There was a time in the 90s that I used to call Carlos every day for advice. Sometimes I’d call him twice a day. Carlos helped me to expand Coffee Kids to Nicaragua after Mitch, and to Honduras in 2012, and so many in between. Carlos has become a family friend. His son, Charlie, and my sons, Jake and Adam, have a lifelong friendship. My family has celebrated Chanukah and Christmas with Carlos’ family. And he earned the name Senior Peligroso, because he can find an after hours club in any city in the world.
• Manuel Rodriguez is a mentor who taught me everything I know about savings and micro-credit, as well as how to follow one’s heart.
• Jose Luis Zarate is the international program director for Coffee Kids. He is a dear friend to whom I have confided in for many years. As long as Jose Luis is with Coffee Kids, I have no fear of where the organization may go in the future. Coffee Kids could be in no better hands.
I’m glad you won’t have room for this section because I am sure I have forgotten to mention far too many friends.
Sorry to do this. But, this interview set me on a journey. I began to remember so much. I just had to write some of it down even if it was out of place. Sorry, Sarah.
Editor’s note: Sorry?? This is one of the best interviews I’ve ever had! Be sure to return to this blog next Tuesday, February 11, for the third installment of my fascinating interview with Bill Fishbein.