William Becerra first saw the Pacific Ocean underneath the typical, heavy fog of the Bay Area. He had spent little time outside of his home in Huila, Colombia. Then, one day, he was on a plane to visit the Peninsula, where he saw the Google campus in San Francisco. The sheer scale of it all — a city that was just shy of the population that his native state hosts across its 7,680 square miles — was a lot to take in.
At the same time, Becerra's coffee farm back home was being converted into a sustainable farm with innovative techniques, such as shade-grown cultivation crop rotation and giving the soil a chance to breathe. These are the practices that will be required in the future to raise the kind of coffee that can net the prices that make life on the farm a little easier.
It's thanks to Maria Palacio and John Trabelsi, owners and founders of Progeny Coffee of Palo Alto, that Becerra may have a dog in the fight 20 years down the road. It's thanks to them that he took an eye-opening trip to California. But it's thanks to Becerra, and producers like him, that any of us get to have a cup of coffee in the morning at all.
Palacio and Trabelsi are doing what they can to bring a new narrative to your morning cup. They want the financial tides to shift for folks who are growing everyone's morning brew. They're starting with the coffee lovers on the Peninsula and those who work for local tech giants.
A would-be fashion designer from Colombia and an advertising bigwig from France fell in love in New York. Fast forward to their apartment in Palo Alto, where they agitate the global coffee supply chain from their living room.
They came to the Peninsula after Trabelsi got a job in tech marketing. They were married at this point, with a baby on the way, and they didn't want to raise their kid in New York. It was then that they launched a coffee company, crunching numbers at the kitchen table. They called it Progeny, and it was created alongside their expanding family.
They have yet to open their own brick-and-mortar shop, focusing for now on selling their bags of beans.
The humble venture is about more than just their family business on the Peninsula, though. Palacio was born and raised in a smallish city called Armenia, one of many coffee-growing communities in Colombia. Her family, like many others in Colombia, faced the hard task of picking and collecting the red cherries as a way to generate income.
When she came to California, fashion fell to the wayside. She returned to the coffee that runs in her veins and convinced her husband of the idea to start their company after his first visit to her home in Armenia. Today, her work is about farmers rather than fashionistas.
"Maria saw her family struggle," Trabelsi said. "The first thing our company does is help the farmers."
For Palacio, launching Progeny was the American Dream, one that she wants to share with other Colombians. The country is the third-largest coffee-producing country in the world, and the small business team at Progeny dreams of becoming the largest buyers of Colombian coffee in the world.
Palacio and Trabelsi want to make sure farmers receive proper credit for the cups of coffee that Peninsula residents think nothing of shelling out five bucks for. Palacio still has friends and family in Colombia who get only a dime of the profit on a cup if they're lucky.
That's not uncommon. According to economist Stephen Pitts, in the case of purchasing green coffee from Chiapas, Mexico, it is common for farmers to be paid just $1.50 a pound for organic coffee.
So Palacio and Trabelsi have spent four years studying the coffee supply chain, visiting Colombia together and reading books and white papers on coffee. Together, they came up with an approach they call "beyond trade." It's farmer-forward and farmer-centric, which is Progeny's way of saying more of that profit goes to the farmer than the alternative "do good" businesses on the market.
Fair Trade USA and other such initiatives are failing farmers, according to Progeny. Palacio and Trabelsi are not the first, nor will they be the last, to make such a claim. So-called Fair Trade organizations can end up creating the same issues with pricing and production they aim to solve.
James McWilliams, pop economist of Freakonomics, did his part to sum up critique of the ubiquitous program: "When the price of coffee drops, the appeal of Fair Trade's price support lures growers into the cooperatives that sell coffee under the Fair Trade label. As poor growers rush into Fair Trade agreements, the supply of Fair Trade coffee rises. Protected by the price floor, the Fair Trade coffee remains inflated despite flagging demand."
Focusing on the farmers
The coffee industry has seen its fair share of challenges lately: Saturation in the coffee market is one; how employees are treated at work by customers and management is another. Plenty of businesses throughout the Bay Area, from Equator to Paper Moon, have been addressing their numerous chickens coming home to roost.
These, however, are issues that Palacio and Trabelsi want to steer clear of. Instead, they want to maintain that critical eye trained toward rural Colombians, with optimism for positive change in the supply chain.
Progeny has identified a disconnect between the industry's actions and words. With a long background in Parisian marketing, Trabelsi found hypocrisy in big coffee communication. Many seem bent on removing or marginalizing, rather than celebrating, farmers.
"All of the major companies sell these coffees as their own," Trabelsi said. "But they did nothing in the process in terms of time. It's noticeable with low-level research to see that farmers are getting lost."
Trabelsi said the first thing a company can do is to avoid representation pitfalls of the industry, such as Starbucks' "Traceability Tool." The mega-company allows customers to scan a bag of coffee to see where the beans were roasted and grown. The well-intentioned app has been criticized for lack of transparency by the folks at popular coffee website Sprudge. The owners of Progeny tack around this issue by spending time at the source.
"This is critical," Trabelsi said.
Another long-standing issue surrounds ethics in photographing and documenting people at origin, common for gathering marketing materials. It is almost always better to hire local talent to document producers if the company wants to portray coffee producers in culturally relevant ways. Vava Angwenyi, who works with the folks at The Crown, an East Bay peer of Progeny's, covers this in her book "Coffee Milk Blood."
Progeny follows this practice, paying dozens of photographers across Colombia for their services. In fact, they love the hyper-specific approach, putting individual farmers' photos on the bags. It's the anti-Juan Valdez, a homogenizing and mostly offensive image promoted by the Colombian government in a global advertising campaign.
That's something that Progeny has going for it: Farmers are a part of the ethos, not an accessory or an afterthought.
What Peninsula coffee-drinkers can do
Palacio believes in education. Her own crash course in biodiverse farming techniques, supply chain economics and ethical representation has helped build Progeny into what it is today. But it can be an enormous challenge to translate that experience to consumers.
It's harder still to tell a fourth-generation farmer, who has been cultivating coffee in the same way Colombians did long before them, why it's important to highlight quality and sustainability. For instance, Becerra's community of producers live in the hinterlands, accessible only by hours in a car. This makes it difficult to frequent the area and sustain consistent conversations about changing farming practices that have been at play for decades.
"The small farm holders don't get the information," Palacio said. "We need a mindset of delivering technical support to create sustainable farms."
Progeny works with plenty of tech companies to place their coffee, and farmers, inside the industry. This is what Progeny calls their "Adopt-A-Farmer" program. Google adopted several such farmers — one being Becerra. After his trip, Google sent a team to one of the same farms in Colombia. They mapped the area to host a virtual reality tour for the Googlers back home.
For their part, the husband-and-wife team can be found sipping espresso at a Verve or Blue Bottle in Palo Alto. They love Proyecto Diaz Coffee, as "their heart is right." Proyecto Diaz places its coffees in Peninsula cafes like Boba Guys, sourcing from the owner's abuelo's farm in Oaxaca.
"Oftentimes we see that companies don't aspire to more," Trabelsi said of why he likes Proyecto Diaz. "They are participating in the chain we are trying to break."
While it may seem counterintuitive to some, Progeny also offers the spicy criticism that, sometimes, a coffee business giving money to farmers isn't the best thing to do. Starbucks offering a bundle of $20 million looks good on the surface, but the best scenario is to see money used for specific projects and investments. Buying a bigger fridge, an improved drying bed, or even food for farmers can be the right choice instead. It's not just throwing money — it's investigating how to throw it.
Another way that Progeny brings the farmers front and center: The company prints the scores of their coffees right on the bags. Coffee scores are just like scores for wines, and in that same spirit, most businesses avoid printing the number on the product itself. Sometimes the Progeny team docks themselves half a point or a point to ensure the quality. Trabelsi said this is yet another moment to boost the farmer's work.
"I don't see major specialty coffee brands putting scores on their bags," Trabelsi said. "It makes me wonder why. Is this the low end of specialty coffee?"
And Progeny coffee is really, really tasty. The "Alegria," which features a gorgeous portrait of the producer Sandra Isabela Campo painted in electric yellow on the front of the bag, is as complex and bright an espresso as one can pull, with notes of chocolate, pear and caramel.
Progeny plans to keep cutting deals with the massive companies of the Peninsula. They'll keep putting coffee farmers right in front of your face. Whatever the future holds, the workers slinging espresso are hoping it's about raising those tides, at home and abroad.
And the dedicated duo at Progeny will keep making it happen from their kitchen table.