The Latest “Farm to Table” Trend: Coffee

We know the importance of sourcing responsibly and sustainably. We’ve previously talked about how our executive chefs have the freedom to support local farmers and producers when sourcing, but our efforts to be more sustainable extend beyond food and into the drinks we offer to diners, like coffee.

In particular, Americans love coffee, and we’re loving it more than ever. The National Coffee Association saw a 14% increase in American coffee consumption from January 2021 to January 2022. That’s the greatest year-over-year increase since they began tracking coffee consumption data in 1911!

With 66% of Americans drinking coffee every single day, knowing where our coffee comes from and its impact is more important than ever. One of Creative Dining’s key coffee partners is Thrive Farmers.

A coffee company built on advocacy.

Thrive Farmers began when Kenneth Lander — former corporate marketer and lawyer — decided to move to Costa Rica to become a coffee farmer. He quickly realized that coffee farmers had many obstacles to overcome in order to make a decent living.

After years of advocacy, he helped found Thrive Farmers. The company partners directly with coffee farmers, providing them with broader market access, better wages, and an incredible community. Thrive is involved with each step from farming to roasting to packaging. They even designate specific brewing instructions for the end-customer to ensure each brew highlights the hard work the farmers put into it.

When asked how Thrive has such an enormous impact on their partner farmers, Kenneth said “Scale is key. You can do a lot of good at scale and go deeper in a way most organizations can’t.”

Coffee Drinking Trends in the US

Why “direct to farmer” versus “fair trade”?

Many coffee companies use “fair trade” coffee, and while being certified certainly isn’t a bad thing, Kenneth says it’s often only surface-level. “This idea of ‘fair trade’ has become kind of synonymous with ‘sustainability’ in the marketplace. But at the end of the day, what is and isn’t sustainable is based on a lot more than just a certification,” he says. “You can have a coffee that’s ‘fair trade certified,’ but the farmer’s not making a sustainable profit. Co-operative doesn’t necessarily mean the money gets back to the farmers.”

A “fair trade” coffee must meet a set of standards to become certified, but those standards don’t necessarily involve how the farmers are financially compensated. The process still involves several layers of “middle-men” taking their cut of profits, leaving very little to trickle back to the farmers themselves.

Thrive’s “direct to farmer” approach was never designed to be a certification, according to Ken. It was only meant to directly impact farmers, to introduce them to markets they couldn’t access otherwise while cutting out the middlemen. They became a B Corp not because of any certifications they had, but because of their actions. How they treat employees, how they recycle, and most importantly, their impact on farmers and their communities.

Thrive finds customers willing to pay a consistent, if slightly higher, fair price over time. That way, even if the price of coffee beans fluctuates, the farmers are still compensated fairly for their harvests.

“True impact goes far beyond a certification,” Kenneth says. “Thrive has created a farm-to-table coffee option at scale. Before, you couldn’t know your coffee farmer and bring their specific beans to the table. Now you can.”

Thrive Farmers & Creative Dining Services

Several of our campus and corporate locations have carried Thrive’s coffee products since they first partnered with Gordon Food Service in 2018, and the reaction has been incredibly positive. Katie Nickel is the executive chef for one of our conference center clients. The biggest change she saw after they switched to serving Thrive’s coffee was how much better it tasted, and how consistent it was.

“We used to get negative comments on our coffee before we switched to Thrive,” she said. “Coffee is a lot like wine; you either like the bottle you have or you don’t. Far more people comment now that they like it!”

She noted that Creative Dining hosts many international visitors through the conference center. The dining team hears many compliments on the Thrive dark roast coffee mix, which she said can often taste burnt when it comes from larger coffee companies.

“Where” is just as important as “what.”

“We’re coming into a time where people care where their food comes from. People really look at, ‘Where is this food coming from?’” Katie said. “It’s sustainably grown, sustainably sourced. All the coffee you’re drinking here is coming directly from the farmers.”

“Partnering with Thrive puts us more in line with what the world’s going through, especially the generations coming up,” said Thomas, the Food Services Director at Dordt University. “Younger generations are very concerned about ethics and sustainability. This partnership helps us align with both the university’s and Creative Dining’s standards in a deeply impactful way.”

Sustainability, both now and in the future.

Kenneth described a sustainable supply chain as a way to “pay it forward” to suppliers. By paying suppliers a price they can sustain their own supply chain on, they’re able to continue operating their business and support their buyers in the long-term.

“If you’re trying to run a business on any unsustainable, unpredictable margin, you won’t be able to sustain your business. The same goes for your suppliers,” he said.

Thrive exists for the same reasons we source locally:

  • A desire to build long-lasting relationships,
  • Increasing the benefit to farmers by eliminating unnecessary steps, and
  • Reaffirming to our diners that we care where their food and drinks come from.

By supporting organizations like Thrive, we can help secure sustainable supply chains and food growth operations both now and in the future.

To learn more about how you can bring sustainable coffee to your organization, reach out to us.

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