Last Fall, over lunch, I got to sit down with two of Four Barrel Coffee’s three owners, Jeremy Tooker and Jodi Geren. We crammed ourselves into a little ramen shop down the street from their Valencia cafe during the lunch rush — my computer on my lap, huge bowls of steaming noodles and glasses of cold beer filling our small table; we sipped, slurped, they talked and I typed. My time with them was very inspiring, and I left with my proverbial cup significantly more than half full.
The range of what Four Barrel is doing well is vast. They offer a product beautiful in flavor and in the quality control of its sourcing, their standards of hospitality are impeccable (I’ve never visited such a fantastically hip coffee house that is so inclusive in its welcome), and the somewhat unspoken heart of Four Barrel’s work is that it endeavors to serve the whole rather than the individual. The spirit of their mission has just the right amount of rebelliousness to buck the status quo and a well-crafted clarity of vision that has allowed them to strive for a progressive, truly collaborative business model that celebrates teamwork, joy, and integrity over profit.
When one talks about vision, they’re usually talking about change, and change is often not easy. Human beings possess an inherent resistance to it, and the time it takes for new patterns or systems to find their foothold requires patience, fortitude, and most importantly the ability to keep one’s eye on the proverbial prize. In FB’s early years, Jeremy, Jodi, and Tal Mor (the third partner in crime) all traveled to Latin American, East Africa, and Indonesia multiple times a year (even when they weren’t sure they could afford payroll, let alone airfare) in order to find the most flavorful beans and the farmers who were growing them. They knew that they weren’t simply opening a coffee house to sell a product; they were creating a community hub connected to and informed by people and places all over the world. Committed to buying directly from the source, Four Barrel’s three worked tirelessly to build relationships with farmers that would hopefully strengthen over time and last for many years.
In defining who is farming the best beans, FB carefully considers how and if the beans are being farmed sustainably, sometimes even organically. This is where their story takes us to Kenya, Africa. For years, farming organic coffee in Kenya has been completely impractical as its government would blend all beans, regardless of how or where they were farmed, into a communal pot or lottery that importers could buy from. The beans were identified by numbers not their specific origins. While this system has since changed, allowing for direct purchase of beans from farmers, the old ways of non-organic farming continue to keep a steady foothold in Kenya. While Four Barrel has prioritized sustainability, great flavor, and more-than-fair-pricing over the difficult certification of ‘organic’, they haven’t lost sight of the bigger vision — to always be pushing the envelope in order participate in the co-creation of a world that champions health, vitality, and care for the whole.
Or as Four Barrel would say it, “If we can help a 900-person co-op in Ethiopia build a schoolhouse, of course we’ll do it. If one of our coworkers needs some time off to care for a sick parent, of course we’ll cover her shifts. If we need to take a red-eye coach flight to Frankfurt to score the perfect 1957 roasting equipment, of course we’ll do it. And sure, we’re gonna die someday. But as long as we’re all together, let’s do the best we can to not suck. And lighten up; it’s only coffee, after all.”
What this irreverent commitment looks like for the three is a humble willingness to begin with one small farm in Kenya that is farming organically. In supporting this farmer, it is a first foothold for organic farming to put down some roots and grow. The three continue to make multiple trips per year all over the world to visit the farms and farmers, knowing that good relations and quality control are the same thing and they cannot happen over email or through a middle man. In our western world culture of instant gratification, this willingness to grow slowly enough to build something solid — something that values health over excessive profit and a lightheartedness that allows for joy to be part of the process — this is deeply nourishing for all involved, including those of us that stop by the cafe for our Americano every morning. As we continue to watch so many world leaders fail to care for the whole by prioritizing warfare over education, exercising their power ‘over’ in these decisions, many are hungry for new models of leadership that not only invite true collaboration but that also exercise power by empowering it’s people. Connecting Four Barrel’s work with the bigger picture of world dynamics is only a leap if you think that what each of us does as individuals can’t effect true change. If what’s at the center ripples out, I hope that Four Barrel continues to make ripples and waves for a long time.