Sebastopol businessman promotes benefits of paying more for coffee
Press Democrat – 31 March 2005
By Erin Allday
Raising his voice over the grumble of a cappuccino maker in the corner, Mark Inman is talking about sustainable farming, the U.S. war on drugs and poverty in Central America—and how it all comes back to a cup of gourmet coffee in Sebastopol.
It’s an easy connection to make, Inman insists, leaning over his desk and sipping from a tiny cup of espresso made with beans roasted by his Taylor Maid Farms. Sustainable farming helps keep growers out of the drug industry and above the poverty line, he said. If consumers only understood the impact they could have on South American farmers by paying more for their coffee, they would, Inman said.
“We don’t want to guilt the soccer moms into buying organic coffee,” said Inman, 36. “We want to make it easy for them to buy good coffee at fair rates. Coffee is a social vehicle and political vehicle, not just a food product.”
Inman is president of Taylor Maid Farms, a 15-employee coffee-roasting operation tucked between Rite Aid and Safeway near downtown Sebastopol. The company, among a handful of small North Bay coffee roasters, has about $2 million in annual revenues. More than 90 percent of that comes from organic coffee sales, with the rest coming from organic teas.
But aside from running the company since 1993, Inman has become an expert voice for the $9 billion specialty coffee industry, leading trends toward organic growing in Central and South America and speaking out on everything from U.S. drug policies to international coffee prices now on the rise.
“Mark’s a tireless advocate,” said Mike Ferguson, a spokesman for the Specialty Coffee Association of America, with which Inman serves on the board of directors. “He’s absolutely uncompromising in his ideals of quality and sustainability.”
With bean prices rising in recent months due to December’s tsunami disaster and other global pressures, consumers are already paying anywhere from 3 percent to 26 percent more for their coffee. But Inman thinks organic coffee is still a deal.
Even after increasing his prices 4 percent last month, Inman said a pound of gourmet coffee typically retails for $10 to $11 a pound – or about 22 cents per home-brewed cup. Of that, farmers receive less than $2.40 a pound for organic coffee.
“You’re paying 22 cents for the finest cup of coffee in the world. Where are you going to find the finest glass of wine for 22 cents?” Inman said. “Coffee is the best deal around.”
Even if the best coffee is still relatively cheap, it’s a tough sell to ask consumers to pay more, Inman said. And it’s even tougher when he’s such a small player in a $23 billion industry that’s led by much bigger names, from established roasters such as Starbucks to grocery store brands such as Folgers.
Inman has kept his business regional so far, selling primarily on the West Coast. His coffee is available in Whole Foods and several Sonoma County stores, and is brewed at hotels up and down the coast.
If organic roasters are going to grab a bigger piece of the coffee market, Inman said, they need to work together and, eventually, merge into larger companies.
“I still believe that a great cup of coffee from El Salvador is better than any Frappuccino. But that’s why I’m a $2 million company and Starbucks is a multi-billion-dollar company,” Inman said, laughing. “It’s hard to get that message out. If Taylor Maid can’t grow, we won’t be recognized. And if we can’t do it alone, we’ll absorb a couple companies.”
For now, though, he’s focused on what he can accomplish with Taylor Maid Farms alone.
Inman travels throughout Latin America at least twice a year, making deals with the family cooperatives and larger estates from which he buys his beans in El Salvador, Colombia, Nicaragua and Peru. About 65 percent of his beans come from South and Central America, and the rest of Indonesia and Africa.
Twelve years ago, when he first joined Taylor Maid Farms as a consultant to start their coffee-roasting business, Inman was just starting to venture into Latin America. He would spend weeks working with farmers to teach them about sustainable and organic farming.
“You walk a fine line between being helpful and being imperialist,” Inman said. “Farmers want to know, if I put in all this effort who’s going to give me money? So if they adhered to my system, I agreed to buy their coffee for a five-year period at much higher prices.”
Inman runs a risk when he travels to Latin America – many of the areas where he works are war-ravaged communities, where foreigners face threats from guerilla forces and roadside “death squads.”
Still, he makes the trips and this summer plans to take his wife and 9-month-old son along with him.
“Kidnappings are common. I’ve been approached by guerillas,” Inman said. “But I’m seen as more the ally than the enemy.”