Farm to market: Cleveland coffee shop connects with new-style suppliers

Farm to market: Cleveland coffee shop connects with new-style suppliers

August 18th, 2012 by Carey O'Neil in Business Around the Region

Alejandro Garcia, founder of Thrive Farmers Coffee, prepares a drink for a customer.

Photo by Carey O'Neil/Times Free Press.

Alejandro Garcia expects he's going to turn the coffee industry on its head.

The fourth-generation Costa Rican coffee farmer kicked off his partnership with new Cleveland, Tenn., coffee shop BonLife on Friday. He was serving brews made from the beans his company grows using a business model the company calls unique and sustainable.

"I started this to make sure our farm wouldn't be sold," Garcia said. "I realized there was something we could do here."

Soon after Garcia graduated college studying tourism, English and business management, his family farm was in danger of going under because the margins paid by coffee supply companies were too small.

So Garcia decided to cut out the middleman. Today, Thrive Farmers Coffee grows, processes and ships its own beans, handling the product from the flower to customer's front doors. That way, farmers are given a much bigger cut of the profits, often seven to 10 times more than they'd get selling to traditional coffee distributors.

"This is a business. We're here to make money, but we want to make it in a different way," Garcia said. "A day will come when more of these big companies won't disappear, but they'll start doing this better."

When BonLife owner James Laws heard about Thrive, he jumped at the chance to affiliate with it. The six-year-old company is much smaller than the typical coffee supplier, and was able to ship BonLife the small number of beans the fledgling coffee roasters need.

Laws said that when BonLife was getting ready to open at the beginning of August, he decided to use Thrive as his bean supplier because of the company's ability to closely connect farmers with BonLIfe.

"It is a business, we want to make a profit," he said. "But how we make that profit is the bottom line. We're in a generation now where we care about where our money is going."

Laws and many of his customers are concerned with what businesses they support and the environmental, economic and social sustainability of those businesses.

Garcia said that attitude prevails most everywhere he travels, particularly in towns like Cleveland with a large college presence.

"I like to investigate and ask people what they care for," he said. "What drives a purchase for a college guy, college girl, is where their money is going."

Laws expect his connection to Thrive will differentiate his shop from the several other coffee bars nearby. Over the next few years, he plans to ramp up his roasting business, supplying more area vendors with beans, and open more shops across the region.

"The end goal is growing," Laws said. "Our big difference is our relationship with the farmers."