Last school year, my class took a trip to Old Queens Coffee Shop, or OQ for short. A field trip to a coffee shop is not exactly the typical high school trip, but who’s complaining. It was a lot of fun to sit around tables in this Highland Park, NJ coffee shop and discuss with the owner his vision for the shop as a place for people to gather, a “3rd place,” as he referred to it.
Over the summer, I returned with my family to the shop and interviewed one of the owners, Ben Schellack. Part of what we learned was that OQ coffee beans are ethically traded. This means that the owners of the coffee plantations or co-ops have been paid a fair price for the coffee they sell, and in turn, they are able to give their workers fair wages. Ben visits the farms he purchases from in order to assure this is happening. He reasons that he can build relationships with the producers, see first hand the conditions of the farmers and their families, as well as assess the production process. He gets to see how they pick and sort the coffee, what chemicals are being used, and determine a fair purchase price. While the coffee purchased and roasted by OQ Coffee is not fair trade certified, the coffee farmers are actually paid a price above the set price for fair trade coffee.
OQ originally started as a specialty coffee roasting company prior to opening their coffee shop. When I asked Ben what got him interested in ethical trade and sustainable agriculture, he told me that his interest first began with an interest in coffee. His reading led him to question how Haiti, once a world leader in coffee production, could have become a nation with virtually no coffee exports. He wondered if the return of coffee production in Haiti could help lift the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere out of poverty. He discovered an organization working in Haiti to help restore the coffee production of the region using local people, help restore the environment to the necessary conditions for coffee production, and aid the people in becoming self sufficient coffee farmers once again. This Haitian coffee would be the first of many coffees that OQ would begin roasting. Ethical trade and sustainable agriculture, such as bird friendly coffee, are important values that OQ holds.
As coffee grows best in warmer climates, it is often the poorest nations that are producing the coffee for the richest nations. By purchasing the coffee from impoverished regions money is added to the local economies, creating and sustaining jobs, and allowing those economies to grow and flourish. Each time we purchase ethically grown coffee from a local coffee shop we are supporting local farmers around the worlds, helping farmers care for their families and send their kids to school, and improving entire communities. You are also supporting local business owners here in the United States to support their families. It’s a win-win for everyone. Besides, you can’t beat the quality.
When I asked Ben about the downsides of buying coffee directly from farmers he mentioned two things. The first was that anytime you develop relationships with people there can be struggles as you cross cultures and try to address the needs of everyone involved. The other downside is that it’s more expensive. Trying to resell ethically traded coffee at a price customers are will to buy cuts the profit margins, but that a price OQ is willing to accept.
So the next time you are in the grocery store and see OQ Coffee, you can be confident that the supply chain is short and well researched, the owners are dedicated to bringing you the highest quality coffees, and your purchase is making a difference in the world. If you’d like to have them make you your very own cup, head over to their shop in Highland Park and make sure to ask Ben to tell you some of his travel stories. His taxi ride across the Honduras border was very entertaining.