What We Talk About When We Talk About Partnerships

By Evan Howe

Jan 30, 2023

When we describe our approach to coffee buying at Passenger, the word “partnership” tends to come up a lot. And we are far from unique in using this word within the specialty coffee industry1. But what do we actually mean when we use the word “partnership” to describe one of Passenger’s core sourcing relationships? What do we mean by “producer partner” when we use the term as a description of someone that we buy coffee from2? These may seem to be unnecessarily abstract questions to raise, but talking about partnerships is probably the best way to unpack the values that we try to weigh when making purchasing decisions. Put another way: trying to honestly explore the question of what a fair and mutually beneficial partnership between a roasting company and a coffee producer could look like over time is the central project of our sourcing program.


Concern one: "Partnership" can mean many things

One concern that motivated our desire to offer a clearer definition of what we mean by “partnership” was an awareness that the word is commonly used in a wide variety of ways. Partnership can be understood rather broadly, in the sense of two parties working together towards a shared goal. But it can also be defined more narrowly to describe a relationship that involves an element of commitment, close collaboration, or legally binding association. Given the different ways that the word can be used, and given the strategic marketing benefits of the language of partnership within the specialty coffee market, there is an obvious risk that—without clear definitions—a coffee buying entity may intentionally or unintentionally romanticize, if not grossly misrepresent, the nature of their relationship with a producer that they buy coffee from.

To pose this concern in a different way: if we describe ourselves as “building a partnership” with producers that we buy coffee from, how is this socalled partnership meaningfully different from any other transactional relationship? Can we honestly describe some of our coffee buying relationships as partnerships, or would it be more honest, and accurate, to simply describe ourselves as these coffee producers’ customers?

What Partnership signifies for us

We use the word "partnership" to describe some, but not all, of our coffee buying relationships. When we refer to a coffee farmer as a “producer partner,” we are identifying that individual as a producer that our company aspires to work with in a particular way over time. To explain more about what this entails, let’s start with a little background information regarding the genesis of our sourcing philosophy. Closer to the start of our journey as a roasting company, Passenger’s green buying team would regularly receive this question from coffee farmers that we were working with: “What will it take for you to buy more of my coffee?” At the time, we were already prioritizing repeat purchases from many of the same farmers every year, and we were paying highly competitive prices for the lots we contracted. However, in many cases, the coffees selected for Passenger’s menu represented only a small percentage of the farmers’ total annual harvest. We were essentially cherry-picking: buying the best lots we could get our hands on and leaving it to the farmer, the exporter, or the importer to find other buyers for the remaining large percentage of lower scoring but still excellent specialty-grade coffees from that year’s harvest3. One does not need to be a business expert to understand that fabulous prices for a few particularly high-scoring microlots does not represent a viable business proposition for a coffee farmer if the remaining majority of the harvest cannot be sold at a reasonable profit year after year.

Passenger’s Foundational sourcing program was created as a response to that completely reasonable question we kept receiving from coffee farmers we were buying coffee from. Since 2018, we have purchased the vast majority of our annual volume from six producers/producing communities (Agaro, Cusco, Daterra, Divino Niño, Heza, and Montecarlos) that we refer to collectively as the Foundational Partnerships4. For each of these partnerships, our goal is the same: to buy as significant a volume as we can each year on an ongoing basis, intentionally prioritizing the purchase of as broad a spectrum of available quality grades as possible.

So when we describe one of our coffee buying relationships as a partnership, we are using that word to underline a particular type of long-term, focused investment that we are committed to making—provided the producer or producing community sees value in working with us in this way.

As stated earlier, we do not buy 100% of our coffee from Foundational Partners. There are a number of remarkable coffee producers that Passenger has been a longtime repeat customer of that it would be inaccurate for us to describe as partners in the same sense5. We absolutely hope to continue to have the opportunity to buy small lots from these producers, and we are incredibly proud to work with their coffees, but we have not invested in these relationships in the same way and want to be up-front about that. From day one, the aim of the Foundational Partnerships has been to focus more of our coffee buying dollars in fewer places, and it logically follows that there is a limit to the number of relationships that we can approach in this way.

Divino Niño producer Adriana Gonzalez, pictured with her husband Francisco, their children Jhojan, Mari, and Jefferson; Evan Howe, and Crystal Weaver

Concern two: Speaking for Coffee Farmers

A second potential area of risk that we perceive in relation to our use of the word “partnership” is the danger of being interpreted as presuming to speak not only for ourselves, but also for the farmers who produce coffee that we buy. While most definitions of partnership include some notion of likeminded collaboration or mutual investment in a shared enterprise, coffee buying entities (roasters, importers, etc.) often seem most likely to be the ones using the word partnership to describe their relationships with coffee producers, whereas it seems less clear that the majority of producers would describe entities that buy their coffee as their partners. In our anecdotal experience, many coffee producers more commonly refer to roasters and importers simply as “buyers.”

It may be that the distinction we are getting at here is fairly minor. And it is probably true that many coffee producers don’t particularly care whether they are selling to a “partner” or a “buyer” if they can count on fair prices, consistently and for the long term. While that may be true, we do think there are questions of voice, intent, and ethics that potentially come into play here. At the very least, we want to acknowledge that partnership generally implies a shared enterprise and that, when our team talks about producer partnerships, it is generally our voices, rather than voices of producers that we are referring to as partners, that are primarily represented.

To be clear, the existing partnerships that we are proud to be a part of include elements of human connection and collaboration that transcend simple buying intentions. We feel incredibly fortunate to count many of the producers and other supply chain actors that we have worked closely with over the years as not just partners, but also dear friends. But, with that said, we want to emphasize that:

All coffee producers that we buy from, including those we refer to as partners, are under absolutely no obligation to continue selling coffee to us. And, as with any relationship, each of Passenger’s foundational partnerships is a work in progress.

While we are genuinely motivated to be the kind of buyers that make ongoing partnership with Passenger an appealing prospect for producers, we do not take their decision to work with us lightly— and our referring to producers as partners does not imply anything unusual in terms of expectations. These are not “our” coffees; these are not “our” relationships. These coffee producers do not owe us anything. Passenger has been fortunate to have the opportunity to buy amazing coffees from the same six producing communities for a number of years—a continuity that has been incredibly valuable to us as our company has grown. We hope to continue building each of these partnerships indefinitely, but we will never take the continued opportunity to do so for granted.

With every year and every successive harvest, we try to increase our understanding of each producer partner’s goals—and specific challenges—while continuing to ask the question of how best to build the partnership in a mutually beneficial way.

Concern three: Context/Oversimplification

A final area of concern that we want to highlight is that the word “partnership” potentially conjures an oversimplified picture of how we source coffee, failing to convey the extent to which the particulars of how we source coffee vary in every producing region where we are currently working. Without the benefit of additional context, one could understandably assume that when we talk about “producer partnerships” in different countries, we are describing essentially the same scenario: a direct, personal collaboration with an individual farmer who grows, processes, mills, and ships us exportable green coffee that we have agreed to purchase. Briefly unpacking some of the broad differences between our approach to coffee buying from Foundational Partners in El Salvador and Burundi illustrates that it is just not that simple.

View partner

Passenger has counted the Montecarlos Estate—a large coffee farm owned and operated by Carlos and Julie Batres in Apaneca, El Salvador—as one of our key sourcing relationships since 2017. We work with Carlos and Julie in a direct and personal way each year, and given the large scale of their operation, they are “producers” of our Montecarlos coffees in a comprehensive sense. With the support of seasonal and year-round workers that they employ, Carlos and Julie oversee the coffee harvest, manage coffee processing and drying at their own wet mill, correspond with Passenger’s green-buying team to confirm lot selections and contracts, and coordinate milling and export in collaboration with an independent dry mill. Passenger currently works with Atlantic Specialty Coffee to import and finance our coffees from Montecarlos, but we rely on the Batres family’s support for all other aspects of our coffee buying in El Salvador.

View partner

Another of Passenger’s key sourcing relationships is the partnership that we have built in Burundi with the Long Miles Coffee Project since 2016. The Long Miles team, founded by Ben and Kristy Carlson, exists to serve as a key point of connection between smallholder coffee farmers in rural Burundi and the international specialty market. In contrast to the model of coffee production in El Salvador that we described above, it would be inaccurate to describe the Long Miles team as the farmers behind our Burundian coffees, but accurate to describe them as the producer of our Burundian lots. Long Miles owns and operates multiple washing stations in Burundi that serve as processing sites for the coffee farming communities that live in the surrounding hills. During harvest, local farmers, who typically cultivate coffee at a very small scale, deliver freshly picked coffee cherries to the washing stations, where the day’s deliveries are sorted, weighed, and purchased. 6 The Long Miles team manages all aspects of the production of our lots from farmer delivery to eventual export: cherry selection and purchase, processing, drying, sampling and contracts, dry milling, transport, and eventual export. Passenger currently works with Osito Coffee to import and finance our coffees from Burundi, but Long Miles continues to play the central role in helping us to build the Heza Foundational Partnership and source coffees every year from the farming communities that they work with.

Every Partnership is Different and Each Reflects Many Individuals and Roles

The point we hope to clarify with the Montecarlos/Long Miles comparison is that, while our values and intentions as buyers are the same in El Salvador, in Burundi, and in each sourcing relationship that we refer to as a partnership, the significant differences in context throughout the coffee producing world means that the particulars of partnership vary significantly in every place where we buy coffee.

Martha Olaya (above). Edilma Bermeo (below)

Focusing on these inherent differences underlines an additional fact that is worth emphasizing: in every sourcing relationship that we describe as a partnership, Passenger works with many individuals and entities, not just one.

Our intention for the Foundational Partnerships is unambiguously farmer-focused: in choosing to devote the lion’s share of our annual buying to six producing communities, we are hoping to reduce risk and uncertainty for those coffee farmers and serve as fair and reliable buyers for as large a percentage of their annual harvest as we can - provided this supports their goals.

But, in our continued pursuit of this sourcing model, we rely on the support of many additional partners whose support, resources, and expertise have been absolutely instrumental to the development of Passenger’s producer partnerships thus far. Without the importers, exporters, QC teams, and logistics and freight specialists that we work closely with to source coffees, move coffees around the world, and finance coffees while preserving them in the freezer, we would be nowhere in this work. So, while our primary motivation in seeking to build partnerships is always to offer more appealing business to coffee farmers as buyers, it is important to acknowledge that there are other key actors who are centrally involved in each partnership and who provide essential support to us in our ongoing efforts.

  1. As a quick tour of specialty roasting brands, including ours, immediately emphasizes, the notion of “producer partnerships” seems core to many coffee companies’ sourcing philosophies and a key part of how coffees obtained through these sourcing programs are marketed.
  2. This introductory section was partly inspired by a number of insightful questions regarding the use of the term “partnership” in coffee marketing that were posed by Ever Meister in a presentation that was shared online as a part of The Barista League’s High Density conference in March, 2021. The entire presentation is highly recommended and can be found here: High Density. (2021, March 9) Ethical Marketing: Exploring Ways That We Can Decolonize Our Assets, Actions, and Words | Ever Meister [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pncHoeRoHYo&t=39s
  3. To be clear, we don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with this approach, especially when a company is transparent about this being their sourcing model. What we do find problematic is when companies buy their coffee in this way while also claiming or implying that this kind of ‘microlot buying’ represents a sustainable business proposition for small coffee farmers.
  4. During the 2022 harvest year, 91% of the total volume contracted for Passenger and its sister company, Necessary Coffee, was sourced from the Foundational Partnerships
  5. In the 2022 harvest year, the remaining 9% of our total volume was sourced outside the Foundational Partnerships. (In recent years, this percentage has fluctuated from approximately 10% to approximately 25% of Passenger’s overall buying. Depending on the year, these coffees have run the gamut from larger bulk purchases from coffee farmers in Espíritu Santo, Brazil, to microlot purchases from producers that Passenger has been a repeat customer of for many years (La Tortuga, Mario Moreno, etc.), to one-off special purchases in online coffee auctions (Cup of Excellence, Gesha Village, etc.).
  • Agaro is the name of a small town in southwestern Ethiopia’s Jimma Zone, within the regional state of Oromia. Clustered around Agaro town are scores of washing stations where local smallholder farmers deliver their freshly harvested coffee cherries to be processed. Some of these washing stations are privately owned and operated, but many are managed by farmer cooperatives.

    Shop Agaro

    Asnake Nigat, formerly of Kata Muduga Union with Fikru Ashenafi of Addis Exporter