Rohs Street Cafe is proud to be one of Cincinnati’s oldest fair and direct trade only coffee shops. When we opened our doors in 2003, it was of the utmost importance to us to maintain these standards - and it still is today. Fairness and economic sustainability are very important to us. All of the coffee, chocolate, and tea that we sell is fair or direct trade. We talk about fair trade coffee a lot here at the cafe, and I’d like to explain why we believe it’s so important.
Fair trade seems like a protest - it doesn’t make the most sense economically. Simply put, fair trade promises a fair price for a product - typically some form of produce like coffee or cacao (chocolate) no matter what. Often, a fair price is well above the average. When coffee isn’t fair trade, the price you pay for it is dictated by the “Commodity-Market Price.” The C-Market price is most often dictated by speculation - that is, an estimation of climate and rainfall among other things, and how they will affect the output of coffee farms next year. Commodity Market coffee has been stripped of its uniqueness - it's very depersonalizing. Folders, Kroger, and other national brands buy their coffee in this way.
Practically, you can see that this has a lot of problems inherent. For example, perhaps this year a small coffee farmer produces a good crop of high quality coffee, worthy of a high premium. If his neighbor produces low quality coffee though - when the two will be blended together for export, the lower price will prevail. Another example: perhaps this year the weather cooperates, and an excellent crop is produced. C-Market speculation might think that next year, there will also be a bumper crop - so prices this year are lowered as a result.
How Fair Trade is Different
Fair trade, though, approaches coffee buying from a different angle. As of the writing of this article, the C-Price stands at about $1.37US per pound. This is unusually high for the C-Market price, which just a few years ago was as low as $0.50US. Fair trade currently promises at least $1.40US per pound, with an additional thirty cents if the coffee is organic, and twenty cents to dedicate to community development.
That’s a lot of numbers. But what sets the fair trade pricing model apart is that is won’t change. Even if there was a catastrophic drought predicted for Brazil next year (note: Brazil is the world’s largest producer of coffee - its climate future often dictates the C-Price), fair trade certified farmers would still receive a minimum of $1.40US per pound. Often, prices are even higher than that. Producers that consistently deliver high quality arabicas will merit even higher premiums. Fair and direct trade coffees are built out of relationships. It means that we are committed to farmers - buying their coffee year after year, regardless of quality or quantity.
There are some problems inherent in the fair trade system though. Small farmers that own their own land, and that do not belong to a cooperative cannot be certified as fair trade. This rules out a great many producers, some of which are producing an excellent product. Though the system isn’t perfect, it’s the best way we’ve found to be certain that our producers are being paid well for their countless hours of hard work.
Where Your Dollars Go
Specialty Coffee is a fast growing business, and it can be tempting to see it as purely lucrative in a financial sense. At Rohs Street Cafe, we want you to know where your dollars are going - and in most cases, it’s not into our pockets. A large percentage of the money you spend on coffee here goes back to Guatemala, Ethiopia, or any of a few dozen or so coffee producing countries. Our higher prices (compared to Starbucks or other chains) do not reflect higher profits for us. We pay high prices for our coffee - and sure, the quality is a nice bonus. But what we’re most concerned with is changing the cultural identity of coffee drinking societies. We long for a future where every person involved in producing that delicious morning cup of coffee gets paid a fair and decent wage. Unfortunately, the mindset is ingrained, and it will take years and years to change it - probably longer than any of us will be around.
We’re proud, however, to be working in a shop and to be partnered with roasters that are working to change that. It’s a long road, and we’re only taking baby steps. But we’re certain that we’re moving in the right direction.