Coffee, staple or luxury?

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

A friend wrote to me that her brother-in-law (Matt) in Ohio has started up his own coffee roasting company, and she asked if I would be interested in purchasing some. She included this note from Matt:

Dear Friends and Family,

We are sending this email to share with you the great opportunity
that God has presented us with and to ask for your support. As many
of you may already know, we have been working on starting a coffee
roasting business. In December we bought a roaster from a wonderful
family who are now missionaries in Honduras. They were very generous
and gave us many of the things we needed to get started. They also
gave us a lot of unroasted beans which we have given away as samples
or Christmas presents, but we still have approximately 50 pounds
left. This is where you can help us launch the business and try our
coffee. We would like to sell all of this coffee at $10 a pound in
the next two weeks. All of the coffee is organic and "more than fair
trade" (we also have some water processed decaf). Most of the coffee
is Honduran, but if you would like to try something else we have a
couple of other coffees in very limited quantities. By purchasing
this coffee you will help us to create an adequate startup inventory
of beans, launch a website, and purchase other necessary supplies.
If you want to order let us know how much you want, and whether you
want whole bean or ground and we get it out to you soon. Shipping
rates will be as follows:
Ohio $5 for 1 to 3 pounds.
All other states we will email you the exact amount.Please contact us with any other questions.

Thanks and God bless!
-The Browns

This interests me. I love that the coffee's organic, home-grown, home-roasted, that it’s a family business, and even that there’s the missionary connection (because, my views on "salvation" aside, missionaries do some really valuable work with people who desperately need help). I believe that my friend's brother-in-law will take care to ensure people are treated fairly and responsibly all along the product chain, and that’s important to me.

On the other hand, it’s not a local business, and I wanted to really focus on buying local, and the coffee's quite expensive, especially with shipping. How can I justify spending that much now that we have a substantially reduced income?

The first negative can be dismissed because, no coffee is local, and I will continue to buy coffee simply because it is so much of our American lifestyle, so the only valid issue is the cost, and I so I need to consider that more closely.

I have been thinking of coffee basically as if it were a staple, but that’s that's likely due to the fact that I am accustomed to relatively cheap, non-fair-trade coffee. For some time now I’ve been buying some fair-trade coffee if I happened to be at Trader Joe’s, and I recently decided to switch entirely to fair-trade, for ethical reasons, but I hadn’t really thought much about why coffee is in my cupboard at all. Now that I am considering it, it's clear that coffee is not a staple at all but rather a luxury item.

Our resolution to simplify is not about becoming ascetics, but it does require that we recognize the difference between needs and wants and, extending the concept, between staples and luxuries. I've decided I will try Matt's coffee. When it arrives and I have my first cup, I'll appreciate it all the more for recognizing that it's a luxury item.