What's My Story: Coffee Sustainability Manager

Coffee buyer and Sustainability Manager Kim Elena is welcomed by a coffee community in Bolivia.

As Counter Culture Coffee’s Buyer and Sustainability Manager, Kim Elena constantly strives to improve the quality of coffee she is able to buy and roast, and to develop and strengthen relationships with producing partners all over the world. 

When did you discover that you wanted to be a coffee buyer and sustainability manager?
I didn’t fall in love with coffee until I got here, to Counter Culture. I started as a mediocre barista at a mediocre coffee shop. I took a class on espresso — the history of espresso, its culture, all of the different places that coffee grows. Although that course didn’t really focus on the social justice issues of coffee growing, it hinted at these ideas and that planted a seed.

What did you study in school?
Not anything related to coffee. But when I was in middle school, we had to choose a language. I was leaning towards French but my best friend wanted me to take Spanish with her. So I did. I’m SO glad she made me do that. So much of my job depends upon personal relationships and trust. When I travel to these small, isolated mountain communities, negotiating coffee growing without a translator gives us both a lot of confidence. My interest in Spanish continued in college. I studied English and Spanish literature. After college, I didn’t really know what to do but settled on working in a bookstore. I saw an ad for just such a job. When I didn’t get it, I walked out of the bookstore, crushed, but I walked into the coffee shop next door and got a job as a barista. I’ve been back to that coffee shop and thanked the owner for leading me to this fantastic career.

Where did your career take you?
I enjoyed working as a barista, but I wanted to do something that I felt more connected to. I wanted to use a bigger part of my brain. I started Google searching things I was interested in, like fair trade coffee. I found a trip to Nicaragua, as part of Global Exchange, where I could live with a coffee farm family for two weeks. The trip was cheap. I had a flexible job. So I applied and got accepted. I didn’t think I was going to build my coffee career, but I came back motivated to find some other work. I happened to see a job in the Independent, a job at Counter Culture Coffee (CCC), to do customer support for grocery stores. I spent the first few years driving around North and South Carolina doing grocery store demos.

This was a really interesting 10 years to be in coffee. There was a lot of customer interest in sustainable food. By 2007, the coffee buyer for CCC was traveling and writing about his trips. We found that customers really wanted to know about who was growing their coffee. I had been learning how to build relationships with customers. The grocery store demos taught me to understand what people were interested in. I proposed to do the same on the producer side of things—to build relationships with our growers.

The Board of CCC recognized they needed to do more with sustainability, both to make our coffee better and to distinguish ourselves for our customers. So that’s how I got the job of Coffee Buyer and Sustainability Manager. 

What do you like about your job today?
I get to travel! On a typical trip, I fly out of RDU to Miami to meet with the small landholder farmers up the mountains of Latin America. The small landowners are typically organized into co-ops. When I arrive, one of the larger farmers, who has a car and a phone, picks me up for the long drive into the mountains. When we get to a co-op, perhaps 50 representatives from other co-ops have made the long drive to meet with us too.

If I am just meeting a group of farmers for the first time, the relationship is full of promise. The farmers are hoping for more money than ever seen. They throw parties. Animals are slaughtered. Dances are had. I walk around. I eat a lot of food of in people’s homes. I get a sense of the social and environmental conditions, asking myself: Is this a well-organized group? Do the farmers trust the co-op? Is this worthy of a long-term investment? The openness and welcome is intoxicating during year one. 

During years 2 and 3 and 4, growers are working harder and not getting as rich as they thought they would. Year 3 is really awkward. Everyone is disappointed. This is where the real trust begins. We learn how to make better agreements, taking into account that farming is unpredictable. By years 5 and 6, we are buying from co-ops that are certified organic. The co-op has money to hire women from the community. The money they make can be transformational. I think about numbers a lot in my job: calculating how much farmers are able to produce, the age of the trees, the amount of fertilizer, how much land, the yield of coffee/hectare and the price they are getting. It’s a tricky balance, telling growers what our customers want. 

- By Lucy Laffitte

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