As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Darrin Daniel.
Darrin Daniel began his career in specialty coffee in the ’80s working as a barista and later as a roaster’s assistant for the Eugene, Oregon roaster/retailer Coffee Corner, Ltd. He has worked for coffee companies in Seattle, Portland and Denver. His early work with illycaffè began his interest and growth into coffee education and training. Daniel’s was the Head Green Coffee Buyer for Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Director of Sourcing for Allegro Coffee/Whole Foods Market. Daniel’s has traveled to over 34 countries sourcing green coffee and tea. He has forged numerous relationships with coffee growers, mill managers and private and public organizations in Latin America, East Africa and the Indo/Pacific.
He has served on the Sustainability Council for the SCA and the Executive Council for the Roasters Guild of America. He currently serves on the advisory board for Roast Magazine. Brandon Loper’s 2014 Documentary A Film About Coffee features Daniel’s travels to Rwanda as Head Coffee Buyer for Stumptown Coffee Roasters. His writings have appeared in Roast Magazine, SCA’s Magazine 25, Barista Magazine and Standart Magazine. Daniel previously served as a judge on 5 Cup of Excellence Juries, beginning with his first in Honduras in 2005. In 2015 he was awarded Imbibe Magazine’s Coffee Person of the Year.
Thank you so much for your time Darrin! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’m originally from Eugene, Oregon and have been in the specialty coffee industry since 1985. I got started in the coffee business while I was attending the University of Oregon studying literature. My story is a bit unconventional as someone who now serves as CEO of a 20 year old non-profit dedicated to discovering and rewarding small holder coffee farmers around the world. Though my first love was literature, the coffee business drew me in due to its rich cultural and historical connections to trade around the world.
After finishing my studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado and travels to Nepal to study Tibetan culture, I landed back in the Pacific Northwest and began working for the coffee company that gave me my first start as a barista. This return to coffee after college piqued my interest and I chose to build a career working with some of the leaders in the industry. I worked for the Italian coffee company illycaffe and later began my work as a coffee buyer for Stumptown Coffee Roasters as well as Whole Foods’ coffee company, Allegro Coffee. The past two decades gave me opportunities to travel to over 30 countries and work with coffee and tea producers. I currently lead the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, which operates coffee competitions for farmers in over 11 countries.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take always’ you learned from that?
While I was working for a previous company as a junior level buyer, we had a supplier from a very famous and well known Kenyan coffee exporter visiting us and we were discussing the founder of the company and I mistakenly inserted the last name of another person and inadvertently used the wrong last name a couple of times. Finally, the guest interrupted me and said, “excuse me, you don’t even know Jeremy’s last name?” I was so embarrassed and ashamed. What I learned is that you must do your homework and you must prepare yourself at all times. This may have been a simple error, but for me it was a major lesson in “getting it right” the first time.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
One of the best books I have read about service and dedication in the workplace (and in one’s personal life) is Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business. His holistic approach to hospitality is a testament to achieving excellence in anything that you set out to do. It helped me to realize how to see things from another person’s perspective and how to manage expectations and also achieve goals in a collective manner. The depth and commitment that Meyer obtained in his business is a complete model of success and tenacious endeavor.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Our organization began over 20 years ago and we are a mission driven non-profit. Our vision has, for the most part, gone unchanged. We had begun the process in 1997 with a project funded by the International Trade Commission and we realized that many coffee producers around the world were not being incentive for their harvested and processed coffee. The ITC funded us to create a program to identify and reward coffee producers. By way of an online auction, we were able to host a post competition auction which was a great success in Brazil. Within two years, we began on-boarding most of the countries of Central America. To date we have worked in over 12 countries and have raised over $65 million dollars in auction proceeds to farmers and have identified producers around the world and provided market linkage into markets these producers had previously no access to. Our early research identified a perennial issue within the specialty coffee industry and our relevance and purpose have gone unchanged as we centered in on a problem and created a successful solution to that problem.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Never stop learning. This has been the most vital and essential lesson in not only my personal life, but certainly in my career. The minute you stop learning and listening, then the walls start to move in on you. Learning is not just about take always and lessons learned, it is where most inspiration comes from.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
This has been an extremely difficult time for me as my two children live in Colorado and I co-parent them while I work and live in Portland, Oregon. When our shelter in place order came to Oregon, Colorado had already a much larger issue at the time. I was unable to visit them in April due to the danger of possibly contracting the virus. Their mother and I have had to adjust to this due to the pandemic. Being separated from your kids is a terrible thing and we have had a lot of zoom chats and push up challenges and time making lunch together over the phone or video chat. My oldest is in college in Northern Colorado and he most likely had a mild case of the virus, so for me personally, it has been a really challenging and tough experience.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The pandemic has forced our entire process to pivot from an event-based competition which we host in the countries where we work. With global lockdowns we have had to move to a sensory tasting competition with typically 18–24 judges all tasting the coffees in a blind panelist manner, to a new personalized Global jury vs an in-person jury. We have had to completely change the safe and sanitary nature of how we analyze each farmer’s coffee. We have had to employ a team of sensory judges from around the world to pitch in so that we would not have to cancel our program for the farmers who rely on our program and the auction that we provide to them. It has been a herculean process with our small staff to turn a 180 on most everything we do and not compromise anyone’s health or the livelihoods during this pandemic. My team has performed near miracles every day since things began in March. A couple of our partner countries had to cancel and that has impacted our financial picture and we continue to innovate and, in many ways, have seen how we can become a stronger and different organization as a result of the pandemic.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Well, I have told my staff and family to be vigilant and now is not the time to out think the virus or pretend it won’t be that bad. I was telling family and friends as well as my staff in early February that this would be very serious and that many of our members of our organization are from China and Korea, that the news we were getting from direct sources and friends there, that this would be a whole different situation unlike we have ever seen before. We were lucky to be able to receive information that I shared with all that would listen. I have suggested that people should get outside as much as possible and cut their media time down. This has helped me immensely. For me personally, meditation and deep breathing throughout the day has been very helpful. Reading books that inspire also have been immensely helpful.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
Due to the fact we are in the business of supporting coffee farmers and network with coffee companies around the world, we are hearing quite a lot of differing stories. Some countries have flattened the curve and been able to stabilize unemployment while other countries have some dire numbers to face. Luckily, coffee seems to be recession proof, but we will have to wait and see if it is depression proof. Our opportunity was the ability for us to totally transform our model to embrace the current situation. For these coffee companies that purchase coffees though our platform, it all depends upon their ability to also transform as well as the coffee producers themselves. Many coffee producers have been able to find ways to still harvest, process and get their product to market, but now we just need to see how heavily impacted the consumers are around the world.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think for some time it will be very hard for many of us to get back to normal life and feel safe at the gym or at the movie theater or football game. This is a depressing realization. I do think that we will never be the same on a plane or a crowded train until we have a safe and reliable vaccine. However, I do think this pandemic should be a wake up call for how we treat our so-called enemies or other countries. We are all so fragile and this is an important lesson. I think as we begin to start back towards normalcy, we should never forget what lessons we have learned personally and professionally. I travel a lot for my line of work and I am wondering if that will ever get back to normal in the short term. I miss it, but I realize a lot of what I do can still be done from my shelter in place or at my office. This may be a chance to limit my carbon footprint and work in a new manner.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
As we embrace the current situation and look to the future, we are keeping all options on the table in order for us to continue our current structure. We are taking our training and education program to a virtual space vs. our in-person class structure. We are now looking at globalizing our juries to reach a wider audience. COVID-19 actually forced us to transition our programming. This level of innovation is one of the positive aspects of working through this new normal. The biggest lesson I have learned is that we are stronger together finding solutions than not working together on the hardest aspects of what this pandemic has thrown at our organization.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
There’s got to be some silver lining when something this devastating happens, but it just might not seem possible. I would encourage those who need help to ask for that help without fear of being judged. We are at a time when reaching out to find a way to improve your organizations is critical.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist” Pablo Picasso
This quote reminds me about where strategy and planning meet passion and performance. You must master your world in a way that allows for you to create a new space, a level that lifts you from what’s impossible to the possible.
How can our readers further follow your work?
www.allianceforcoffeeexcellence.org is our website and where you can learn more about us and you can follow us on social @cupofexcellence.org.