Interview with Groundwork’s Jeff Chean
Chief Coffee Guy Jeff Chean on getting started, sustainability, and moving into the Portland market.
Jeff: My name is Jeff Chean. My self-given title is Chief Coffee Guy. I took that title back in the ’90s because I don’t like pompous titles. I like something a little humorous, but now I see people using it for real. I saw a couple other people with like …
Ray: On the show last week, they’re Chief Happiness Officer.
Jeff: There you go.
Ray: As coffee gets bigger, it gets weirder, too, maybe.
Jeff: Yeah, well.
Ray: It’s good, though.
Jeff: It attracts the weird people like me.
Ray: What does that job title mean?
Jeff: Basically, in a word, not a word but a phrase, it’s like a curator of the flavors.
When you have a company, that company is projecting into the world what they think coffee should be like. All coffee companies, we have access to many of the same coffees. We’re kind of in a little special shell because we self-restrict ourselves to certified organic coffees.
There’s a bigger universe of specialty coffees out there, but we choose only the organics. What that coffee’s going to taste like, that’s kind of my job to figure that out. Find the good coffees. Decide how we’re going to use them, how we’re going to present them. More and more, over time, it is finding relationships at origin, establishing relationships, getting face-to-face, looking at farms, and seeing what they’re doing there.
Then, working with a big part of our company is about community. So, what does that mean?
How are you in a community with someone 3,000 or 10,000 miles away? We’re connected through this cup of coffee or this sack of coffee. A big part of what I want to do and what I’m trying to do is meet everybody that we’re buying from.
When we choose a coffee that we buy, typically (unless something egregious happens), we continue to buy that coffee year after year after year. Then, I want them to put a face to that and I want to be able to shake the hands of the people doing it and meet them, to see if there’s something that we can work together to help improve their lives, improve the coffee, that sort of thing. That’s a lot of what I do at origin.
Ray: Are there particular regions or countries where it’s harder to have that kind of relationship?
Jeff: I think people are people everywhere. When I was in Colombia not that long ago, I was with a group of a couple other coffee buyers and an importer. We went up to a place called Finca Jerusalem. They’re not organic, but it was the first time any foreign visitors had been there. It was just like you show up and they’re able to show off their farm and the things they’re doing and they prepare a beautiful meal. Their neighbors came over. When I say neighbors, you understand this was like a four-hour car ride that we had to stop in and take a two-hour horse ride up to the top, so their neighbors, you can see them, they’re way over there on other mountain tops. They came over. It was just a big to-do. To make that kind of connection, for him to see the people … one of the people on our trip was already buying coffee from him. It was just a big thing. They never really see who they’re buying or selling to.
On an Organic Focus
Ray: I assume, like you said, it kind of self-selects that you’re doing organic. Is that tricky to explain to people? When you’re meeting with the person that you just mentioned, did that come up?
Jeff: Yeah. Let me give you a great example because I have a fresh statistic from my trip the of Honduras. Of all the Honduran coffee that’s grown—and they’re in the top five growers in terms of volume in the world—5% of their coffee is specialty. Only 5%. (Specialty being a score of 80 or above on the Specialty Coffee Association scale of quality.) Of that 5%, I asked them, “So how much of that is organic?” They couldn’t even tell me.
That’s what it feels like. Like I was saying, there’s this wide universe of beautiful coffees and I can only choose this special slice of it. One of the reasons that I also am traveling more and more is to ensure our supply chain.
For five years, we bought coffee from a place in Mexico in Oaxaca. This year, they notified us they dropped their organic certification. It’s happening more and more and that’s because it’s not easy to maintain. With the outbreak of Roya (the rust), there isn’t necessarily access to the non-aggrotoxin solutions to that widespread, or there’s not even a belief, necessarily, that they’ll work.
The fact is that if you’ve got to choose if you’re going to starve or maintain the integrity of your organic certification, you’re going to choose to eat. And, you should choose to eat. That’s the right choice.
Part of what I want to do is go out there and meet people who are interested or in transition. In some cases, when you’re transitioning from a conventional to an organic farmer, there’s a loss of yield, so we help them make it through that transition period, helping them by paying a premium on the coffees.
In the case of Colombian, we’re buying some of the organic coffees from that group that they’re already organic. Some of them, not all of them, we’re paying an extra premium that goes to help support the organic program, people transitioning. Help them get a little more money on the coffee before it’s certified and commands the premium.
I think I answered that question.
Ray: I was hoping you were going to say it was like being Indiana Jones, but that’s close enough.
Jeff: I know what you’re referring to. I said that phrase tongue in cheek and then I took it and ran with it. As I told my soon-to-be-ex wife, coffee grows in dangerous places and my job is to go where coffee is. Some of the things, when I go there, I’ll go as a judge with the Cup of Excellence, which is a group based out of here, by the way. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them. That kind of process can bring life-changing money to farmers. In the case of one of the stories in the article where I was in Burundi, my wife is flipping out and she wants me to come back, and I’m like, “You know what? I’m not walking out on this, because this is such a big deal for the farmers. I’m staying to finish this and to see it out.”
Ray: I do know the Cup of Excellence people. Also, I literally just thought of that Indiana Jones thing. I have no idea what article you’re referring to.
Jeff: Oh, okay, good.
Going Back in Time
Ray: Apparently, it’s not the first time. That’s kind of funny. Let’s go back a little bit, just so we can actually talk about your history, your story. Tell me about Supreme Bean.
Jeff: Even before that was Joe To Go.
Jeff: Dropped out of law school, just sort of trying to figure out what the hell to do with my life, and I stumbled on an opportunity. I grew up in LA and around a lot of the entertainment industry, and coffee is huge in that industry, obviously. Delivering fresh-brewed coffee, donuts, bagels, muffins on set to locations, that’s what I started doing.
I got into the NBC lot somehow, and then I picked up one show and then Days Of Our Lives. Here, I’ll age myself: Saved By The Bell and California Dreaming and Fresh Prince. Then, I took over the entire lot at some point. Greg Kinnear was on at that point and The Tonight Show was still there.
Coffee’s a big deal. People sometimes won’t work until the coffee’s there. From there, I just exercised my control freak side and said, “You know what? I need to control the quality better of the coffee that I’m using to brew.” I started experimenting with roasting. Then, I opened up a small roastery where I was roasting. Then, I realized that I really enjoyed that a lot more than the “we need five cups of coffee and three donuts quartered at four in the morning in Malibu” side of the job.
So, I started focusing more on building the coffee roasting side, which eventually became Supreme Beans. I took the assets out of Joe To Go and I merged that with another small company, like size, that was called Supreme Bean and we started to grow that together.
Throughout this time, Groundwork—which was called, at that time Gourmet Coffee Warehouse—was owned by Karno and we were friendly. We’d get together. Back in those days, things weren’t as collegial as they are now. You’re seeing an environment which is phenomenal. Everyone’s open; everyone’s sharing. Back then, it was more like you kept your cards close to your vest. Now, it’s just all the boats rise is the prevalent way to think of things and I agree with that. He and I would get together and be friendly, and that was nice, because we could talk and commiserate over things that we were happening and businesses and families and whatever.
One day, I believe it was at the specialty coffee show in Long Beach, he said, “I’m done. You need to buy me.”
I’m like, “Okay.”
I brought a partner in at that point, a year or two before. We talked about it. We took over his wholesale side and then realized that the wholesale and the retail need to be on the same track and going in the same direction, so we brought in a third partner at that point. He was done with the retail at that point in time, too, so we bought the retail rather than having that go somewhere else and diverged from what we were trying to do with the wholesale side of it. Now, it’s two different companies. One’s wholesale; one’s retail. Actually, a third company, which is based out of here, and that’s sort of Supreme Bean and Groundwork story.
Back when we were Supreme Bean, we were the only people—us and maybe a couple others—were talking about coffee as a culinary aspect and looking at what the heritage of the coffee is and the varieties and looking at the variety as an issue. At least, that we were seeing on the streets in Los Angeles. Back then, it was Colombian Supremo. The flavor profile was Colombian.
Now, I almost don’t care where the coffee comes from in terms of … I’m more interested in the flavors it brings to the palette. If I have five coffees from Peru but they’re all bringing different things, then that’s fine. It’s almost, again, we’re talking about older school ways of thinking. That sort of Central American or South American and Indonesian, it’s kind of been thrown out the window with the bath water. Had a great Nicaraguan the other day which I thought was a phenomenal Ethiopian. Just the process and the varieties that really matter.
Ray: Yeah, I’ve definitely noticed a lot more attention to the process. In the late ’90s, when I was getting into specialty coffee, like you say, all you cared about was what region it was.
Jeff: I need a Sumatran. I don’t care.
PDX & the Beach
Ray: Exactly. You mentioned Venice Beach and Portland being similar. What brought Groundwork to Portland, and what are the similarities?
Jeff: I’ll start with the similarities. It’s just like both very left leaning to begin with. Artistic community, certainly back in the days, in the ’90s. Now, it’s a lot different.
Where we have one of our stores on Rose Avenue, 20 years ago was there’s the Rose Café and there was maybe the Double Rainbow Ice Cream and lots of upholstery stores and a church. Now, it’s very high end. It’s just different.
Same thing on Abbot Kinney, which is a big street down in that Venice area. Venice stopped being a separate city, but like a neighborhood in the city of LA. Sort of like Slabtown is to Portland, Venice is to LA, Hollywood is to LA, North Hollywood is to LA. Just different neighborhoods.
I think that the feel of the city and the feel of that neighborhood, the really artistic—I think—expression and the feeling of that and the political leaning, which ties in with our political leaning, those are some issues where we come together. You’re talking to people, and it’s like you’re all on the same page, especially when we’re talking about coffee.
This is such a great coffee town. For a long time, back again to the ’90s, LA was kind of like a desert. Well, it is a desert, but I mean it’s a desert for coffee. There’s a couple specialty coffee roasters out there, and then there was the really big commercial players who were flooding the coffee market with not such great commercial coffee, but that was inexpensive. One guy also was offering a phenomenal pancake mix and people wouldn’t switch out of this terrible coffee because they just love that pancake mix. Yeah, right?
Again, we took more of a culinary approach. At that time, one of the people working for us was a certified chef. He was roasting. Just saying, “Look, you should put the same attention into choosing your coffee that you do into your meat and every element on your table should be something you’re thinking about.” You do already, except for the coffee, which is the afterthought. Really, it’s the last, not to sound like a sales guy here, but the last chance you have to make a great first impression on your customers, the flavor of the coffee as they’re walking out. How many great meals have been killed …
I use a story here. Going to steakhouse in Los Angeles. It’s a national chain. Great meat. It’s a liquid concentrate coffee called Douwe Egberts, which you find, apparently, at this chain, at Burger King, and sometimes in prison and it’s not very good. That’s what they’re serving with their $150 steak. I’m like there’s just like …
Ray: A little disconnect there.
Jeff: Yeah, a total disconnect.
Jeff: Yeah, exactly, some sort of dissonance going on there. It was convenient and it’s just coffee.
Ray: How has Portland treated you so far? How has it gone here?
Jeff: It’s been interesting. We bought Tin Man, I guess because they were going out of business, and it was a good way to get another couple stores, because I think Kobos was closing down one store, at the time that we were buying. They lost the lease. They were renovating the building, so they didn’t renew the lease.
We wanted a little bit more of a presence. It’s growing slowly. One of the other similarities about Venice and Portland is the strength of the concept of local and what that means. Whereas I think we’ve been welcomed by many, many people, there are other people who are like, “You’re not local.” In one sense, we are; in one sense, we’re not, because we have a big business in Los Angeles. In another sense, we have a coffee roastery, and we’re roasting everything here and sourcing it here. We have 40 people that we’re employing here and want to grow our presence here. We like it here. I’d like to move here.
There’s a little bit of an element like that. Actually, the people I get that the most from, interestingly, are Uber drivers who are not from here. Someone’s telling me about how they hate people coming from Los Angeles in this really thick Brooklyn accent. I’m like, “Well, wait a minute, are you from here originally? It sounds like you’re from the East Coast.”
“Yeah, yeah, but it was 15 years ago. I’m a Portlander now.”
Yeah, well, let’s talk to someone who was born here and see if they agree with your assessment. They’re the loudest. I think some of the people who were born here, they are the most mellow and they’re the most welcoming has been my experience.
Ray: Just as an aside, I thought about Tin Man, for some reason, were they doing office work, like office coffee or something like that, or was it just retail?
Jeff: It was retail, from my understanding.
Jeff: They have that store-
Ray: Well, you would know.
Jeff: The great thing about having partners is we segregate some of what we do. So, they do what they do. One’s a finance operations, one’s a business development and marketing, and I’m the coffee guy and quality guy. We work with each other and try to let each other have influence in their particular spheres.
Ray: What does it mean to be a sustainable coffee company?
Jeff: That’s a great question, because there was a recent article about something like that, and I think it means different things. To me, what it means is supporting sustainable programs, agricultural programs. I mean, it’s multifaceted. But, let’s start there.
Everywhere we can buy coffee that’s Rainforest Alliance Certified or [inaudible 00:18:42] certified, we do that. It isn’t always available, because those certifications cost additional, so the farmers will have some of their coffee organic, some will be fair trade organic, some will be fair trade organic rainforest, some will have all the certifications, and then there’ll be just organic. When they’re out of one, they’ve got the others. Same exact coffee. It’s not like this coffee that doesn’t have a rainforest cert, someone did something different on that. It’s the same coffee, it just doesn’t carry that cert. We look for farms that are certified that way, and we try to get the coffees that are certified that way. If we can’t, we are at least assured that they meet the standards of the rainforest.
What it means locally is, I think, how do you treat your employees? What’s your systems and things you have in the business in terms of renewal methods? At our roastery, we have 102 solar panels. We’re generating 220 kilowatts of electricity a day. The roasters that we use … Well, now we have our Loring, but one of them used electrical heating elements and we wanted that to be clean energy and we wanted to try to minimize the carbon footprint on the coffee.
Actually, we have two Lorings now, and they’re not so heavy on electricity, but they’re definitely a sustainable and low carbon footprint roasting method. We have ultra low NOx burners. If you have kids, that’s a big thing to me, too. I mean, up here, the air is … Just looking outside, you don’t see beautiful days like this all the time in Los Angeles. Oftentimes, there’s kind of a yellowy-gray cast. It’s very common if you have kids in nursery school, they’ll get RSV very young and they’ll start having asthmatic issues. Hopefully they outgrow them. Sometimes they don’t. That’s due to the particulate in the air and I don’t want to be contributing to the particulate.
I’m not like a garage roaster. I never have been. We’ve always had pollution-controlled devices, because I think it’s ethically and morally the right thing to do.
We’ve always had medical insurance for our employees before it was mandated, because I think that’s also the ethical and the right thing to do.
Always had vacation and paid vacation, even though the food service industry, especially in cafes, that is not usually the case. That’s something that I have always and my partners have always felt that morally and ethically the right thing to do. Treat your people like the tribe. Treat everything sustainably: people, resources, and then agronomy at the Origin.
Ray: I’ll wait to ask the question.
Ray: What’s next for Groundwork? Going into New York?
Jeff: No. Really, we’re opening up four stores, four more in LA, and then we’re going to open up a couple more up here. Then, we’re just sort of consolidating.
We wanted a presence here. Sort of changing our view of ourselves from an LA company to a West Coast company. Maybe something in San Francisco at some point. Maybe something in Seattle. Right now, Portland and Los Angeles. It’s enough.
Then, developing our grocery. I know we’re doing a lot of grocery. Our cold brew, we’re building out. Have a brewery. We’re expanding it. We have a bright tank, so we do our own nitro. We’re introducing a keg program and canning coffee, and we’re doing the bottles for the cold brew. We’re experimenting with different types of cold brew formulations I can’t talk about yet but would love to. Just trying to find new and innovative and creative things to do. We’re not necessarily got some master plan to take over the world. We want to share the good word about organics and educate people as to why that’s a good thing, as well as keeping a connection between Origin and the communities that we’re in.
We actually have farmers in on occasion. We bring some of our growers in that we work with and we’ll talk in some of the cafes about the coffees that we bring in from them. That’s keeping connections, building community.