Ray: I’m Ray.

Kandace: I’m Kandace.

Ray: Welcome to Unpacking Coffee. This week Groundwork Coffee of Los Angeles and…

Kandace: Venice Beach.

Ray: Portland. I was going to say …

Kandace: Oh, and Portland. That’s right. They’re here.

Ray: You know what, Kandace?

Kandace: Ray?

Ray: It occurs to me that we don’t have any coffee. Do you want to go get some?

Kandace: I think I’d prefer coffee, yeah.

Ray: All right.

Kandace: Whew. Well that was quite a … I think I drank all my coffee. But I feel like Venice Beach sounds more …

Ray: Well it’s not Los Angeles.

Kandace: It sounds more beachy.

Ray: It’s sounds like it’s non-Los Angeles.

Founding Story

Ray:  I spoke with Jeff Chean.

Image courtesy Groundwork Coffee

Jeff Chean: My name is Jeff Chean and my title, my self-given title is Chief Coffee Guy. I took the title back in the nineties because I don’t like pompous titles. I grew up, born and grew up in L.A. and around a lot of the entertainment industry, so dropped out of law school and just trying to figure out what the hell to do in my life. I stumbled on the opportunity delivering fresh-brewed coffee, donuts, bagels, and 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, The Days of our Lives…Fresh Prince and Greg Kinnear was on the Tonight Show with Silver. Coffee’s a big deal. People sometimes won’t work until the coffee’s there.

I said, “You know what? I need to control the coffee better that I’m using to brew,” and started experimenting with roasting and then I opened up a small roastery where I was roasting.

Then, I realized I really enjoyed that more than the, “We need five cups of coffee quarter to four in the morning in Malibu,” which eventually became Supreme Beans. So I took the assets out of Joe To Go and merged that with another small company, like sized, that was called Supreme Beans and we started to grow that together.

Throughout this time, Groundworks (which was called at that time Karno Coffee Warehouse) was owned by Richard Karno. We were friendly. Back in those days, things weren’t as collegial as they are now. One day, he said, “I’m done. You need to buy me.”

I’m like, “Uh. Okay, uh …”

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 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 diverge 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.

The Organic Challenge

Ray:They moved into Portland a few years back, so now we can get their delicious coffee anytime we want. The fact that they do all organic can be a challenge, which is one of the thing Jeff and I discussed at length.

Jeff Chean: Well, I’ll tell you what it’s like being a buyer of organic coffee. It’s like choosing to tie my strong arm behind my back and then say, ‘I’m going to go into a heavy-weight championship boxing match with just my left hand.’

That’s what it feels like. There’s this wide universe of beautiful coffees, and I can only choose this special slice of it and so that’s one of the reasons that I also am traveling more and more is to ensure our supply chain.

For five years we bought coffee in 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 and with the outbreak of roya (the rust), there isn’t necessarily access to the non-agritoxin solutions to that. It isn’t necessarily widespread, or there’s not even a belief necessarily that they’ll work. And the fact that you 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 and that’s the right choice.

Danger: Going Where the Coffee Is

Kandace: He’s written a pretty interesting article about going into dangerous areas to bring back coffee to us.

Jeff Chean: Coffee grows in dangerous places and my job is to go where coffee is. When I go there, I’ll go as a judge with Cup of Excellence and that kind of process can bring life-changing money to the farmers. In the case of one of the best 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 that I’m staying to finish this and see it out.”

Earthy Identity

Ray: So their logo appears to be a shovel and a spoon connecting you to the Earth.

Kandace: Yeah, but I have to say sometimes I get real tired of anything that is organic or sustainable being … I have this color in my mind that’s like the organic green and I just really like the fact that they have their own feel to it but then they’re also just really focused on being sustainable.

They do a really great job on the back of every bag just educating us a little bit about the social change that’s happening as a result of the power of your purchase. That’s pretty amazing. I think sometimes it can be hard to have a really strong tie to growers or what’s happening at source when you get coffee and they’re doing a really good job of …

Ray: They do, they put a lot of documentation on their packages, yeah.

Kandace: Because I think it’s for real.

Hitting the Ground in Portland

Kandace: So what about this move to Portland? What they hay?

Jeff Chean: 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 a lot of people who are like, “You’re not local.”

In one sense, we are. In one sense, we’re not because we have big business in Los Angeles and other sense, we have a coffee roastery and we’re roasting everything here and sourcing it here and 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. We want to share the good word about organics and educate people as to why that’s a good thing.

Ray: Groundwork Coffee Roasters of Venice Beach and Portland.

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