‘First and foremost, we are a service provider. Service is incredibly important to us.‘
Line has been Falcon’s head of specialty sales since 2019. She graduated as an agronomist and started her coffee journey in Venezuela and Peru. Before joining Falcon, she was working with an exporter in Tanzania. She is a passionate promoter of sustainability, in particular gender equity in coffee supply chains and is working to increase the number of coffees sourced from female led producer groups.
1 How’s 2023 going? What have been the wins and challenges so far?
We’ve had a few challenges that I think many people in coffee will relate to. A cost of living crisis continues to impact Europe, especially in the UK where at the time of writing, inflation is almost 9%. Coffee is more expensive to sell and customers are less flexible with buying, which of course isn’t a great combination. Working around this and trying to find ways to decrease the impact on our partners – both suppliers and clients, has been our main challenge so far this year.
We also had to say goodbye to Riley this year, marking the end of a chapter for Falcon Specialty, luckily, we have stayed really close to him.
These challenges have certainly made the wins even better! The coffee community have really stuck together and gone the extra mile to provide and source great quality coffees from amazing projects despite the financial pressures. Seeing the Falcon Coffees Europe team in Berlin grow and become an anchor for customers in Europe has also been wonderful. And lastly it feels amazing to be back on the road to see customers, visit the roasteries and create some new memories that no email or phone call can replace.
2 Falcon Specialty now services close to 600 roasters throughout the UK and European territories. It’s amazing in spite of the challenges of the pandemic years and all the factors that have followed, that the specialty coffee community continues to grow. How do you manage to support so many roasters?
First and foremost, we are a service provider. Service is incredibly important to us. When I buy any item, I always see great customer service as a massive asset of the company, the store, etc. We want to create a safe and enjoyable experience for our customers.
No matter the challenges, we aspire to keep service at a high level and improve it, always. We have a larger team, and a proper satellite office (including fully functioning lab) in Berlin in order to provide presence to our large EU community. Also our web portal is being refreshed with even more features to make it easier for customers to manage their stock and flow of production.
Establishing and fostering long-term relationships between suppliers and roasters also helps a lot and is very rewarding to see. It makes sourcing and selling a lot more efficient and consistent which gives us time to dedicate to new roasters who are willing to start their journey with us.
Vertically integrating some of our supply chains as we have in Peru, Colombia, and Rwanda, and having teams on the ground at those origins has greatly enabled us to have more control on quality and buy more efficiently, as well being able to host clients at origin which is the important touchstone of forming a lasting relationship.
3 Supporting those roasters with the coffee they need involves sourcing it from many thousands of smallholder farming families from a huge diversity of origin countries. How does FS ensure those supply chains and their producers remain protected?
Again, this has a lot to do with long-term relationships and the trust we have built in our supply chains. It does take time and effort to get there but it’s worth it. We are also focusing on repeating businesses. Knowing in advance that we will keep buying the same coffees (and even more when roasters keep buying the same lot year after year) creates a secure business all the way back to origin. Sometimes we must find different markets, work on prices if quality isn’t up to specification, but we try as much as possible to avoid rejecting coffees. I believe this is a key to sustainable business. Going through the pandemic with our partners has strengthened our bonds and trust.
I think it’s also important to mention that at Falcon, we never dictate prices from origin., Producers or exporters always send their samples with price tags which will depend on factors like cost of production, internal market prices, variety, cup scores, etc. it’s very important not to invert this dynamic.
4 Falcon has dedicated sourcing operations in Ethiopia, Peru, as well as exclusive collaborations with Siruma in Colombia and RTC in Rwanda. How are those going?
Amazingly! It has been such a journey to see these partnerships evolve. I worked a lot with RTC before my time at Falcon and the sheer scope of impact they manage to have in the country has always amazed me. As well as providing agronomy training to some 55,000 small holder farmers, they are now also supplying millions of coffee seedlings to producers thanks to the nurseries they are running. It’s an incredible origin with incredible coffee profiles and is often underestimated in the specialty industry.
Ethiopia is a busy and complex origin right now, but our team in Addis are doing fantastic work despite the variety of challenges. It’s been a logistically difficult year. The recent war in the northern region of Tigray has hugely impacted the country on a humanitarian as well as economic level. Inflation is extremely volatile and internal coffee prices are very high, and production has been impacted by shifting climate patterns. But the team has been doing an incredible job at securing our supply chains and improving traceability and transparency for the coffees.
Additionally, we have hired a second, full time agronomist this season to support producers and outgrowers in the Guji area.
Falcon Coffees Peru is now a renowned actor in the coffee industry in Peru and producers in the Cajamarca region see us as a great option to sell their high-quality grades to. This year they have been working on slow fermentations with producers, and we are very excited to cup the outcomes of that! As I lived in Peru for a bit too, sipping Peruvian coffees always tastes a bit like home to me.
And regarding Siruma, there is so many great talking points there so I would strongly advise you to take a few minutes to read Valentina’s 10 questions, as she goes through their operations and updates in details. Her and Gabriel were teaming up with the Falcon squad at World of Coffee and have just visited our offices and a few customers, we work so well all together as a team!
5 Falcon recently added a sustainability team. Is that because of the increased demand for things like traceability and transparency information? How do you define the difference between those two?
Sustainability or as Riley put it so perfectly, “just caring about the people you work with” is part of Falcon’s DNA. It is present in all the relationships we build with suppliers, customers and with each other. I think we have created an amazing environment to work in and we strive for our partners to feel included in this by working with us.
As a company, within our teams and as individuals, we always have multiple ideas and dreams about bringing different aspects of sustainable practice into reality, but we were lacking the structure and the right people to turn our ideas into action. It just made sense to create a dedicated team to organise this work. I’m amazed at what they have done so far and excited about what is ahead of us.
On the second point, to make it very easy: transparency is slightly more high-level information about the coffee and is typically what we include on our info sheets that are provided with coffee purchases. So, details like the coffee’s area of origin, the variety, how the coffee was processed, and where possible, some information about the producer.
Traceability is more granular and requires more data. Typically, things like contract references, shipping details, cupping reports, dates. In practice, all the data points we use to track every single bag of coffee we import to ensure roasters receive the right product at the end of the supply chain.
6 What kinds of sustainability related activity is FS involved in and how does this impact your supply chains?
Falcon is currently involved in over 20 sustainability initiatives, most being in our origins of sourcing activity and range from things like famer training and quality uplift programs to investing in women led supply chains and conducting research into how we reduce our carbon emissions. Every single project is related to Falcon Specialty in some way, but there is a couple of areas that are specifically relevant to the current, main concerns of the specialty coffee movement.
One project we’re currently conducting aims to address the amount of virgin plastic used in our supply chains. The reliance on plastic for transportation, storage and the protection of quality is a huge philosophical and ethical obstacle for the industry. It’s the norm that shipping green coffee from origin countries requires the coffee to be sold in jute bags as well as a plastic liner. Sadly, the liners hugely contribute to the carbon footprint of the coffee as well as an enormous amount of plastic waste, since in many countries, recycling the specific kind of plastic used in the sacks can be very difficult. Many companies have no choice but to try and offset the impact elsewhere, but this is not a long-term solution. We are currently conducting quality trials to determine the real benefits to quality that plastic storage appears to provide, to determine how we might compromise and mitigate the amount of plastic used. We are very keen to connect with other stakeholders in the industry, so if you’re interested in working with us on this effort, or if you’re already working on something, please get in touch!
Another primary area of motivation for us is increasing the visibility of women in the coffee industry, particularly at origin. Not only by increasing the amount of coffee we buy from female producers but also through talking about them, telling their stories, printing their names on the bags, and connecting them with customers in person. By listening and understanding their experiences we can better adapt to their needs and the way we can support those through the buying process.
Further down in the supply chain we focus on gathering with other women in their various roles as importers, roasters, baristas, etc. to create community through events that raise awareness that the coffee industry, like many industries, remains a male-dominated industry.
If you’re more broadly interested in sustainability work at Falcon, I would urge you to read our sustainability director Kate’s 10-questions series.
7 Speaking of sustainability, with things like emissions reporting and government regulations coming in soon, should roasters be worried about supply? What is FS doing to prepare for these? Will it be producers that ultimately take the hit? What can we do as a community to help?
The regulations coming into the UK and the EU have really set a cat amongst the pigeons. It will take time and investment for companies to achieve compliance. But it is well overdue that we collectively take a step back and look at our impact on the planet and its populations. I participate in amazing conversations with the World Coffee Alliance, and I realise how people in this industry are aligned toward creating change in how coffee is traded. One of the concerns is that without governments getting involved, things may take forever to change or might not change at all.
Our role is to make it as smooth as possible for our partners and we are already deep diving into the topic to make sure we are ready for the government deadlines. There are still a lot of uncertainties about processes, technical points, etc. but we strengthen our action plan as we get more info. We have several articles and resources on the regulations here.
It would be very counterproductive if the regulations were to make millions of smallholder farmers vulnerable. There are factors including costs, data protection and the potential to restrict market access. With good data systems and strong communication with our origins we should be able to ensure the protection of our supply chains. It is a crucial objective of ours. Selling across a wider range of markets across the world really helps protect our suppliers too.
As a wider community, we should keep doing what we do very well in this industry: stick together, keep our commitments to suppliers, and keep our communications open.
8 Gender equity in coffee is something that FS promotes a lot. What are some of the key supply chains and origins that support female producer groups? Do you have a personal favourite?
I could answer a ‘10 questions’ just on this topic! There are so many origin initiatives producers, coops and exporters and many have been running for a very long time.
Honduras was one of the first origins we did with a high percentage of micro lots produced by female producers. At the World of Coffee in Amsterdam back in 2018, I remember the producer Ana Cecilia watching people queue to cup their coffees. She could not believe it; this was the first time she was out of Honduras! Athens was her 3rd World of Coffee and it was great to see her looking more confident knowing she belonged there.
We work a lot with the Cafeina group in Brazil. Iandra from Cocatrel is doing an incredible job with female producers to empower them, give them opportunities and visibility. They gather their production to create delicious blends.
Siruma in Colombia and Cafetos de Segovia in Nicaragua are female led exporting companies and I think it’s worth mentioning exporters here too. They offer export services but often they are also heavily involved with training, agronomy services, certifications, processing, etc. Having women run these businesses has a huge impact on how things are done and on producers (male producers included).
And I think my favourite would be the work Bean Voyage is doing in Costa Rica and Mexico. I like them because they are different from the usual stakeholders in the industry. They are a feminist NGO in Central America and did not come from a coffee background. Teaming up with them was a great way to mix coffee knowledge and a very fresh way of tackling sustainability and gender equity in the field. The women communities they have formed and supported are strong and they always find new tools to take empowerment to another level.
We have many coffees that come from female producers and we are working on making sure these are identifiable on our offer lists as we know this is important for a growing number of customers.
9 It seems like coffee prices and the ICE price have been volatile this year. How can you help mitigate impact on roasters? Does there have to be a compromise on inventory or quality or both when prices rise?
Market prices have been really volatile in the past few years and even specialty fixed prices have been impacted. Internal coffee prices are higher as well, mainly because of rising costs of production. A lot of fertilisers are produced in Ukraine. Inflation is very high in many producing countries as well as consuming countries, putting extra pressure on roasteries, especially in the UK.
Challenging times and times of change always shifts trends as they react to them and we have seen blending return in force, since blending coffees can allow increased flexibility with stock management and roastery COGS. The attention on blending to create unique cups has lost a lot of its stigma these days in terms of an old perception of it being too much of a compromise to the quality of individual components. With high quality blending now very common and an art in itself, many roasters offer a few blends with different profiles. If you’re curious about blending coffees you should always reach out to talk about components that could work for you and be beneficial cost wise.
Crucially, we ensure that the transparency behind our coffees remains the same even when we work with lower specialty grades. We work with the same suppliers with the same requirements. A decrease of a couple of points in the cup does not mean a decrease of the impact or values behind the coffee.
10 What are you looking forward to with the rest of the year?
If I had answered that question a few weeks ago I would’ve said WOC! Because seeing people in person is an incredible reminder of how amazing this industry and its people are. It’s a huge boost to keep doing our best every single day. It is also a great time for our wider team to be running the show altogether.
I’m looking forward to my next origin trip with customers. Part of my heart has stayed in coffee farms and I also get quite emotional watching roasters meet producers. Circle is complete, job is done.