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Cool Beans 

Vermont's burgeoning coffee company is one high-tech outfit

click to enlarge MICHAEL TONN
  • Michael Tonn

You have to be sure footed, and comfortable with heights, to get a peek at the 572 rooftop solar panels atop the corporate headquarters of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters in Waterbury. They’re only accessible via two very steep ladders. Alternately, a 32-inch flat-panel TV in the lobby of the 90,000-square-foot facility displays pictures of the array, which is the largest in Vermont, along with up-to-the-minute power output statistics. Between 9 and 10 percent of the coffee distribution center’s electricity is derived from the sun.

That setup sounds pretty advanced for a company that deals in humble beans, most of which grow in developing nations and arrive in the U.S. in burlap sacks. GMCR has taken the simple, low-tech concept of a good cuppa joe and run with it. The company sold more than 32.5 million pounds of coffee, tea and cocoa in 2008 and came in 11th on Fortune’s list of the world’s fastest-growing companies this August. Two months later, Lawrence J. Blanford, the company’s CEO, was named Responsible CEO of the Year by Corporate Responsibility Officer magazine.

How can a company grow so big so fast and still score accolades for being socially responsible? By examining every aspect of workflow and challenging what other coffee companies take for granted. “Innovation is something we embed in every process,” says Sandy Yusen, GMCR’s spokesperson. From the way manufacturing byproducts are reused and recycled to the all-natural, compostable cups GMCR developed with International Paper in 2006, the company has turned coffee cultivation, production and distribution — an enterprise steeped in economic injustice — into a high-tech, green, socially responsible industry.

Employing a whopping 989 people in its namesake state helps set GMCR apart in the Vermont business world, too. But for a while this past summer, local newsrooms and business meetings were abuzz with rumors the company might relocate. While an official statement from GMCR reaffirmed its commitment to the state, there’s a growing unease that the “Green Mountain” in its name won’t guarantee GMCR’s location.

There’s no robotic substitute for human judgment. But GMCR’s “cupping” room — where batches of beans are routinely evaluated by expert tasters — builds from that wisdom an elaborate system of quality control. Rotating tables holding sets of 10 white porcelain coffee cups spin wildly as staffers bend at the waist to spoon up each brew. Slurping is de rigueur. After each sip, notes are jotted on clipboards.

GMCR offers more than 100 different blends, roasts and flavors — some with names that make coffee purists roll their eyes, such as Golden French Toast, Cinnamon Cream Swirl and Mocha Nut Fudge. But a few minutes watching the team of experts “cup” coffee offers convincing evidence that GMCR is committed to sourcing quality raw material — even if some of it ends up slathered in French vanilla powder. Nearly 20 percent of the bean batches sampled by the cuppers aren’t good enough to meet the company’s standards.

When it’s time to discuss the results, Stacy Bocskor, who’s in charge of “maintaining the integrity of the cupping process,” begins: “Bolivia 791. I ended up with an 80 … I took two points off for two cups that were medicinal.” The other three crew members add their strikingly similar comments and their scores.

GMCR cuppers go through intensive training to learn this lingo: They absorb a special scoring system — an 80 is apparently not so good; an 84 is awesome — and a common vocabulary for discussing how coffee tastes and smells. They also need to know the desirable characteristics of beans from various regions of the world: Some should have lemon undertones, while others may taste of chocolate, flowers or cedar.

Much of this is standard practice in the specialty coffee world, although it’s common to taste five or six cups per session, rather than GMCR’s 10. Moreover, says lead coffee buyer Lindsey Bolger, her team doesn’t just give suppliers a passing or failing grade; it details exactly why the coffee is or isn’t good enough. In the case of the Bolivian they just sampled, the reason for rejection is the medicinal flavor that appeared in just two out of 10 cups. “We’re trying to ensure that standards are communicated so they know what’s required to be a GMCR supplier,” Bolger explains. When GMCR rejects a batch of coffee (which weighs around 37,500 pounds), the potential suppliers can use the feedback to improve their practices. If they succeed, they may get a contract next time around.

For the last seven years, all cupping notes have been entered in Excel spreadsheets. The data is used to identify all kinds of trends. Fair Trade purchaser and technophile Ed Canty is happy to show off the system. The first sheet he pulls demonstrates how each team member has evaluated coffees from different countries over time. “[One staffer] is very negative on Colombian while [another] is very positive,” notes Canty. Another page displays the “rejection rate by vendor,” making it easy to see where the best — and worst — beans are coming from. A less useful but fun piece of data: If the cups of coffee the team sampled last year were laid end to end, the result would stretch 1.5 miles.

But the coolest application of the system links each supplier’s data to Google Earth, giving Canty a satellite’s-eye view of a particular coffee plantation with the click of a button. As he zooms in on one in South America, contact information and a photograph of one of its employees pop up.

The interactive map also shows all the places where GMCR is doing outreach through its Brewing a Better World initiative. Money from GMCR has helped provide coffee growers with cancer screenings, livestock, training in food production and food storage facilities to help weather the lean months. “Our attention to the linkage between the health of these communities and the viability of our business is unique,” says Matt DeLuca, who is in charge of environmental management systems.

When he talks about the company’s social mission, the chipper redhead doesn’t come across as imbued with liberal guilt — it’s all part of a practical strategy of “intelligent capitalism,” he says. “Our long-term viability as a business is directly related to the health of these communities. The healthier and more educated the growers, then the better the coffee.”

Twenty-eight percent of GMCR’s beans were certified Fair Trade Organic in 2008. That label guarantees they were grown in an eco-friendly fashion on a plantation that belongs to a cooperative, where workers receive reasonable wages. DeLuca concedes there’s no way of knowing whether the other 72 percent came from coffee growers that employ unsavory practices, such as using child labor.

“When you’re dealing with commodity agriculture, these issues exist,” DeLuca admits, and adds, “There’s a good part of the supply chain we need to know more about.” Yusen agrees, saying, “We believe we need to continue to source in a way that keeps us competitive economically, while advocating for changes in the global sourcing system that the entire coffee industry supports.”

GMCR’s commitment to education extends to its Vermont work force, too. “We have a Continuous Learning goal to achieve at least 30 hours of education or training, on average, for every full-time employee,” Yusen says. Conversational Spanish classes are just one option in the company’s 38-page catalog. There’s also a daily stretching program for plant employees, a $500 annual “wellness reimbursement” that can be used for a gym membership or massages, and an on-site meditation room. For those who’d rather be buzzed than blissed out, getting caffeinated on the company dime is a given — GMCR staffers get to take home two bags of beans per week.

The company has unusual getaway options, too — each year, GMCR brings a group of employees to Nicaragua, Guatemala or Mexico, where they meet the people who grow and produce the beans they process. So far, 18 percent of employees from all different departments have taken the free trip. Bocskor says she believes that through these visits, “people get a better sense of wanting to care for the product. It’s more than a commodity.”

GMCR customers may never get to visit a coffee plantation, but they can get a dose of the experience at the company’s visitor center, located near its headquarters in a converted train station. The miniature coffee museum offers images of how coffee gets from tree to cup and a slideshow of photos taken by employees during trips to bean-growing countries — “I get goosebumps every time I watch it,” Yusen says.

At the adjoining café, Missy Gorham, head of hospitality for the visitor center, has crafted a creative partnership with famed local chef Michael Kloeti. Each morning, he and his staff whip up Mediterranean wraps, Cobb salads, meatloaf turnovers and quiche for the tourists and locals who stop by.

With so many jobs and a strong commitment to the community — not to mention the offerings of tasty food to go — GMCR is a big boon to Waterbury. Will it stay that way, or seek greener pastures?

When asked the big relocation question, Yusen takes a moment before stating firmly: “We want to emphasize that we remain committed to maintaining our home in Vermont, and we do not intend to move our headquarters out of state.” Pushed to explain whether “the headquarters” includes the processing and shipping facility or just the corporate offices, she says, GMCR “will continue to grow in the state of Vermont as well as outside, with the support of additional facilities.”

“We’re a ‘small’ big business,” Yusen declares. “We’re retaining a lot of the relationship-based way of doing business, but we’re also taking advantage of additional resources and ways to continually improve as we grow.”

It may sound like standard corporate PR. But anyone who has seen the interactive supplier map with images of coffee growers’ faces, the gleaming biodiesel tank or the solar array may be inclined to chug the GMCR Kool-Aid. Or, more accurately, the Fair Trade Organic Ethiopian Yirgacheffe.

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Suzanne Podhaizer

Suzanne Podhaizer

Bio:
Contributor Suzanne Podhaizer is an award-winning food writer (and the former Seven Days food editor) as well as a chef, farmer, and food-systems consultant. She has given talks at the Stone Barns Center for Agriculture's "Poultry School" and its flagship "Young Farmers' Conference." She can slaughter a goose,... more

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