Meet Your Ally: Jeff Courson

Jeff is Ally Coffee’s Specialty’s Southwestern Account Manager. During his last visit to the South Carolina headquarters he shared his background working in clothing manufacturing and how that informs his understanding of the coffee supply chain.

I did not start my career after college in coffee; I came from the clothing industry. I went to agriculture school in California called CalPoly, a polytechnic school. It’s really hands on, with a working farm and horse ranch on the facility. The Kellogg family who are huge proponents of education had an estate on what is now the Pomona Campus, and have made huge donations over the years, a lot of it with the intent to keep horses and the farm as part of the facility.

I focused on clothing production, marketing, and supply chain management. Clothing kind of revolves around cotton, from the ground up, starting with cotton as an agricultural product, sending it to mills to be milled into yarn and fabric, and then cutting patterns from there. It’s the process of making a raw good into something tangible. What we studied was mainly focused on US cotton production, but also sourcing from other countries, and obviously a big focus on Asia and the production value that Asia has.

I worked at a clothing manufacturer for a couple years, then worked as a clothing retail manager for a couple years and enjoyed it, but I wasn’t doing what I felt like I should be doing. I had a family friend who started a coffee import company. He was growing and needed help. I came over as his third employee and just kind of jumped in!

From there I started learning about arrivals, processing, the market. The thing that really got me was drinking the coffee and having it be such an amazing experience compared to the Folgers that I had been brought up drinking. That was the coffee in the house so that’s what I drank and didn’t really know this whole other side of it.

I started my coffee education at that point and here we are, six years later. It kind of changed my life! I had a blast doing it. My fiancé is a coffee farmer, so that’s a direction I didn’t see my life going in, but I’ve been loving it. It’s awesome.

Being at small start-up company, I wore many hats. Doing warehousing jobs, packing pallets and samples, sample roasting and cupping, then becoming an importer-cafe. When I left, that company had over fifty employees. To be there through that growth was incredible. Obviously changing strategies through the years was interesting. Most people start as roasters and maybe grow into importing coffee; this was the opposite model.

I see the whole industry changing. From the caliber of quality coffee increasing — who knows if it’s eventually going to decrease because of consumption or climate factors. My experience only goes back six years; I can’t vouch for what happened twenty years ago, but there was an industry twenty years ago. There were players in the game. You see those guys who are still around, some who have adapted and changed through the years to keep consistent with the growing industry, and some haven’t. It’s really interesting for me to see that so many small roasters and coffee professionals can have a viable business in a growing market. At this point, I’ve been inspired by coffee companies like Starbuck, Peet’s, Coffee Bean, Blue Bottle, Intelligentsia, and many of the small start up’s.

You hear those stories of, “oh I went to Intelligentsia and it inspired me to start a roastery.” Hearing those stories and seeing the power of coffee motivating entrepreneurs is inspiring. For me, there’s a similarity between what’s happening in coffee now and clothing companies. For me back in the late 1990’s, early 2000’s, everyone had a clothing company. They were into surfing or skating or mountain climbing or biking. They could start a small niche company, print t-shirts, add value to the raw good, and sell it as a branded product. I totally see that with coffee, not to mention all the progressive accessories that come with a focused company that’s dealing in coffee or bikes.

I like to get people excited about new fun things, and I feel like I’ve been able to do that with coffee. That’s the exciting thing, being able to reach a broader market — coast to coast, Canada — through social media and being able to support what different companies are doing. From going to origin and meeting producers to going to different parts of the US and seeing the cities has been incredible.

There are so many innovations. Coffee subscriptions blow me away. I’m going to use the term “middleman” because that’s what a subscription service is, but it provides a valuable service to people who want to experience different coffees. You have the consumer who has their coffee roaster and that’s what they drink, who will taste through the different offerings of what that roaster has. You also have the people who want to experience the spectrum and be able to experience a broader range.

There’s always something to learn. Just when you think you figure something out it might change. I recommend roasters go to a coffee farm at some point. I know some who have never set foot on a coffee farm and are very successful and others who go on five to ten origin trips a year and are not necessarily thriving, but are following what they want to present to their customers as an educational tool.

There are so many stories that brought people to where they’re at in their lives and their businesses. It’s so interesting to see all that, to ask them questions, to listen to the answers. You see cafes who have baristas competing every year and those that don’t have anything to do with SCA or World Barista Competition or any of that. It’s mind boggling that there are so many ways to do this.

You can’t do everything, but you can do your best to shape what you do around your values. To see the evolution of industrial consumption from back in the 1700s and 1800s when coffee was very niche, producers knew who they were growing it for — that was their buyer. They had an idea where it was going to go; that’s why they were farming the product. Whether it was macro or growing into bigger macro, the buyer told the producer what they wanted, and producers planted that many plants to fill the need. Through industrialization it just ballooned into commercial everything. You see it in many industries, from clothing to food to coffee to beer to wine.

It’s fascinating to see things slimming back down to the “know who grows” and getting to know each supply chain member. You can only get so big before you’re not doing what you set out to do in the first place.

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