Jess works in Ally Coffee’s logistics department, where the team handles all of coffee’s movements from one place to another — the farm to the port, the port to customs, customs to the warehouse, and finally the warehouse to the roastery. Logistics is crucial to the coffee trade but happens mostly out of sight, in the form of shipping instructions, arrival notices, and warehouse stripping reports. Jess shares a little bit about how she came to a career in logistics and what enters into her daily role literally moving coffee forward through the supply chain.
“Starting back in college, I was always really interested in agriculture in general. Anything we eat is produced somewhere. Working in logistics started by being interested in agriculture, whether that was permaculture or fruits and veggies,” says Jess. After she graduated, Jess started working for a company importing fresh flowers from Colombia to Miami, where there is a large flower industry.
Jess describes the logistics process for flowers. “Since flowers are more delicate and perishable, they were always air freighted in refrigerated cargos. We would pick them up from the airport, bring them to the warehouse, and then in the warehouse there was a whole production line: removing flowers from the boxes, creating the bouquets, and getting them ready to send to the stores.” Bouquets were assembled in Miami and then shipped to supermarkets nationwide; fresh flowers from Colombia are on the shelves of a Ft. Lauderdale grocery store in a matter of days.
By working in logistics, Jess got her first glimpse into the journeys behind what we consider commonplace things. “Until I started working in flowers and then coffee, I never realized the number of miles foods or even flowers traveled to get into the United States. It was always cool to walk into Wal-Mart or a supermarket and see the bouquets and know the whole history behind how the flowers got there. A lot of people don’t know. We buy flowers or bananas or coffee and we don’t know the whole logistics of how it got to our table at home.”
The coffee industry, and coffee consumers, have experienced a recent renaissance of interest in where coffee comes from, but Jess’ position in logistics has given her the more unique insight into how it comes.
In her current role, Jess helps out the whole US logistics department. When she first joined Ally, she started by working with domestic logistics, ensuring customers receive the coffee they order. “Domestic logistics is everything once the coffee lands in the US,” she explains. “We meet customers’ requests to have the coffee delivered — maybe they have a competition coming up or are getting ready for the holidays and they are running low for production. The domestic part is getting their coffee to the roastery location on time. Often this involves specific deadlines; clients will reach out and say ‘we need coffee by Wednesday because we’re running low.’ For the two years I worked with domestic logistics for Ally’s US clients, I was releasing coffee from the warehouse and arranging shipping — guaranteed, rush, same day depending on each client’s needs.”
Until she began working for Ally, Jess, like most people who are not in the coffee industry, did not realize coffee was imported as a green bean. As she worked with roasters of all sizes across the country to help them receive their coffee, she also learned about the roasting process and all the different coffees that can become even more kinds of products for the café or for retail.
Now Jess works on both the origin and domestic logistics segments. “Every day is different. Once the buying team purchases coffee, creates the purchase contracts, and has consolidated the containers, I issue the shipping instructions. We have to get the documents from origin on time, check if there’s anything missing for customs, and notify the warehouses of the arrivals of these containers — which day they’re going to arrive to the port. Now I do the whole thing, from origin all the way until it gets to the roaster. It’s actually really neat because I get to see the whole picture.”
Much of Jess’ role involves troubleshooting. In most cases, Ally owns the coffee as soon as it passes over the ships rail when being loaded onto the vessel at the point of origin. From there, it’s in the hands of third-party shipping companies, ports, US Customs, warehouses, and trucking companies. “There are so many different freight carriers a container goes through,” she describes. “The exporter gets all the coffees ready, puts them in the container, sends it to the port, then once it’s on the vessel it’s under the shipping line’s responsibility. Once it gets to the destination port, sometimes it goes through intense customs exams. Now it’s not in the shipping line’s hands; next it’s in the US Department of Agriculture’s. We have to wait for them to release the hold on a coffee. It’s not up to us — it’s the law that a random selection of containers have to go through an agriculture exam in customs.”
Once customs releases coffee from the exam, in the case it was selected for examination, the warehouse picks up the container. “It’s not as simple as ‘oh we picked up the coffee and now it’s available.’ The warehouses have a procedure that they have to follow. There are other containers ahead of it that need to be stripped first, so it might take the warehouse a day or two to get to that container. It takes longer for specialty because we often have several coffees in a container; they have to go one by one. Each bag, taking it out of the container, writing it on their report. It takes several hours to strip a full container, 275 or 320 bags, depending on the origin and the weight.”
Next, the warehouse inputs these unloaded coffees into their system and sends the stripping report to Ally for the logistics team to upload into Ally’s system so that we are able to release the coffee correctly. Sometimes, the stripping report from the warehouse doesn’t match documents from the exporter. Much of what Jess does is fact-checking coffee’s paper trail. In the case of any discrepancies, she circles back to both parties to ask for confirmation and ultimately corrects or collects documents that need to be updated to reflect the coffees that were shipped.
The work that Jess and the logistics team do daily is to keep track of coffee as it moves from origin to roasters. Sending and receiving documents is necessary for the coffee trade as a whole, but with specialty coffee’s one-of-a-kind microlots and partners both at origin and at the roastery eagerly awaiting coffee’s transformation from green to roasted, keeping coffee’s identifying documents in order is more important than ever.
Working in specialty coffee has turned Jess into a regular drinker of the stuff. “I’m addicted to coffee now! One time I went without drinking coffee and I didn’t feel normal! Now, whenever I tell someone I work in green coffee logistics, I explain to them what coffee’s like before it’s roasted. I get to learn all these different methods of roasting, all the countries that have different processing techniques. Every time I go to a coffee shop, I wonder where the coffee came from and the whole story behind the coffee.”
Jess deals with one stage of the journey, green coffee’s overseas and overland international transit, and she enjoys seeing the product’s next lifecycle as roasted coffee. “I love the whole process. How it’s grown, processed, bagged, shipped overseas, brought in into domestic warehouses.” Jess is involved in the literal connections coffee makes between one place and the next, between one person and another. Working in specialty coffee logistics has opened up a world of coffees while also answering her earlier curiosities about agriculture by offering the opportunity to see how raw products make their way across the world to become what we eat and drink.