Coffee Sourcing with French Truck

Posted on July 11, 2017



French Truck's Bobby Winston and Shane Hennessy have been working in coffee for 3-4 years and began traveling to source coffee a couple years ago. Initially traveling to coffee-sourcing havens like Nicaragua and Colombia, they've now travelled to numerous countries through the Friends of French Truck program in an effort to provide an honest and traceable account of who they buy their coffee from.

What are your goals for the Friends of French Truck program?

Bobby: We want to highlight the farmers that are producing the Coffee.  Often times consumers aren’t seeing all the links of the chain, and we want to change that. We want to show people, that this is exactly where your coffee comes from.  Being a committed buyer to that farmer, year after year provides them with the financial stability that is needed to continue to improve and elevate their farm.

It seems like traveling and dealing directly with farmers is the most responsible and most hands on way to work in the industry. What are your thoughts?

Bobby: Yes, dealing directly with the farmers is probably the most responsible and hands on way to purchase coffee.  Some of these locations are just so far away and we don't have any contacts there, so we work with really great importers to help us bring in that coffee.  They do a great job of honestly assessing the working conditions on the farm and the quality of the coffee. Over 4-5 years, we have been able to build up a great deal of trust with our importer.  We hope to continue to build that relationship, so that they can continue to allow us access to some amazing coffee’s all over the world.

Shane: I think there are a lot of arguments for and against origin trips. What is different with Nicaragua is we are meeting with the Lovo family and negotiating prices directly. For them, they know where the coffee is going, they have gotten to know us and we communicate on a regular basis. Luis Joaquín could sell every pound of coffee to one or two importers but for someone that takes pride in what he produces, he does not get to know what is happening after the importer gets the coffee out of Nicaragua. 

Last year, we purchased twenty 75kg bags. There were a lot of growing pains and frustrations and the coffee took 6 months to get to New Orleans. This year, Bobby and I knew what quality of coffee to expect, how we want to sell it whether it is blended or sold as a Single Origin and how much we wanted to buy. We also had a local importer, Zephyr Coffee, set to get the coffee out of the country and into New Orleans.

After two days with the Lovos, visiting the farms and cupping the coffee, we negotiated a price and agreed upon a higher price than what we paid last year and ended up contracting sixty 75kg bags. Luis was paid quickly and the coffee arrived into the United States in just a few weeks.

There are infinite reasons why companies should work with a good importer. They have the most qualified people on the ground searching for great coffee and most importers are extremely transparent.

A lot of them offer origin trips that are basically a guided tour with the agreement that you, the roaster, are going to buy something because of the trip. It is a great way for companies to meet farmers and experience coffee in its purest form, and it is something we have done a few times.

Ultimately, we are not big enough to cut out an importer so we still need to rely on someone to get the coffee to us but our time in Nicaragua gives us the opportunity to grow with the Lovo family, learn more of the business and hopefully get to the point where we can buy a container of coffee and ship it straight to New Orleans.

For some countries, what we are doing would be extremely difficult and not worth it but thankfully we had a lead with some great award winning farmers and made the experience a lot easier.



Is there a chance that this could become 100% of your business? Is that a realistic goal?

Bobby: Yes, there is a chance that all the coffee we buy could be part of the Friends of French Truck program.  We are getting there, slowly but surely.  I think in another 3-5 years, that it is a realistic goal.

Shane: I think we could certainly expand to a few other countries as we continue to grow relationships in the business and communicating abroad becomes easier than ever.

Do you have any mentors or heroes you'd like to share?

Shane: A few of my friends from Loyola have been doing big things in music since we graduated. I have learned a lot from all of them and I approach my work with French Truck like I am working with an artist. There are a lot of similarities between the music and coffee industries. 

Is there anyone else in coffee who inspires you?
 
Bobby: There are a lot of people in the industry who inspire me.  Peter Giuliano and James Hoffman come to mind.  Those guys are continuing to push the boundaries of speciality coffee, and continuing to learn.  There is still so much more room for growth in speciality coffee, hopefully we can continue to push those boundaries.  

Shane: The godfathers of specialty coffee like Geoff Watts from Intelligentsia, James Hoffman and Scott Rao are always people I look too for inspiration and knowledge. Specialty Coffee changes every day so there are a lot of people doing exceptional things and sharing what they are doing like the guys at Cat and Cloud who have a great podcast and offer insight to opening their business. 

I am also very inspired by a lot of companies that have become known and sold nationally without being in a major city or having 10 locations, specifically Madcap, Ruby Roasters and Onyx Coffee Lab who are based in Michigan, Wisconsin and Arkansas. 



What do you most like about working in New Orleans?

Shane: Being able to work in the food scene and have our coffee offered in some of the best restaurants, not only locally but nationally, is great. My parents worked in the food industry my whole life and I always felt I would end up in it too even though I can't cook, so coffee unexpectedly became my in. 

Also, having the opportunity to build a brand that has the potential to be a staple in every New Orleanians daily life is really exciting. Hubig's, McKenzie's, Schwegmann's, etc are companies that resonate with all generations even though they don't exist anymore and I think French Truck has the opportunity to one day be amongst them and the others that are still around.

Bobby: I appreciate the laid back attitude of the city. I grew up up here, and was eager to leave after high school.  After about 10 years living outside of the city, I came to appreciate what the city had to offer in terms of live music, art, and food. All of that culture and the architecture make it a very unique place to call home. The northern most city in the caribbean is a pretty accurate description to me.



To learn more about the Friends of French Truck program, check out their latest update here and watch the video below:


Posted in Coffee, French Truck, Interview, New Orleans


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