Peace Coffee goes independent

Peace Coffee buys fair trade coffee from the APECAFORM Co-op in Guatemala. Submitted photo

Lee Wallace starts the day at her Kingfield home with a pour-over cup of Peace Coffee’s Pollinator Blend.

“I’m trying to usher in spring,” she said.

Then she heads to the Greenway building in the East Phillips neighborhood, where Peace Coffee is now roasting as an independent company. After outgrowing its parent organization, longtime CEO Wallace recently partnered to purchase the business with entrepreneur Kent Pilakowski.

Peace Coffee’s parent company was the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, based in Whittier, which works to advance policies that benefit farmers, ecosystems and social justice. It launched Peace Coffee out of its basement in 1996, and Wallace retold the “accidental birth story” in a recent IATP podcast. As the story goes, IATP staff visited Mexican farmers ahead of the North American Free Trade Agreement, and learned their biggest wish was new markets to sell coffee. About a month later, IATP received a surprise phone call: 40,000 pounds of coffee had arrived in Los Angeles ready to ship to Minnesota. Rather than return it, local staff quickly figured out how to roast and sell the coffee, and the profits left over were promising. They co-founded a cooperative in 1999 to buy direct from farmers.

“When we first started Peace Coffee, people weren’t talking about where coffee comes from. There wasn’t this interest in the farmer behind the cup of coffee,” Wallace said. “…That has changed quite a bit.”

While interest in coffee farmers has grown throughout the industry, Peace Coffee continues to stand apart in its pay scale for farmers, Wallace said. Peace Coffee guarantees farmers a certain price and pays organic premiums as well as fair trade premiums on top of that.

Three cents of every pound of coffee goes into a grant that communities can tap into. When Peace Coffee started buying from the Congo (a new bright and juicy “Alchemy” blend features coffee from a Congo co-op), farmers used the fund to install metal roofs on their houses. The fund aims to help communities become resilient in the face of climate change.

Peace Coffee - submitted photo
Peace Coffee’s new “Alchemy” blend features beans from the Sopacdi Coop in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Submitted photo

Locally, Peace Coffee is known for delivering more than 36 percent of its coffee by bike. Staff have analyzed the carbon footprint in every step of the distribution process. The coffee arrives on container ships in New Jersey, where it’s transferred to a rail line to improve the carbon footprint.

Wallace has said Peace Coffee will continue to grow — the more they sell, the more they can buy fair trade from farmers.

“Our whole reason for being is to show that you can run a profitable business that is successful on many different fronts,” she said.