A $12 cup of coffee at Ritual in San Francisco highlights wage discrepancy for pickers
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE
It’s nearly impossible to be a barista today and not have to defend the price of coffee. You can usually identify the person who’s going to question it as they walk in, casually look at the menu, and balk at the prices. œA cup of coffee costs how much? they ask in disbelief, staring at you as you attempt to justify the economics of the coffee supply chain while still pouring lattes and keeping your cool. These conversations can get increasingly difficult, especially as the attitude towards baristas and café life in general can sometimes be hostile. But it’s conversations like these that can start meaningful dialogues between customers and coffee professionals.
œI had a conversation recently with someone from Berkeley, [Calif.] and that’s what really got it all started, says Eileen Rinaldi, owner of Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco. After referring someone to a local café serving her coffee, Eileen says she was met with this exact type of skepticism. The customer, Eileen says, “rolled her eyes and said, ˜Oh, that place? They charge $4.50 for a cup of coffee, and that just makes me mad.'” Eileen then explained how she prices coffee in her café, and was met with a very positive, albeit surprised response. œFinally, she said, incredulously, ˜You’re telling me that when I pay more for a cup of coffee, the pickers get more money?’ And that was really illuminating for me. For the last 11 years ¦I’ve been teaching our customers that when you pay more, you get a more delicious coffee. But this one conversation made me realize how much work we have to do.
Inspired by the interaction, Eileen and Ritual just introduced a $12 coffee to the menu, meant to encourage customers to ask questions and engage with baristas about the price and what it pays for. This particular coffee comes from Finca Monte Rey in El Salvador, which the team at Ritual visited earlier this year in an annual trip called ˜Baristas In Paradise.’ The Ritual team picked this coffee, of which there is only about 35 pounds, and quickly started throwing ideas around about what to do with it. œBecause we had our (now) head roaster, Leslie Mah, on the trip, she was calculating what it would take to roast this coffee as its own coffee, rather than throw it in with the professional pickers’ take for the day,” says Eileen. “We were definitely doing the math of what it would cost if pickers were paid a Bay Area minimum wage.
The price of the coffee was determined based on that idea ”what would it take to pay pickers the same wage as a barista in San Francisco? Although the economic model isn’t perfect, it still points to the glaring gaps between wages in cafes and wages on farms. œPeople in producing countries are leaving the farms, they are choosing to work in factories, they are selling the land to real estate developers,” says Eileen of the importance of paying higher prices for coffee. “These are all real threats to our industry unless we wake up and change the way things are done. It’s difficult to communicate these threats, especially when customers don’t have to interact with farmers and pickers and don’t necessarily see the labor that goes into coffee production. œI think anything we can do to tell the story of how much work goes into a cup of coffee, and how many hands touch the beans before they make it to the cup of coffee, the better. Customers are so hungry to learn about where their coffee comes from. If we all tell the story in our own way, customers will get the bigger picture.
Stories aren’t new to coffee. We as an industry talk a lot about farms and producers, but Ritual is hoping to highlight coffee pickers specifically. “Since I started Ritual in 2005, this is the first time I’ve heard a lot of talk about how the pickers are treated. And I’m really excited about it,” Eileen continues. “Many of the producers I work with value their pickers just like I value baristas or production workers, and we see the value in rewarding people for taking their job seriously, and for sticking around year after year. Farmers are important, but the commitment and hard work of coffee pickers makes it easier for farmers to bring us the coffees we love.
And we can’t just talk about coffee pickers ”we need to take meaningful action. However, as much as we want to scream about the real costs of coffee production, or to educate customers, if we end up making them feel bad or remorseful, nothing gets solved. œI am not interested in guilt-inducing narratives,” says Eileen. “Take A Film About Coffee ”I think that’s a phenomenal example of how to begin the conversation in a way that is informed and beautiful but doesn’t hit you over the head or punish you for now knowing this sooner.
Ritual is donating $8 for every cup sold to Finca Monte Rey to finance projects like getting clean water and food to coffee pickers working during harvest. While financing these projects represents wonderful goals, they are short-term, and Eileen is looking as well to begin a discussion on long-term goals as well. œWhat I’m hoping to illustrate is that the entire coffee industry is based on cheap labor, Eileen says. This connection undervalues coffee at best, and is emblematic of an imbalance of power between those who grow and those who consume.
œThe coffee industry as we know it has been built on an exploitative relationship between those who import, roast, and serve coffee and those who grow it. We’ve been raised to expect low prices in the cafe, so coffee gets undervalued, which creates a permanent stifling of wages on the farm, says Caiti Kenney, barista and coffee educator at the Flora Grubb Ritual café.
The fight is far from over. Customers are intrigued and excited by this project, and Eileen hopes to implement more experiments like this that highlight the real plight of coffee workers. All Ritual locations will be carrying this batch of Finca Monte Rey while supplies last, so run as fast as you can to the original Valencia Street location, visit Caiti at the Flora Grubb Gardens store, drive up to Napa at the Oxbow Farmers Market, the container in Hayes Valley, or the newly opened Haight Central store to try a cup.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ashley Rodriguez thought that she’d take a break from teaching middle school science and putz around in a coffee shop for a few months. She ended up digging it way more than teaching (and was vaguely better at it). After spending 5 years making coffee in New York, she now works for Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter at @ashcommonnam