When Angela Vendetti and Jill Fink set out to bring coffeeshop culture to their East Fairmount neighborhood, they couldn't have imagined their efforts would take them to Nicaragua and to the mountains of Peru.
But they knew one thing: They had ideals, damn it.
The pair opened Mugshots CoffeeHouse & Caf� in 2004 as a triple-bottom-line business focused on sustainability, environmental responsibility and fair trade. "Fair trade was important to me from the beginning," Fink says. "We would've closed our doors before we sacrificed on any of those points."
While Fink was adamant that a sustainable, fair-trade business was the way to go, Vendetti wanted to ensure they could be profitable first. "We didn't start out with hormone-free milk but we eventually added that," Vendetti says. "We didn't start out at 100 percent wind energy. We wanted to make sure we were going to be around to make a difference."
With a pantload of moxie, some do-gooder idealism and no idea what to do next, Vendetti and Fink first contacted Equal Exchange, a food co-op started in 1986 to increase fair trade throughout the U.S. They also reached out to other fair-trade coffeehouses to learn what to avoid and how to succeed.
"We'd looked into Equal Exchange because they were basically the pioneers of fair trade, and we realized coincidentally--or not so coincidentally--that all the coffeeshops we reached out to were using Equal Exchange as well," Fink says.
Fink and Vendetti began meeting with other owners to discuss best practices and share ideas. Eventually, the Independents Coffee Cooperative (ICC) of Philadelphia was born. A snazzy logo soon followed. But what's a coffee cooperative without coffee? So the ladies set out to choose a brand of coffee that would further the ICC mission and, of course, taste great.
Equal Exchange sales rep L.J. Taylor helped Mugshots find the San Fernando Cooperative, a Peruvian collective of coffee farmers established in 1994 to increase profits and maximize resources. With the help of COCLA, a larger umbrella co-op, the San Fernando Cooperative was officially incorporated in 2004.
"San Fernando is pretty isolated up in the mountains outside of Cuzco, Peru, so their exposure to major coffee markets had been kind of slim," Taylor explains. "Through our relationships, we were able to purchase their full harvest of fair-trade organic coffee to ensure the extremely high-quality coffee they were able to produce was sold at a high price--but also that their story was told."
In telling that story, Equal Exchange and Mugshots collaborated to bring some of the farmers to Philadelphia last year so they could see how their hard labor, their rigorous quality standards and their product has affected so many lives.
"They were so appreciative of the fact that there was someone who cared for their product the way they did," Taylor says. "There was an expectation that their coffee came here and that people drank it--and an expectation of Americans in general--but the fact that there were people here who really cared for their product was something very special that came out of it for them."
At the end of the day, though, this coffee isn't cheap. And if the coffee doesn't taste good, no one will pay $2 a cup to drink it.
"One of the things fair trade has gotten a bad rap for is this feeling that this is social coffee, some kind of social work," Taylor says. "We're in fair trade not because producers need a way to get their coffee out there. We're in fair trade because small-scale producers produce the most top-quality coffee out there."
"When I was in Nicuragua visiting another one of our coffee plantations, the farmers there cupped every batch that came in," Vendetti says. "We went through the sorting process that sifted out the smaller underripened coffee cherries. And then the beans went on a conveyer belt and the farmers personally picked out the ones that weren't quite right. These farmers know taking these steps will attract more fair-trade buyers. There's so much incentive there for them and that was something I didn't realize before I got there--that we actually do have the highest quality coffee available."
To further this mission of quality, Mugshots and the Independents co-op will continue to assist the Cooperativa San Fernando with a variety of fundraising efforts. The Green Line Caf� produced a mix CD called Songs On the Green Line with proceeds benefiting fair trade and the growers.
And throughout this month, Mugshots is hosting a series of events designed to raise money and awareness of the fair-trade philosophy. Both the Fairmount and Manayunk stores will sell screenprints by local artists in a program entitled "Beans and Screens." Mugshots also sells advocate discount cards. Proceeds from both endeavors will go toward the purchase of a solar drying facility for the Peruvian co-op.
Lastly, at the end of this month, coffee roasters and customers will participate in a roundtable discussion called "Sustainability and Relationships" to talk about how their work affects producers and consumers around the world.
"When we were writing our business plan and trying to get Mugshots open, people told us we were crazy for putting our ideals before business sense," Vendetti says. "But here we are four years later with a second store and a profitable business, and we never had to sacrifice one for the other."
In September, Fink and Taylor will travel to San Fernando to continue relations with the co-op, a priority for both the ICC and Equal Exchange.
Taylor says, "Through fair trade we want to impact the market by saying, 'We can win on all the things you need to win on and still do it the right way."