Susie Spindler is one of those names that those in the coffee industry “just know.” After a successful foray of marketing positions within the coffee industry, co-founding Cup of Excellence (CoE) and now serving as the Executive Director of The Alliance for Coffee Excellence, Inc.(ACE), Susie Spindler is perhaps one of the most influential people in the specialty coffee industry.
At this point, Spindler is probably best known for her work with CoE, “a competition-auction program which has fundamentally changed the discovery, reward and industry transparency for top specialty coffee micro lots” which is owned and managed by ACE a U.S. based non-profit organization.
The first competition for what became Cup of Excellence (which at that time was Best of Brazil) was held in 1999 to celebrate the individual producers of high quality Arabica coffee and introduce these high quality Brazilian coffees to the specialty market in the United States. However, the way to reward the winning farmer was still under debate. “An award certificate just doesn’t buy groceries; we really needed to put money into this” says Spindler. Therefore, they decided that the winning farmer would earn a financial reward.
To fund a monetary prize, CoE held an internet auction to sell the competition coffees despite initial doubt throughout the coffee chain. “The farmers also thought we were crazy, it wasn’t just everyone else who thought we were crazy. They didn’t think anybody was going to buy coffee on an internet auction, and they were wrong.”
In 1999, the winning Cup of Excellence coffee was auctioned off for $2.60/lb. In the most recent competition in 2010, the winning coffee went for $28.00, (although, historically a top coffee for Cup of Excellence has garnered almost four times this amount).
You may be thinking, “Wait, $28.00 for a pound of coffee or more? Will people really be willing to pay that much for coffee?”
Spindler responds, “I think that so often we are afraid of consumers and we don’t give them credit for being willing to pay more for better quality. I really don’t think consumers who are educated and love coffee would back away from price increases for great coffees with transparency and farm identification” says Spindler. “Moreover,” she adds “I think there is a huge move in the world for consumers to know where their food comes from and to build a relationship with farmers.”
According to Spindler, “if the money goes straight to the farmers, it benefits the entire community’s rural development. It’s bottom up economics, the farmers then send their kids to school or they increase their farm size, or they spend the money locally etc.”
Cup of Excellence, The Alliance for Coffee Excellence and The Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative (GCQRI), share this philosophy. To develop the specialty coffee industry it is imperative to provide farmers with the necessary resources to achieve a reasonable quality of life. This commitment to the farmer is reflected in the GCQRI Guiding Principles which state, “Everything we do MUST enhance the livelihoods of the producers who are the stewards of both quality and productivity. If we lose them, we lose the game and future of the industry.”
Spindler further explains that if we do not continue to reward the specialty coffee farmers for their labor as green prices rise; there is a real risk that the quality of coffee will start coming down. “Why would a farmer take the extra effort to create the kind of quality that the specialty roasters need when they can get a sufficient amount of money for coffees that are not so resource intensive? Why would they do that? I mean I am not sure I would” explains Spindler. “Although there are a lot of coffee farmers that I have met who would put in the extra effort just because they have so much pride in their farm, their work and in their family name. Coffee farmers are pretty amazing.”
More importantly, Spindler warns, “consumption follows quality.” She elucidates, “If you continue to dumb down quality because green prices are high, there is the risk that consumption might fall.” Therefore, for producers, roasters, researchers, consumers and the industry, the maintenance of quality coffee is the key to ensuring the strength of the coffee industry.
GCQRI has identified research as an essential component of improved quality and quantity of specialty coffee globally along with the livelihoods of the people that produce it. Spindler believes that by providing access to research, GCQRI can improve the lives of farmers, “by helping them make better decisions for their land and livelihood.”
“In the big picture, if with research and development we can level out these boom-bust (supply- demand) cycles it will alleviate stress for these farmers. They will have a better idea what their future is going to be, and they will have the tools and income to choose to make coffee a part of their family for the next ten years. In fact, this is probably true of the roasters and retailers as well” says Spindler.
“All we can do with good research is to provide solid information that helps everyone make better choices about what to do with their resources, their time and ultimately their lives” adds Spindler.
Susie Spindler is Executive Director of The Alliance for Coffee Excellence, Inc. (ACE) a global organization with membership and support from companies in over 50 countries. ACE is dedicated to projects that enhance the appreciation of top coffee and the farmers that produce them. She was the co-creator of the Cup of Excellence® (COE) competition-auction program which has fundamentally changed the discovery, reward and industry transparency for top specialty coffee micro lots.
She has years of coffee producer and consumer marketing related experience having worked for the ICO on consumer marketing projects and on several NGO projects at origin. She has managed marketing research programs, been president of a small advertising agency and was an executive of a grizzly bear facility. She holds a graduate degree from The Thunderbird Graduate School of International Management.