Coffee Sourcing Part 2: Relationships and Transformation

When I first started Saint Frank in an effort to distinguish our approach I described our coffees as “relationally sourced”.  I have previously addressed my thoughts on the term “direct trade” and how at this stage it isn’t specific enough. You can read my discussion here in Part 1: Commodities and Direct Trade.   “Relationally Sourced” as a description is hoped to convey the spirit or intention with which we  source coffee as well as how we want to serve it.  

Relationally Sourced Coffee for the Coffee Lover

While working as a barista I would naturally be excited to try new coffees and noticed some of my guests did as well but I clearly noticed the connection some people would form with some coffees, and some offerings were so short-lived that there was no time for a relationship to be formed with a coffee. 

Unlike profile-focused blends, terroir and producer-specific coffees in a seasonal program cycle created a natural rhythm for extended connections.  Some of us want several weeks with a coffee, some want several months but its limited production means that there is some lag time in between harvests. In this manner we get to enjoy the familiar return of a memorable offering with new experiences deepened by history.  Some coffees are comforting and easy to be with over a longer time while others are exciting and dynamic without overstaying their welcome. But in every case you can count on having time with a coffee and that it will be back next year. I wanted to promote producers but I also wanted that tasting experience to be a recurring one year over year with new stories and deepened meaning. 

This meant two things: first, we would commit and invest in producers in long term relationships.  Second, we would buy all that a producer grows or enough volume from a cooperative that our guests and community could take time with the coffee and develop the relationship. 

These kind of commitments and relationships at origin can provide a meaningful and authentic connection in your morning cappuccino that you can trust.  In these relationships we have the most immediate connections for complete trust and transparency. Far from being a romantic story used for marketing, we can enjoy our coffees knowing they are the result of a mutually beneficial collaboration among peers dedicated to mutual well-being and holistic sustainability.  

Relationally Sourced Coffee for the Undiscovered Coffee Producer

There is something inherently human about rooting for the underdog that seems to fly in the face of Darwinian dominance.  Something in us that loves to see the ascension of the unexpected and overlooked. Every year in the College Basketball Final Four we look for the “Cinderella Story” for which small over matched and overpowered team will be invited to “The Dance” and thrill us all with their great story and upset of powerhouse teams. 

Of course that metaphor itself comes from the beloved story shared across many cultures of Cinderella, a young exploited woman whose fortune changes experiencing success and recognition after a time of obscurity and neglect.  My experiences connecting with both accomplished and storied producers alongside the Cinderellas stories of coffee led me in a determined direction from the very beginning to seek out producers, terroirs, and communities full of potential but lacking connection. 

Our first questions are never, “Where is the best coffee? Who are the best producers?”  Our questions start with, “Where can there be great coffee? Who can be great producers? Where can our connection and investment influence transformation?” 

We don’t select new exciting coffees each year from trending producers, we commit to people and communities where exciting coffees are developed and created.  Places that are largely undesired and avoided for risk, lack of recognition, and costliness are bewilderingly attractive to us for precisely those same reasons.  To us, transformation in challenging circumstances provides the kind of compelling and timeless attraction that offers a deeper satisfaction than the fleeting flavors of fashion. 

Sometimes this might be as dramatic as traveling the Himalayan foothills to source Nepali coffees from a dedicated Sherpa named Tenzing where coffee can turn the tide of devastating human trafficking.  But sometimes it might mean investing not far from a famous coffee producing mountain in an obscure mountain and village in Honduras where farmers are abandoning coffee and hope. Where the right producer like David Lopez and the right connections can revive a dying farm and struggling community and transform it into a thriving beacon of hope and change.

Relationally Sourced Coffee for the Disconnected Coffee Producer

In cases like these and so many others we can share, the potential was always alive in the land and in the people, they merely needed an invitation to have the chance to show who they could be and how great their coffees can be.  These are the kind of stories we want to believe in are the stories we want to be in, the stories we want to invite you into.

This invitation isn’t a passive opportunity but an active engagement toward a relationship.  A commitment to see it through and offer support goes a long way in growing the seed of motivation and inspiration.  That’s the other reason we commit to these coffees year after year. We want you to look forward to them and know they will be back next season but we want these producers to know we are coming back, that their investments in their coffees are not a shot and prayer but grounded faith in our demonstrated commitment. Everywhere we have worked we have seen both quality and quantity increases as the commitment and relationship deepens which ultimately means better and more faithful coffee experiences for our guests and community. 

Relationally Sourced Coffee for the Barista

I have been taking baristas with me to visit our producers for several years now inviting them to experience not only “origin” but more significantly the way we work at origin.  To date, ten different baristas have traveled with me to six different countries. Learning about where coffee comes from and experiencing a different culture are incredibly valuable but learning and experiencing within the context of relationships and stories of transformation reaches deeper into who we are and the world we want to become.  Jason Yeo who works at our original coffee bar in Russian Hill recently traveled to Honduras with me earlier in the summer and had this to say reflecting on his time:

“My trip to Honduras was an incredible experience and I couldn’t have asked for a more meaningful trip filled with learning.  Some big takeaways were meeting the producers and being able to connect our work with them to the work we do in our cafes. I got to experience the hard work of six plus years of a relationship built between Saint Frank and these producers, which helped me see that we’re not just impacting community in our own city but we are doing that in every community we source coffee from.   Receiving the generosity and hospitality from the producers showed me that the sense of community and connection we have at Saint Frank is not just in our neighborhoods or cities but that it goes beyond all boundaries.”


Thankfully there are now many other coffee companies out there also engaging in relationship coffee and we are happy to recommend them to you.  But characteristics of Saint Frank that that I believe are distinctive come from our total commitment to relationship coffees across all our offerings and in prioritizing emerging producers and communities.  These commitments position us uniquely to be radically transparent. You can see the beginning stages of our transparency reporting here and look forward to Part 3 where I will discuss the importance of transparency and its role in changing the landscape of the broken coffee trading system.