The Extraordinarily High Cost of Cheap Coffee

Wednesday, 8 August, 2018

Words by David Donde

As the representatives of the sharp end of coffee we have an obligation. Perhaps it is more of a duty? A duty to justify the prices we charge for coffee by delivering a cup worthy of its price. A duty to pay our baristas fairly. A duty to give those baristas a career path. A duty to enable that career path by offering them training. A duty to buy coffee that can fulfill the obligation in that cup offered to our loyal patrons. A duty to learn how to roast as well as humanly possible. A duty to buy green coffees worthy of the Herculean effort that will follow. A duty to pay fair prices to the grower. A duty to grow coffees worthy of a fair price. A duty as a business owner to learn how to do all those things.

This is is the value chain. And you, Customer, are breaking it. You are being unfair. You are compromising your duty. Every time you buy a cup of coffee and complain about the price, you force the Cafè to think about lowering its pricing. To evaluate where it can cut corners. Can we pay our baristas less? Can we eliminate training? Can we avoid growing our business for a while? Can we buy cheaper coffee? Can we avoid hiring? Can we squeeze our roaster for a lower price?

Cafe owner, every time you complain about the price of your coffee you are incentivizing  your roaster to pay less to their roasting team. To cut quality control standards or practices. Discouraging their opportunities to employ. Forcing them to buy coffees on price rather than quality. To buy down. To prize efficiency over quality. 

Roasters, your compromises on purchasing are forcing farmers to champion quantity over quality. To cut corners. To refuse shoes and education to their children. To hold them back from economic freedom. 

Go to the average “great” cafe and see their coffee offered for ten or twenty percent more than a bottled water. How does that respect the coffee; the barista; the roaster; the grower? Is your coffee only a little better than your water? Then fair enough. Is it representative of the effort of all of those people who brought that amazing coffee from seed to cup? Then respect the difference. Respect the value. Charge fairly. Charge appropriately. 

Coffee, like wine, deserves a spread of pricing. Cheap for average; pricey for the good stuff and expensive for the experiences. 

This is fair, no? This builds a culture. This builds an economy. This is part of a dream of emancipation that coffee can and should help deliver. 

Cafes charging fairly will be able to pay baristas fairly. A good barista should not be earning a small percentage more than minimum wage. A good barista should be able to be a meaningful contributor to his lifestyle, his family and his community. Charge more and you will need to pay more to keep your barista. And this is good. Your barista will spend more in the community; allowing the coffee price to be afforded by the community. This is building an economy. We can’t shrink our way to greatness. 

Smaller cafes shouldn’t be intimidated by the pricing of the large franchises and charge a bit less. They should show up the larger operations with a better offer and thus justify a higher price and loyalty. 

Big dogs with big footprints, start having the value in the cup improve. Let your customers understand the value of quality by your team understanding that value has two sides to its coin. Price and quality. That quality deserves to be easy to taste. Try it with special offerings. But don’t cheat. Buy great coffees. Dare to really try going up the quality ladder. Dare to offer a coffee that doesn’t just cost more for a premium. But tangibly tastes better. Is different. Is worth charging a lot more for. Respect your clientele. They aren’t as dumb as your board’s demographic presentations suggest. They aren’t data points, they are individuals Those that care about quality and think about what they drink will get it. And respect you for it. Give them credit for being able to enjoy the finer things in life. 

But damn you if you charge more and don’t produce something better. 

Damn you if you don’t pay staff fairly from the increased profits. 

Damn you if you do this and don’t insist on buying better coffee

Damn you if you aren’t prepared to pay more for better. 

There are two scenarious. R22 for a double flat white. R20 for the water. Minimum wage. Buying from the lowest convenient bidder. Commodity grade coffee from farmers on the poverty line. Mass unemployment. A South Africa with low economic confidence. 

Or or we can charge and enjoy paying upwards of R40, still leaving us with one of the cheapest speciality coffee offerings in the world. Paying our baristas fairly. Hiring more staff. Paying for better coffee. Allowing the better farmers to charge more, allowing them to further improve their economies and offerings. We in the coffee industry get to wear a badge of pride in what we do on our lapels. We  are not hiding from shame at our known mediocrity. It is easier to defend high prices when your practices are uncompromising. The shame of misrepresenting or cheating or cost cutting are removed from the tightly  shut closet doors of our guilty consciences. We step into the light of the upward spiral. Of customers slapping down a fair price with a smile in expectation of a mindfully enjoyed cup of the pinnacle of our geeky craft, basking in the full knowledge of the good being done all the way down the value chain. People paid to care are paying others to care. Each cup of coffee making a positive difference to every community. The coffee drinkers. The cafe owners. The baristas. The logistics teams. The roasteries. The coffee roasters. The trainers. The green bean buyers. The coffee farmers. And maybe even the environment. Maslow’s pyramid can only have a healthy effect on that. 

We we can either support a downward spiral or an upwards climb. Everything is connected. We are either choosing to be part of the solution or part of the problem. 

Still want a discount on that coffee?

Deliver on your duty. Ask for better. Demand better. 

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