A Conversation with
Karen Cebreros, President of
Elan Organic Coffees with Jenice Gharib
Say the word optimism and I immediately think of Karen Cebreros.
For two years I had the opportunity to work with Cebreros
as the manager of her former organic coffee roasting company.
Cebreros began as an unknown in the industry with little knowledge
of organics or coffee. Twelve years later, she is a key member
of the Sustainability Committee and the FairTrade Task Force
of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). She
is also the current president of the San Diego chapter of
Women in Business.
Cebreross company, Elan Organic Coffees, buys unroasted,
green coffee from throughout the coffee growing worldincluding
such countries as Peru, Mexico, Sumatra and Guatemala
and sells it to coffee roasters and brokers. Coffee, still
one of the most highly sprayed food crops in the world and
one of the most highly consumed beverages, remains her passion
and her arena for making a difference in the world. We recently
sat down over coffee and discussed why she was in Washington,
DC on September 11, the organic coffee industry, the way she
does business, and what keeps her going.
Jenice Gharib: Why were you in
Washington on September 11th?
Karen Cebreros: Women in
Business was taking their annual trip to Washington, DC where
we always have a grand experience and have an audience with
various politicians in the capitol. This particular year 22
of us elected to go. Our ultimate objective is doing white
papers on Capitol Hill. I had a double agenda actually. Not
only was I doing a white paper this year, I was also extending
invitations to the five Congresswomen wed be seeing
on September 11th to attend what was going to be noted as
the first Coffee Congress in the United States where the coffee
industry would meet with Congress in an attempt to share some
of the concerns that are going on in the industry world-wide.
I was presenting five personalized invitations to people like
Maxine Waters and Susan Davis.
The morning of September 11th we were to be in the Capitol
building at nine oclock for our first presentation which
actually was a remarkable experience because the lady was
a very prominent cancer researcher and she actually was so
beside herself giving us statistics. For the first time she
was giving a speech where she could say progress has been
made and statistics are not under control but actually going
down as it related to cervical cancer, breast cancer. She
concluded at ten. The next speaker came on. She was literally
in the midst of her introduction when the door flew open and
Mary Getz, the niece of Pauline Getz, one of our members,
flew in the room as she lives in DC, and said, You have
to leave. Weve been attacked.
Everybody was somewhat stunned, speechless and no one moved.
She said, The World Trade Center has been hit and so
has the Pentagon. That seemed to move people. Right
at that moment Maxine Waterss aide came in as well saying
that everyone had to evacuate the building right now. We left
the Capitol with thousands of people evacuating the city as
the military was cordoning it off. You never saw so much activity
so fast in your life. I mean, within seconds the entire city
was sealed off with thousands of people marching out very
peacefully. Then there was an enormous explosion. We could
see the Pentagon burning, the smoke and the fire was going
up in the air. We could hear planes. The explosion, we were
told immediately, was a car bomb. They were towing cars as
fast as, faster than we were walking. Just moving every single
thing out from the Capitol. Every corner had FBI, guys in
[Karen and the other women were taken to Mary Getzs
home where they waited for four hours. Eventually, the women
made it back to their hotel. Only one out of 21 women got
home on their scheduled flight. Karen and another women traveled
by Greyhound bus for 60 hours in order to return home to San
The Coffee Congress got canceled. It got canceled because
it was due for the 13th. I havent heard a word about
rescheduling unfortunately. Id like to know. Its
a big deal. Theres been a huge mistake made with the
way World Bank and USAID have funded origin products. Theres
a tremendous amount of money that has been allocated to Vietnam
which caused an overabundance along with an oversupply in
the world in generalBrazil has too much. Vietnam flooded
the market and their robustas are trading at around 17 cents
a pound, which does no good for anyone at any level. That
was one issue. Would USAID and Congress please entertain some
feedback from the industry so we can suggest what it is we
want to buy, what it is they ought to do with the money, where
they ought to put it, and how they ought to manage it to a
certain extent? In any event, there were four key bullet points
and sustainability of the planet was actually on there. This
would be the first time the coffee industry was ever asked
to actually go face-to-face with Congress. It will come back
again, Im sure, in 2002.
JG: Whats happening in the
organic coffee industry?
KC: After having been 12
years in the organic industry finally weve gone from
being, you know, somewhat of a nut, to a trend, to the pioneer,
to business as usual. Now organic has gone mainstream. Its
growing five percent a year in the specialty [coffee] niche
and crossing over into the mass markets. Were actually
seeing organic coffees in supermarkets now, like Safeway and
Ralphs. Having tried everything from roasting to cafes to
coffee carts at Elan, weve refocused and now were
putting a lot more emphasis on development. Were marketing
ourselves as origin developers, to build relationships and
bridges between buyers and suppliers.
Theres a tremendous need for coffee to be looked at,
and how to keep it special in a 45-cent commodity market.
People are not motivated to take very good care of their coffee,
or to even plant coffee, or to even continue in the industry.
So, what do we do? We have to go down and we have to try to
pay fair prices. Our licensing with TransFair has proven to
be a very good. Timing-wise, its a very controversial
issue in the US. The specialty industry feels assaulted and
attacked by having been threatened with pickets at Peets,
Diedrichs, Starbucks, and so theyve licensed with TransFairbut
against their better judgment. They feel they were blacklisted.
It has caused an image control problem. In fact, Im
particularly focused on fair trade coffee, shade-grown coffee,
organic coffees, but Ive asked for an audience with
Paul Rice [director of TransFair]. Ive asked for at
least five brokers who do care about the movement, for all
the right reasons, to have an audience with him try to see
if we cant readdress the image, the ideas, the contracts,
the pricing structure, the lack of a quality component. Weve
been granted the audience with Paul January 22nd in San Francisco.
We will be able to say that 80 percent of our business this
year  was fair trade organic. The rest was organic.
We did no conventional coffee. It allowed us to spike, I dont
know the numbers yet, probably 30 or 40 percent, because big,
specialty houses did move forward and everybody is starting
to follow. The same idea of Starbucks. What they started in
the 80s created a playing field for the specialty coffee arena.
Now Starbucks making a move on the sustainable issues has
caused everybody to start taking a step forward.
We are fortunate to be in the right place at the right time
and supply, instead of one or two brokers, at least ten brokers.
Our focus will be on developing unique projects that hit all
buttons. Id like to be able to say that at the end of
2002, 80% of our coffees are triple certifiedwith shade,
organic and TransFair licenses. And to allow the roasters
who are completely interested in marketing, brand their projects
and products with our farmers exactly like wine. Thats
Our lead customer, Green Mountain, is taking the extra effort
and taking their entire coffee team, if you will, to visit
the Voice of Christ from the Desert. In February, theyre
taking their marketing people, their coffee people, their
buyers, their sales managers to see it, get it, believe it,
understand it, put it in their catalogs. It is no longer coffee
from Guatemala. Its no longer organic coffee. Its
no longer stewardship coffee. It is certified organic, shade-grown,
fair trade coffee from Lake Atitlan from the Voice of Christ
from the Desert. Thats the future. Thats the only
way that the suppliers and everybody else are going to be
able to survive and to differentiate themselves from the multinationals.
The SCAA has actually embraced the Environment Committee and
has actually allowed us to evolve into whats now known
as the Sustainabililty Committee and we have many of the coffee
icons on it, participating very aggressively so that its
a component of business, not a fringe, leftist, activist,
earthy-crunchy group. FairTrade actually has a task force
within the SCAA now, the only outside organization to actually
have a task force by its own trade name. I have just been
asked to join that. I am participating on sustainability and
fair trade to the best of my ability.
JG: How would you describe the
way you do business?
KC: Essentially, what we
do is we try to do business in a fashion that makes a difference
not just make a living. And the only way we can make a difference
is if consumers make a choice to vote with their dollars.
Thats to go buy products that are socially and environmentally
responsible. All I can do is keep offering different choices,
different options, and encouraging people to educate themselves
and vote with their dollars since we are a consumer culture.
Create the demand and the need for doing things in a much
more mindful, conscious way.
One aspect of Elan that Im kind of happy about is that
weve been consistent. We have the same mission statement
weve had since day one. Its been modified and
improved upon but the same concept. Elan will supply
the finest certified organic coffees in the world supporting
equitable partnerships between consumers, farmers and the
environment while maintaining a profitable company.
JG: What keeps you going, keeps
KC: I would say that Im
a firm believer in you are what you think, that thoughts are
things. That is a practice that you have to have consciousness
of all the time. You have to discipline yourself to think
positive thoughts. Probably the most important piece is to
surround yourself with positive people and positive energy
and like-minded individuals. We dont have to be right
but we do have to do things in a different fashion. We have
to be smart.
Now that were in a new world order and theres
tragedy, theres also triumph. Everything has to be far
more mindful and we all just have to be very conscious of
how we spend our time, our energy, and how we think. Everythings
a choice in life. Even in the midst of tragedy we can still
choose how we want to react and act. Right or wrong, good
or bad, all the mistakes weve made, I feel that you
have to continue to take a risk, step out of the box, pull
the trigger. Dont stay stuck and dont wallow in
things. A philosophy Ive always had is make a decision
even if its wrong. Just learn from it and try to make
new mistakes. Ive been fortunate. I keep meeting the
right people, the wonderful people. No matter how things look
somebody gives you the support you need to move on.