Web Exclusives: Alumni Spotlight

May 12, 2004:

Jon Rogers ’54’s company funds social programs that improve the lives of farmers’ workers and their families.

Rogers’s company plans to replace this ill-equipped school in Nicaragua this year. (jbr foods, inc.)

Making a great cup of joe
Jon Rogers ’54 helps farmers who grow quality beans

Jon Rogers ’54 knows good coffee. And as the owner of a specialty coffee company, he understands that the perpetual flow of high-quality brew is anything but certain. After all, market pressures are forcing farmers in the best coffee-growing regions to sell their land to developers or switch to more profitable crops, including lower-quality beans. That’s why Rogers’s company — which roasts coffee and sells under brands that include San Francisco Bay Coffee Company and the Organic Coffee Company to gourmet stores, supermarkets, and warehouse-store chains — is taking action: paying above-market prices to growers in South and Central America.

An oversupply of the world’s best-selling agricultural commodity has driven down bean prices — often below the farmers’ cost of production. “When you lose 40 cents on every pound, how long can you stay in business?” asks Rogers. So through multiyear, fixed-price contracts, his company, Rogers Family Companies, in San Leandro, California, is paying almost twice the current market price to farmers who grow the premium arabica beans. “We’ve got to keep these people in business, for their sake and ours,” he explains.

He’s doing more than keeping the farmers afloat. When his company strikes deals with growers — bypassing the brokers through whom most roasters buy coffee beans — they together implement agricultural and social programs to improve the quality of the farm and of the lives of the people who work there. Farmers who aren’t cash-strapped can afford to run organic farms. And social programs designed to end the cycle of poverty help farmers attract dependable seasonal workers.

A dollar goes a long way in places like Guatemala and Nicaragua. At a 2,500-person farm in Mexico, Rogers’s company last year paid for a new kitchen, medical clinic, septic tank, children’s nursery, and three daily meals for the workers’ families. The cost? About $27,000. But the payoff of such programs is immeasurable, and to Rogers, such corporate paternalism represents enlightened self-interest. “I firmly believe that you don’t have a good deal unless both people win,” he says. And while his coffee can’t compete on the basis of price, his 100-employee firm’s practices have given his products a marketing edge with some large buyers.

Seeing the manufacturing plant Rogers built, where gigantic computerized roasters prepare 1,000-pound batches of beans for packaging, it’s hard to believe that he didn’t know anything about coffee when he started the family business in 1979, buying a struggling tea company. But the former marketing and sales executive had so wanted to run his own company that he was willing to try anything. “I knew we could learn the business,” he says.

He certainly has, making a profit while doing good. Rogers would be happy if more companies followed suit by paying more for quality beans. “If we get everybody aware of good coffee,” he says, “there’ll be enough business for all of us.”

By Marina Krakovsky

Marina Krakovsky is a freelance writer in San Mateo, California.