Business growth is a predominant enough motivator that nowadays “organic” is an adjective more often uttered in reference to corporate strategy than to agriculture.
Yet for Montreal roaster Lenoir & Lacroix, the most “organic” thing to do is not to grow for growth’s sake, but to maintain and engage in ways meaningful both to the company and to the communities at origin it strives to support.
The conscientious choice to eschew the pursuit of empire in favor of something more intimately productive is within the foundation of the company. Christian Lacroix spent decades working for the Van Houtte coffee company, one of the oldest and widest-spread coffee brands in Canada. In the early ’00s, Van Houtte acquired a 23.7 percent stake in Keurig, and launched its own line of K-cups.
Yet by the end of that decade, Van Houtte sold those shares and was bought out itself by a private investment firm that ultimately sold the company to Green Mountain in 2010 a few years later. It was in the run-up to these corporate reshufflings that Lacroix parted ways and cashed in his shares of Van Houtte, investing the windfall in the 12-kilo Diedrich upon which Lenoir & Lacroix remains centered today.
Prior to acquiring the Diedrich, Lacroix spent about nine months in California working as a consultant for another company that was looking to get into the coffee business. In that position he roasted on a Diedrich IR24, which informed his decision to go with a Diedrich IR12 for himself upon his return to Quebec. The brothers Stéphane and Christian Lacroix then started L&L in 2005 in the Montreal suburb of Blainville where, ten years later, the company remains compact and relaxed in its strategy of wholesale and boutique whole-bean retail.
The priority is not to sell the most coffee overall, but to sell what they sell with as much integrity as possible. The goal is not to make as much money as possible, but just enough for a livelihood and to support travels to origin, where L&L endeavors, through trade and through other creative partnerships, to improve the lives of impoverished people.
Christian Lacroix spends several months per year in a struggling region in a valley in the Andes, a few hours outside of the city of Cuzco in southern Peru. In his earliest visits to the area, Lacroix was dismayed by his findings of communities not getting what they needed through Fair Trade or other economic promises.
In response, he facilitated inspection by the agricultural certification agency Ecocert to evaluate and certify farms, and to educate farmers on more efficient, organic practices. He also personally shipped tools and worked to improve access to other resources farmers needed not only to increase quality but to sell in smaller quantities for higher prices directly to roasters, outside of the turbulent C-market.
Lacroix told Daily Coffee News that for every coffee he buys, he personally visits the region to participate in cuppings, meet the growers, and agree upon equitable prices. After that, his broker in Quebec handles the importation rigmarole. In his meticulously crafted blends, Lacroix may incorporate coffees from as many as six or seven different origins, and the company has also recently launched a variety of single-origin coffees as well, including one from Jamaica and one from Peru.
Lacroix is currently spending two weeks in Nicaragua in search of L&L’s third single-origin. A trip to Indonesia is also coming up soon, with another to Ethiopia planned for December 2016. “People say ‘oh, you are lucky, you are going to all of these places.’ I’m going to work, I’m not going to play,” said Lacroix. “This is my work.”
During his visits nowadays, Lacroix is not only exploring green coffee options but also laying groundwork for another initiative the company has recently launched, called the Lenoir Lacroix Collective. The Collective is spearheaded by Christian’s daughter, Léa Lacroix, a freelance photographer who also runs educational programs at a youth center and works in the Humanitarian Action department at the University of Montreal.
Under her stewardship, the Collective was officially born in October of 2015, and has just begun a sort of artists-to-origin residency program that sends Canadian artists to coffee communities for several weeks where they teach language or art classes while also pursuing their personal creative projects.
“The idea is to enact intercultural dialogue and cultural exchanges,” Léa Lacroix told Daily Coffee News of the program she hopes will inspire participants on both ends. “This year is in Peru. Probably next year will be in Nicaragua.” The first pair of artists is slated to depart for northern Peru in August 2016.
In time, the Collective will not only continue in its educational exchange, but will also be the front line of continued auditing of L&L’s direct trade impact, ensuring that conditions on the ground are indeed healthy and improving. “We keep the relationship with the farmers,” said Léa. “We want it to be more than just an economic relationship. We’re wanting to make a bridge between the business side and the more human side.”
As for the growth of the coffee company Lenoir & Lacroix, it may happen, although profits and new commercial territories won’t be the metric by which it is measured. “I think it can grow, but in a different way than how we usually see a business grow,” said Léa Lacroix of her father’s and uncle’s trajectory. “It can grow socially, more than economically.”