The two Kenya-born relatives of coffee growers that founded Florida-based Growers Alliance Coffee Company were indeed brought together by coffee, although interestingly not in Kenya. They met in the U.S., where they both, in their earliest days, were shocked to discover just how coffee-crazy U.S. consumers are.
“Back home, people don’t drink coffee. We drink tea,” Co-Founder Purity Gikunju told Daily Coffee News. “We were colonized by the British, and everybody drinks tea. I was like, ‘What’s wrong with all these people? Why isn’t anybody drinking tea? You go and ask for tea, they give you iced tea. What is that?'”
Yet both GACC founders, in their initial surprise, also saw an opportunity. Before they met, both Gikunju and Martin Kabaki had already started their own distinct Kenya-direct coffee businesses. Both then happened to travel to an SCAA Expo event in Seattle, Wash., and it was there that Gikunju met Kabaki and a vital connection was made.
Both were hoping to make a difference in the lives of their coffee-growing families, the surrounding communities and other communities in Kenya and at other origins. In 2008, the duo founded the Growers Alliance company in Jacksonville, Fla., selling roasted coffee through wholesale and retail channels, serving coffee drinks from a food truck and at farmers markets, and importing their own greens directly from farmers at livelihood-sustaining prices. From the beginning, they’ve also devoted an additional 10 percent of profits to healthcare and clean water projects at origin.
The business has grown steadily over the years, and this month, the company held the grand opening celebration at its first retail coffee shop, Growers Alliance Cafe & Gift Shop in St. Augustine, Fla. The shop serves espresso and drip brewed coffee, fresh pastries and a variety of freshly-made Kenyan traditional snacks. The shop also sells handmade gifts and jewelry from the Kenyan communities where the coffee is grown, as well as the cashews and macadamia nuts that are grown alongside the coffee as a shade crop that Gikunju said has an effect on the flavor of the coffees grown in close proximity.
After the endemic challenges they endured in their youths growing up on coffee farms in Kenya, the struggles involved in reaching the U.S., and launching and growing a business there, the Growers Alliance owners had planned to open a brick-and-mortar shop in October of last year. But then came Hurricane Matthew.
“We were going to open that Monday, and the hurricane came in on Friday. We had just passed all our inspections,” Gikunju told Daily Coffee News. All of their equipment, packaging materials and several bags of green coffee were lost amid 14 inches of water on the floor of the building.
“We’re still going through the motions of getting through that,” Gikunju said. “It was very, very devastating. At the same time, so many people lost everything in St. Augustine, it was really challenging, but we are stronger than we know. We always come out stronger than you realize. So, here we are today. We’re still alive.”
Three months later, St. Augustine January temperatures were in the 70s until suddenly, on their rescheduled opening day, the temperature dropped without warning into the mid-40s, which for St. Augustine is about as cold as it gets. Gikunju said she feared no one would show. “Oh boy, was I wrong,” she happily reported. The coffeehouse had to open both garage-door walls despite the cold, to accommodate the crowd. Said Gikunju, “Before we knew it, people were all the way to the pavement.”
Growers Alliance now imports coffees directly from farmers in Kenya, as well as Ethiopia, Costa Rica and Guatemala. In roasting, which now occurs in a dedicated production roastery within the café building, Gikunju said they tend to favor a fully developed roast that also preserves the unique character of each coffee with respect to its origin.
Apart from the sale of coffee and other goods, Growers Alliance has also for years been organizing Kenya travel adventures for tourists called Coffee Safaris. Three or four times a year, the company provides travelers with hands-on experience picking coffee and nuts at the farms, as well as in digging the water wells and assisting at the dialysis clinics consumers’ coffee purchases help to fund.
“We take them to the villages, and the first three days, they are giving back with us,” said Gikunju. After that, travelers are then treated to a week of traditional wild animal-viewing safari.
Gikunju said that she hopes, within the next 10 years, to achieve a supermarket retail presence for Growers Alliance coffees across the entire United States. She also hopes to have at least ten more coffee shops supporting farmers directly, and to expand into green coffee wholesale to other roasters. Said Gikunju, “We would love to, because the impact back home is immeasurable, it’s beautiful.”