Interview with Paul Katzeff of Thanksgiving Coffee
Joan and Paul Katzeff established Thanksgiving Coffee Company in 1972. This was the first coffee roaster started by a community organizer and it shows. Their motto, “Not Just a Cup, But a Just Cup” was born on Paul’s first flight back from Nicaragua in 1985 and they have lived up to this mantra year after year. Just this past year, they won Macro Roaster of the Year from Roast Magazine which we detail in Episode 59 of Unpacking Coffee. What follows is a longer chat we had with Paul Katzeff. Much of this fell to the cutting room floor, but remained in our hearts. We are proud to share this conversation with you today.
Rooted in Activism
Paul: The social activist aspect of my involvement in coffee comes from that coffee is my second profession. The first profession that I had—and that I was trained for and that I went to University for—was to be a social worker, during the 60s.
I was a community organizer in East Harlem, on the Lower East Side in New York. I was the first director of Job Corp. I was an activist community organizer in the 60s and I burnt out after ten years of that. I didn’t have anything left for me. I didn’t have a home. I didn’t have a wife. I didn’t have kids. I didn’t have land. And then, the back to the land movement happened and the hippies happened and drugs happened and LSD happened. I sat next to Timothy Leary in an airplane.
All kinds of things started to happen and I left New York for Colorado, where I met Hunter Thompson and worked with him on his campaign for Sheriff. (I had worked previously with Robert Kennedy in New York as an aide to him in urban development issues.) So, that’s my history.
Coming to coffee, I was the first social worker, probably in the entire history of coffee, to become a coffee roaster.
When you bring two ideas together for the first time, or two professions together for the first time, you’re going to get an explosion of new ideas. It’s not personal brilliance that created that. It’s just the consequence of the way life works. So, I become a messenger in the coffee industry for ideas.
You don’t see a hero in your own generation. There are very few people who can transcend their own generation, so my days are in the past. It’s time for other people to step up and you make room for them by getting out of the way. But, what’s happening now and what happened last year are so outrageous that I fought to save the SCAA.
The first 12 presidents of the SCAA were all against a merger with the SCAE, who we helped create; we spawned all of these specialty coffee associations throughout the world and then combined with the wrong one. If you’re gonna combine with the specialty coffee association, you combine with a producer organization like the SCAN of Nicaragua or Peru. Instead, it became the rich against the poor again.
Coffee is not about becoming homogenized and centralized. It’s about diversity.
It’s about every country producing in a special kind of way, differentiating themselves, and then cultures, on the other side, who are consumers, having their own culture around coffee. So, when homogeneization approach of the SCAA and the SCAE happened, I could see there were gonna be real problems. I could not foresee that there was gonna be this problem in Dubai, but when you don’t have face to face conversations and you use the digital world and you’ve got an executive director who moves to London and he makes huge amounts of money, something different is … It’s gonna be a whole lot less personal and a whole lot more power coming from the top instead of from the bottom up. I think that led to certain things that we’re experiencing right now. The crudeness of that policy of asking the official outing of every gay and lesbian and transgender person.
Be the Change
Kandace: You have a huge background in organization and I know that you say that it’s not your time, but if you were to bring your younger, activist self to this situation right now, what would you do?
Paul: What would I do?
Paul: You know…
Kandace: I’m not saying you have to do it, but what would you …
Paul: No, no. I just was sort of crying inside.
Paul: The silence was tears. What I would do is I would do the same thing that I did when I started organizing the SCAA. When I started organizing the SCAA, the trade shows that I could go to between 1975 and 1980 … In 1980 I went to a trade show at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. By that time there were about 50 coffee companies showing at the national fancy food show. You had no other place, no other trade show to show. And I heard that there was rumbling in the industry that a few small roasters, craft roasters, were organizing or getting together, wanted to form a trade association. I was one of those people. I wanted to form a trade association because I’m surrounded by wineries in California. We’re in northern California and 57 of the wineries had Thanksgiving Coffee in their backrooms for their staff and in their front rooms to sober up their tasters or tourists who would come and buy. And I had to kept put signs up “It takes 20 minutes for caffeine to work and you’re gonna be awake when you crash into the tree so be careful.” Anyway, that was way back then.
At the fancy food show, the big guys heard that the specialty coffee guys, the little guys, were organizing and they organized. And they called together a meeting and I found out about it and I went to this meeting with about 20 multinational corporations and big national corporations. And I stood up and I said, “The industry in the specialty coffee, nobody’s invited. I came here by accident. Somebody told me about this meeting.” And he said, “Well if you want to get involved, we’re making you the chairman of the membership committee. You’re pro temp.” And I said, “Great.”
But then, I came back to Thanksgiving Coffee. I got at my desk—there wasn’t even faxes back then—I got on the phone, and long distance phone calls, which were not to other countries but other states, were very expensive. And I called every roaster that I could find. We got together a small group and we started to meet in Washington D.C., a group of maybe five to six roasters. And then, we were seven to eight roasters. We started to organize something, we didn’t know what, we didn’t know but we knew we had to get together because we didn’t want the big guys, the multinationals to take the specialty coffee industry away from us. We knew that it would be more of the same. So we organized.
It took us three years. We were really scared. But we persevered and we formed the trade association. It took 12 more years before the Roaster’s Guild was able to be formed, because there’s enough roasting information.
So, what I would do now—now that we have a list of every roaster in the country—I would not start with baristas. I would start with the roasters. I would them up and I would say, “Let’s do this again. We’ve lost our trade association. We’ve lost our edge. We’ve lost our hold on this country and we’ve got to get it back. So let’s all do what I’m doing, which is pulling out of the SCAA.”
After 20 years, I’m out. Thanksgiving Coffee Company is not gonna be part of the SCAA next year. So I would ask people, not to join me, but to join together.
When you have that kind of a battle and no words are spoken that have to be taken back, when you have respect for your adversary, what happens is you fall in love. You begin to love your adversary for all of the qualities that they’re bringing out in you, as well as what you’re seeing in them. So, even though Ted and I never saw eye to eye on so many tactical issues, when the industry gave me a Lifetime Achievement Award and I had to be introduced, I asked Ted to introduce me. That’s what happens when you have a national organization that’s personal.
I think we have to redefine ourselves for what we are. We’re not the same as what we were in the beginning. And we’re really finding out how important it is for our industry to be on the side of justice and climate change and all these kind of things that coffee is the perfect tool to use. I’m sorry that I’m not gonna be around for the next 40 years, but if I was, I certainly wouldn’t be thinking about retiring. I would be thinking about the incredible opportunity that we have. And right now. This is a moment in time. And we could capture it. It’s time for your generation to stand up and lead. I will rally my generation to support you. Are you prepared to join the leadership fight? The leadership group? Who are you gonna bring together? I’m prepared to follow. I’m prepared to support. But it’s your generation that needs to do this and I will rally my generation behind you to support you. There’s a promise.