Local coffee roaster is on a fairness mission

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Joe Cesa of Feltonville's Philly Fair Trade Roasters buys his shop's coffee beans at a premium price.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Joe Cesa of Feltonville's Philly Fair Trade Roasters buys his shop's coffee beans at a premium price.
Posted: February 21, 2014

J OE CESA, 62, of Washington Square West, is co-owner and roaster at Philly Fair Trade Roasters, in the old Goldenberg's Peanut Chews factory on Wyoming Avenue near 2nd Street, Feltonville. The firm specializes in small-batch, organic, 100 percent Arabica coffee, hand-roasted daily and packaged in recyclable bags. Cesa formerly owned Joe Coffee on Walnut Street near 11th in Center City.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the biz?

A: We started in 2002. I did a business plan, studied fair trade and wanted to do quality coffee. Back then, I was food-service director for a health-care facility and tired of internal politics.

Q: How'd you finance it?

A: I used $300,000 of my savings. I signed a lease the day before 9/11. When I opened, 40 percent [of business] vanished because of the economy and I cut back. We had a loyal following, lots of people from [Thomas] Jefferson [University Hospital], and they understood fair trade.

Q: What's fair trade?

A: It means I, as roaster, am buying coffee beans at a premium, more than the commodity price, so producers, farmers and pickers can earn a living wage in their country. The commodity price barely lets them survive.

Q: Why should consumers buy fair-trade coffee?

A: One of the reasons we have lots of [undocumented workers] coming to the U.S. from Latin America is that many who have been caught [by law enforcement] are coffee growers who couldn't earn enough to feed their families. We're improving life there because of fair trade.

Q: The biz model?

A: We do retail and wholesale. All retail is at farmers markets in and around the city. We wholesale to food co-ops, small markets and some top restaurants in the city. About 75 percent of business is wholesale.

Q: What differentiates you from other roasters here?

A: We're totally committed to fair trade. We're certified by Fair Trade USA and we're out at farmers markets and local schools spreading the word that you can make a difference just by buying a different cup of coffee.

Q: How'd you evolve to Philly Fair Trade Roasters?

A: We went through two recessions. When the [financial] markets crashed in September 2008, there was no morning rush at Joe Coffee and 25 percent of the business just evaporated overnight. I closed the cafe in May 2009, and one of my customers, Pumpkin [a restaurant on South Street above 17th], let me use their basement to keep going.

Q: How big a business?

A: We just hired a third full-time employee and we have a a part-timer. We grossed about $150,000 last year.


On Twitter: @MHinkelman

Online: ph.ly/YourBusiness

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