Lee Wallace

Growing A Coffee Company With Lee Wallace

Last Updated on October 8, 2020

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Tell Us About Yourself And Your Background!

I am a lifelong social entrepreneur and have always been interested in the place where mission and money meet; how business can be used as a force for good. And while I’ve been at the helm of Peace Coffee for over a decade (and Peace Coffee was founded in 1996), I went all in in 2018 when I purchased the company from our nonprofit owners.

Tell Us About Your Company! How Did You Start It? Why Did You Start It?

Oddly enough, our story doesn’t quite begin with coffee. It begins with farmers. Our founding nonprofit, the Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy, began with a mission to help American farmers during the family farm crisis of the mid-1980s. That mission grew to include a vision for expansion to other countries with rich farming roots to see how they could best partner and advocate for long-term systemic change and, ultimately, commodity-farmer profitability.

Today, Peace Coffee is a mid-sized regional roaster serving the upper Midwest from our roastery in south Minneapolis. We serve a variety of wholesale customers from food co-ops and grocers to independent cafes and colleges predominantly in the upper Midwest. Our staff members are dedicated to making a daily impact while our coffee impacts mornings across the country.

We’re starry-eyed dreamers who believe in bicycle-power, being nice, and bringing neighbors, farmers, and the community together. We believe that collaboration works wonders, and that passion, honesty, and a really great cup of coffee can make the world a better place. And when that coffee is sustainably grown and freshly roasted to bring out the best in every bean, well, that’s when the real magic happens.

How Did You Get Your First Several Customers Or Users? How Many Users Or Customers Do You Have Now?

The most obvious place to begin IATP’s quest for impactful growth was in Mexico, specifically the Chiapas region. A cohort of staff from IATP took an initial trip in 1995 to listen to farmers of all sorts and survey the situation to try and see where they may best fit in. Of the numerous farmers they met with, the most vocal and educated about their current situation were the local coffee farmers.

Needless to say, the folks from IATP were intrigued by the challenges the farmers faced, and after deeper conversations, the group agreed to partner together to bring coffee to Minneapolis and forge a new fair trade model unseen in the US at this time. Wholly owned by IATP as a for-profit entity that would fund their expanding efforts, the first shipment of coffee from Chiapas, Mexico, was in 1996.

Since then we have been committed to 100% fair trade certified, organic coffee grown by small-scale farmers. These small-scale farmers are members of local cooperatives, which help them to organize, advocate for their rights, and share in profits as a collective group.

As soon as we had the right pieces in place to support cooperative farmers in coffee growing lands, we began an intentional expansion to sell organic, fair trade coffee in local food cooperatives and natural food stores in the Twin Cities. The expansion of our mission brought new challenges including figuring out a cost-effective and earth-friendly way to deliver coffee to customers. Having seen the ingenuity of coffee farmers at origin, we took a cue from their transit tricks and adopted a bike delivery program, which still delivers over 35% of our Twin Cities coffee orders all year long!

So what started as a handful of Minneapolis co-ops getting beans delivered by bike has grown into a regional brand selling fresh roasted FTO coffee into over 1000 retail locations across 11 states and over 5000 direct internet customers.

How Does Your Company Grow And Acquire New Customers?

Peace Coffee benefits from two distinct trends in the coffee industry:
1. The quest for quality – As consumers upgrade their coffee to premium specialty coffee – both at home and away from home, Peace Coffee offers premium coffee blends and single origin beans roasted in small batches. Our “Farm to Cup” approach meets the needs of consumers seeking a higher quality coffee experience.
2. Growing interest in Fair Trade Organic products – throughout the Grocery industry, consumers are being more deliberate in their food and beverage choices, wanting to understand where and how products are sourced. As one of the first companies to establish fair prices for coffee, Peace Coffee has unmatched authenticity in demonstrating the positive impact our policies have on our farmers.

What Actionable Tips And Tricks Do You Have For New Founders Who Are Looking To Get Their First Thousand Users Or Dollars?

Be maniacally focused on who you and what you want to be (i.e., be authentic).
Our tagline ‘In It For Good’ perfectly encapsulates our desire to forge lasting, beneficial partnerships with farmer cooperatives and our community as well as our desire to bring good to morning mugs across our region. As a B Corporation, we also wanted to infuse their core message of using business as a force for good into our DNA as a coffee company that aims to support farmers, empower staff members, and delight customers.

What Is Something You’ve Learned That Would Not Be Obvious To Somebody Who Hasn’t Worked In Your Space Before?

There are few (if any) barriers to entry in the coffee category so anyone with access to a roaster can become your competitor overnight (and some ex-employees have done just that). The broader lesson is: In addition to being focused on what you bring to the marketplace, give careful thought to potential obstacles (The T is a classic SWOT analysis).

What’s The Craziest Thing That’s Happened To You (Good Or Bad) On Your Founder Journey?

One of my favorite all time memories was when I was visiting the Pangoa Cooperative in the Amazon Rainforest Basin of Peru in 2008. The co-op has been run for over two decades by a rockstar of a woman named Esperanza Dionisio. While getting a tour of the co-op’s fleet of motorcycles that they use to dispatch staff into remote areas I explained to her that I can ride a motorcycle. On my last night there she drove me into the jungle. As we rounded a corner I could see one of her staff members with a motorcycle. They had me hop on it and ride through the jungle and across pineapple fields as the sun set. It was gorgeous.

What Are Your Favorite Books?

Anything You’d Like To Plug?

I am the Board Chair of a NGO called Bountifield International. Bountifield envisions an Africa that is free from hunger. We work to create opportunities for rural entrepreneurs across the continent with tools and services to efficiently process, save and sell more food. Bountifield helps small businesses and farmers increase their incomes and create jobs – another example of using entrepreneurship to address inequities.

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