In the early 2010s, two brothers, David and Jacob Kennedy, began roasting coffee and expanded their love for coffee into what is now known as James Coffee Co. in San Diego, California.
Although started by two brothers, Sarah Girdzius, who leads the wholesale and coffee sourcing front, describes James Coffee Co. as a “woman strong company.”
Read on for a Q&A with Sarah, who spoke from James Coffee Co.’s fourth and soon-to-open café, about gender equity in coffee and their commitment to sustainability!
What is the origin of James Coffee Co. and what is your role?
Sarah: James Coffee Company was started by two brothers, David and Jacob Kennedy, and they started it in 2012–2013. David is in the music world, and I think it was just out of a love of coffee. They started roasting, and [David] started roasting just at home in a popcorn popper and would roast coffee and give it as gifts to people and turned into roasting in their shed on their property and getting like a small roaster, turned into a coffee cart, and turned into what is now like three cafes and then a small wholesale program down here. We’re actually working in this new space on a bakery as well so this new location will have a little bit more going on too. It will be our fourth cafe.
David and Jacob are the owners of the company, and Carina also works for the company. I do all of our wholesale and coffee sourcing here. We’re still a small company so we all kind of wear a lot of hats here, and so I do a bunch of things. My goal is to eventually just be doing coffee sourcing and QC, but right now, I also manage all of our wholesale, and do a bit of our bar training and stuff like that.
How did you all come to partner with Bean Voyage?
Sarah: One of the brothers, David, his wife, Carina, also works for the company, it’s kind of a bit of a family business. We’ve been working on how to be more sustainable as a business and how to be as ethical as we can be in business too. And so, [Carina] was taking some sustainability in coffee courses and met Sunghee, and through Sunghee was able to build a relationship with us, buying some coffee from Costa Rica this year, which is super exciting.
What does gender equity in the coffee industry mean to you?
Sarah: That’s such a hard question! To me it means opportunity and fairness at all levels, I think. This is like I said, the two owners, David and Jacob, are brothers, but it is a very women-strong company too. And I think on this end, it feels very like we’re quite balanced because there are lots of us and we’re all doing different jobs and have different ideas and we all play as a team, as equals. But, on the farmer level, I think having accessibility to women farmers to be able to get their coffee out there is super important and it’s not something that is traditionally seen on farms as common.
Being able to highlight that through a company like [Bean Voyage] is special and exciting for us because there are some [women farmers], but not many that are out there, so [women farmers] are harder to find. And so us being able to reach out to a company like Bean Voyage, who will put a spotlight on those farmers and be like hey, come check these people out, it’s really helpful because otherwise, it’s really hard to find those things, specifically.
How do you see pricing as playing a role in gender equity in the industry?
Sarah: I think pricing plays a role on all levels of coffee and I think transparency in pricing is super important. With women in coffee, I think having the price transparency gives us the clarity of what’s actually being paid at farm-gate, and is it equal to what we pay for other specialty coffees at farm-gate? And maybe is the program we’re working with working extra hard to even have those prices a little bit more to try and support those farmers more and give them a leg up?
How does sustainability play into that?
Sarah: I mean pricing and sustainability go hand in hand; that’s an easy connection to make. Then you bring gender equity into it and it’s just trying to find the pathways to make that coffee available. So, sustainability only comes when the pricing is at a point where people can have a fair wage and actually make a living in which they can continue to grow [coffee]. And then women farmers in coffee might be new to it or it might be their first year of processing coffee and exporting it, so giving them that leg up and saying okay like this coffee, maybe it is a little bit more expensive than a coffee equal to it (if you want to say that way, I don’t think that’s the right way to say it because they’re all different, they all have their pros and different flavors, so it’s hard to judge two different coffees that way) but you could say that giving a woman farmer a wage that is fair and a wage that gives her a little bit extra to be able to learn and grow with and expand her knowledge and that opportunity that she has where male farmers in the industry are just given those opportunities and have this knowledge passed on generations and generations and this woman farmer is like this is their first year doing this. So, I think that pricing being at a fair point and at a point that allows the farmer to actually grow with it as well, and isn’t just like, okay I’m just surviving is also super important and I think that’s how you can sort of relating the pricing to that gender gap issue. Does that make sense?
Sunaina: Yeah, yeah that definitely does make sense! You hit on some really important points, and I’ve been doing some SCA readings myself and they did mention a lot of the things that you did talk about, so that was really insightful.
Sarah: I by no means am an expert on any of this stuff!
Sunaina: It is interesting to hear from different parts of the supply chain, like what [roasters] think could be important, because everything is so interconnected!
Sarah: And it’s so complex too, like it’s such a complex issue, which is cool for us to be able to work with a company like Bean Voyage because Bean Voyage, as a company, has the ability to be on the ground and help these situations and bring awareness. Whereas with us, we just are trying to look for the coffees that we want to tell a story with, or the coffee we enjoy, or [coffee] that will create a good relationship with a farmer that we can continue. There’s some trust in working with companies like Bean Voyage, or other importers that we work with here and there that we have to pick and choose, to be aware of how sustainable we are going and what Bean Voyage is doing so that we can look at be like cool these are the real numbers and this is the real story behind it. So, it’s super helpful to be able to work with importers like [Bean Voyage].
I saw that you all have been placing a lot of importance on introducing sustainable practices in your roastery and cafés, like the Glass Jar Program. What are some existing sustainability programs in your roastery and cafes?
Sarah: Yeah, so our Glass Jar Program actually didn’t come from us, it came from Bar Nine in L.A. They’ve been doing it, for I think like, ten years like they’ve been doing it for a long time. They are the ones that I think did it first, but I can’t tell you for sure but we actually found this idea from a company called Oddly, and they’re in Kansas City. David, who’s a musician, was on tour and he just happened to go into their cafés and thought it was so cool and it would be a really cool goal for us to strive to achieve. And so we did it and it’s great!
The way the program works is it’s a jar exchange program. So you pay a deposit for your jar set, and then when you come in, you bring your glass back, drop it in a bin, and we make your drink in a fresh glass. So you hold onto your lid and koozie set up, and the rest of it exchanges back and forth. The goal is a perfect circle, that everything that goes out comes back in, which is an ideal world and that’s definitely not going to always happen. But, we’ve been doing it for a little over a year now, and we’re averaging a bit over a 50 percent return, which is pretty good. The amount of waste in our cafés has definitely decreased by a lot. I have numbers, I just don’t have them with me! We actually just did the numbers on how many plastic and paper cups we would have used this year had it not been for [the Glass Jar Program]; it was a pretty big number which was cool.
We’re working on other forms of sustainability in our packaging, and even on our wholesale front. So local wholesale, now we give bulk coffee in 15-pound buckets instead of bags. So when we deliver to our local wholesale accounts, we drop them a bucket of coffee and we take back their used bucket, and we just keep that cycle going instead of using five-pound coffee bags. It’s an ongoing process, it’s never a perfect process, so we’re working on our packaging still, working on ways to make that better. I think a dream is to have a bulk coffee bar, like the grocery store pull things, you know what I mean? So where people could literally bring their own containers and we can weigh the coffee that they fill into their container on a scale and charge them per pound; [it’s] a goal we have. It’s hopefully going to be feasible in this phase because our roaster is in the same location so like there’s a little bit more flexibility to try the idea. As we go, our goal is to kind of just keep ticking away these things. And we definitely have goals to get our B-Corp certification in the future, so it’s just little bits, little steps at a time, trying to make it better but like I said, we’re definitely by no means perfect, I don’t know if it’s possible to be perfect in all of it or to be 100 percent, but I think we’re definitely working our way there to be as sustainable as we can be.
And it includes our sourcing like we’re working on sourcing more direct relationships with farms and relationships that are more transparent and have more clarity in what the pricing is and what the practices on the farm are. I’m not too worried about “is this coffee organic?” Or “does it have this certain certification?” I’m more worried about “is this farmer actually getting paid?” “What are their lives like?” I think sometimes people get focused on certifications like organic, I’m going to pick on it a little I guess, not that [organic is] a bad thing!
But I think people get really focused on those [certifications] and are like okay we have to buy this coffee because it’s organic, and miss all these other little things that are actually maybe a little bit more important for farmers because I think not every farmer can afford to have someone come out to certify their farm is organic every year and keep that up. So, even if [farmers] are using fully organic processes, it doesn’t mean they can totally get that certification, usually due to means, more than anything. So, in sourcing, we tend to look for a coffee that has a good story, is sustainably sourced, so the processes are like good processes, there’s nothing bad being done, which in general in specialty coffee, you’re really not going to find that, and that the farmer is getting paid a fair wage at that farm-gate pricing.
What has been the consumer response to James Coffee Co.’s sustainability programs?
Sarah: Some people get it, some people don’t, and that’s okay!
I would say most people are really positive, most people come into our shops and I would say about half of our customers have never been to our shops, [depending] on the shop, but our biggest shop is kind of in a tourist location and so I would say we have a lot of regulars there, but I would want to say that roughly half of them are tourists or people that have never been to our cafés before. It’s a little hard on the baristas, because they have to explain [the Glass Jar Program] all the time, but they’re used to it, and saying “do you know about our jar program?” Some people will say “no, I’ve never heard about it, what’s it about?” We don’t have another option!
So, our other option is you can have a for-here drink, which we are allowing right now. COVID definitely complicates things and has complicated things. We actually were going to launch the jars literally like March of 2020, we were going to launch them, and then it all happened and we were like “no, let’s pause!” So we actually pumped the brakes and launched them in January of 2021, so it’s definitely like walking around the line of figuring out how to do [the Glass Jar Program] with COVID happening. It was an issue, but we just wanted to make it happen. Honestly, COVID made us want to make it happen more because of all of the waste because it was just so much more to-go packaging that people were using, and so it kind of made us want to push at [the Glass Jar Program] harder and get it done.
And honestly, all the people that had been doing it, kept doing it. No-one stopped doing it, [other cafés] just adjusted the ways they did it to make it make sense and to be safe for everyone. But when people take [the Glass Jar Program] negatively, usually they just say “no thanks” and then they might walk away, and that’s okay. If we can say “hey you can have your drink for here” that helps sometimes, but we’ve kind of always been comfortable, even before the jars, like we’re not going to be every person’s coffee shop like we’re not going to be every person’s style of coffee, we’re not going to have the drinks that every person wants. Our menu is fairly limited; there are a lot of things that we don’t carry. So, we’ve been pretty comfortable with that in our whole existence, so [the Glass Jar Program] is just another little piece of that puzzle where we find that people that really want to come, and the people that maybe don’t love the program maybe don’t come as much, and that’s okay I think, you know? You win some, you lose some!
Sunaina: That’s awesome to hear! I’m glad your program has taken off. You can say if this is a correct assessment or not, but it’s sort of given you all sort of a unique niche within the coffee industry or culture in California, right?
Sarah: It does, it does. Our goal is honestly too to not be the only one doing it down here. If we can get other roasters locally on board with it, and create a system where we accept their jars, because they get the same jars that we do, that would be awesome. We would love it if other roasters wanted to join in on it here and do [the Glass Jar Program] with us. It’s definitely a logistics issue, trying to make sure stocking of jars and making sure that everything works out. Jars take up much more space physically than stacked plastic cups or stacked paper cups, so there are for sure logistics involved, which, I think, is why a lot of places are hesitant to want to do it because it’s work. But our hope is that we can get other shops, locally, doing it as well with us.
What’s your favorite brewing method for Bean Voyage coffee?
Sarah: I’m a pour-over person all the way! I drink pour-overs at home. I’m also I’m not going to knock batch brews like we drink a lot of batch brew coffee at the roastery, and I’m a big fan of batch brew coffee. You can’t really go wrong there either so I might go hand in hand. But at home, I usually drink pour-overs.
If you are in San Diego, CA. make sure to stop by one of James Coffee Co.’s cafes to grab a Womxn-Powered coffee available in their stores! Also, follow their IG for more coffee goodness!
Interviewed & Written by Sunaina Sunda
Photo credits: James Coffee Co.