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Small Town Coffee Serving a Global Good

Lessons learned from slow growth.

by Trad Sevin | April 16, 2021

Steady growth guided by pinnacle intentions is the key to shaping a greener pasture for all involved, and as we look to Earth Day 2021, set to rumble on Thursday, April 22nd, we turn our attention to those individuals that make big waves in their communities and learn from their leadership.

For Red Rooster Coffee in Floyd, Virginia, those greener pastures are part of the charm in operating a pastoral powerhouse. “I have a special place in my heart for rural coffee roasters and shops because I know how hard it is to find enough customers,” said Haden Polseno-Hensley, Co-Founder of Red Rooster.

Wedged in the highlands of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Floyd is home to some 450 residents, many of whom work in farming, from dairy and beef cattle to organic, vegetable produce. “My wife and I are both from Floyd originally, but our families came from the ‘back-to-the-land’ movement of the ‘70s,” Haden said. That surge in edible awareness introduced a craving for solid crops and produce of quality rather than convenience, which became a soggy leftover of the ‘50s and ‘60s when fast-food chains and microwave dinners hit the stage.

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“That same movement also spawned a thriving population of artists and musicians, which eventually gave birth to Floyd Fest and the Floyd Country Store, a premier music venue for bluegrass and old-time music,” Haden explained.

Small town roasters like Red Rooster can easily generate a strong fellowship in their networks because the loyalty is baked first-hand with a certain level of ingenuity. It’s like rolling dough in the kitchen with your grandparents as they teach you the trade of homemade pies — you know it’s going to hug you tight, because you’re the one making it.

“When we started out, there wasn’t a great deal of knowledge on specialty coffee, but, luckily, there was a thirst for knowledge and a lot of enthusiasm in supporting a local business that was trying something new,” Haden said.

In a town like Floyd, everything’s a team effort. Even still, when the company emerged back in 2010, the road ahead seemed long and singular. “I worried we would never be able to reach enough customers to support ourselves,” Haden recalled, “so I spent a ton of time on the road, shaking hands, meeting people. Meanwhile, our locals were learning with us and supporting us as we stumbled our way into perfecting the craft of roasting.”

A decade and some seeds later, Red Rooster employs a 30-watt dream team and has fostered a culture in Floyd and beyond. Their growth is supported by a wheel of change; the town of Floyd and Red Rooster work in tandem to see the sunrise in a way that’s fully organic to the core. The company has never strayed from their ethos or sacrificed the sustainability of their teams and surrounding communities.

Red Rooster is a family, and the coop introduced the nation’s first on-site daycare (for coffee) back in 2018, playfully named Yellow Hen. The daycare provides a space for employees to raise their chicks while keeping the momentum at work, and the perks just keep popping. “Taking care of employees and their quality of life is pretty important in a small town where the next talented coffee professional might be 100 miles away,” Haden said. “We made the choice early on to give our employees full medical benefits, and we’ve been lucky enough to add more benefits as we’ve grown.”

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Like any good harvest, it begins at origin. If we can ensure that we’re securing the home team above anything else, perhaps we can bank on a more sustainable future in coffee. At the end of the day, happy workers mean happy coffee, and we all know what bad coffee tastes like.

With a dedicated workforce (Red Rooster is proudly 70 percent female-operated), strongholds like Red Rooster are better equipped to serve their communities in more ways than one espresso. In 2009, Haden was among the core founding members of SustainFloyd, a non-profit driven by a team of artists and writers that work to support environmental, agricultural, and community growth in Floyd. Beyond that, Red Rooster makes regular strides towards a healthier existence on our exhausted planet.

“Coffee is in trouble, there’s no way to sugar coat it,” Haden said, “but our mission is rooted in sustainability, so every decision we make at the roastery is affected by the question of how the outcome will affect the environment.”

On the green scene, Red Rooster has marked all the right boxes. The company packs in biodegradable bags, with all shipping boxes made of reclaimed cardboard; they maintain a robust recycling initiative, along with composting, and the retail labels are printed locally with water-based ink. When you couple this with the company’s goals of installing solar panels, developing a water capture system, and working towards a local, community-driven composting facility, Red Rooster checks out.

That being said, what makes this roaster such a force to be reckoned with on the war against climate change is their understanding of nurturing small steps and the impact of changes made at origin. The future of sustainability rests on the shoulders of smaller networks and the power of local defense. As we’ve seen more recently, we can’t rely on Big Brother to take the lead. Hands-on advancement is always a sure bet.

“Community in Floyd is all about independence and self-reliance with a large dose of loyalty thrown in,” Haden explained. “We’ve kind of built a little utopia at Red Rooster too, and it’s become my favorite activity and my favorite group of people.”

With a dynamic sweep on the cliffsides of Floyd, Red Rooster also manages to hold durable relations with their farmers across the globe. As we’ve learned before, the hands that cultivate the coffee we enjoy are, perhaps, the most vital gear in the entire process. A brighter future for coffee is synonymous with stronger support for the farmers, and Red Rooster upholds that commitment by sourcing Fair Trade, organic beans from a variety of lots through trusted importers and wet mills.

“We have direct relationships with farmers in countries in Central America where we pay high premiums directly to the farmers for really amazing and unique coffees,” Haden said. Though a pandemic still rages on, the family is looking forward to visiting origin once again.

“When we’re able to safely travel, we’ll probably first head back to Colombia and cup our way through some exciting micro lots. I’m excited!” he said.

The real work begins in the cafés, where so much of the conversation steers away from the farmers. Rather, it’s often negated on why coffee tends to be on the pricier side, with no real explanation of the journeys from seed to cup.

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“The main service we can offer as roasters is to act as a connection between those two critical parts of the chain,” Haden said. “There’s an impulse to use the farmer as a marketing tool, and while I believe this is done with good intentions, I often wonder if that’s a buying philosophy that has stickiness for consumers.”

Haden hopes that other roasters might follow a model of actively recognizing the expertise of coffee growers, which in turn grants legitimacy and clarity to the final product, leading to the consent of consumers to pay for better coffee. “The honest truth is that in order for this model to work, customers have to be willing to pay more for great coffee,” he said.

It may not register at first glance, but coffee, as an industry, is on a very tall mountain right now. A lot of people can see us, and our voices can echo to reach far beyond ear shot decibels, if we’re loud enough. Coffee has incredible influence on a global scale, and it’s imperative that we use this position to paint a better future. In speaking green, coffee is a major crop that requires expansive labor and careful consideration to the input/output ratio. It’s also a lifestyle, and many millions of people adopt the de-factos that accompany coffee, from style and design to crafty jargon and social issues.

With such agency, it’s important that we push our leadership in the right direction, keeping tabs on each other and building a force people want to follow. Sustainability begins at origin, as do so many other facets of healthy, slow growth. As an industry, we have to be better for ourselves and our communities in a way that reaches over pageantry and equity.

“Coffee is marketed as something that brings people together, but it can so easily operate as a wedge that divides people into class, race, sexuality, and gender,” Haden said. “The industry needs to have a reckoning about our identity as a unifying force.”

The thing is, people generally look to coffee shops as an example of social strategy, whether it’s how a certain shop supports its community or what kind of unique merchandise it offers. If our neighborhoods are like stadiums, the local coffee shop is a megaphone, and we’re the cheer squad. Or, in this case, the rooster croaking at dawn.

“When I think about the various movements that happened in 2020, it feels like we're on the cusp of something that is bigger than cupping scores and barista champions and might actually allow the industry to be a leader in the world of equity and diversity and even cut ownership,” Haden said. “We might be on the cutting edge of changing the world for the better, so we should seize the opportunity.”

He tips a cap to CxffeeBlack, a coffee brand and podcast dissecting the Black history behind Black brews. “[Bartholomew Jones] is a genius and listening to him speak is like hearing a message from the future.”

Earth Day 2021 comes to us with fertile land ripe for a renaissance, so we look to modern methods that propel our existing appetite for revolution and balance. A farming town like Floyd respects the delicacies of slow growth and the values of tending to smaller, but ever-mighty, goals for sustainability. A good crop demands patience and attention to detail, while a good farmer ensures the garden works harmoniously. Red Rooster stands at the frontline of conscious conservationism, bringing healthy, long-term practices to their workforce and giving the same loyalty back to their communities. If we want to see greener pastures, we have to make Earth Day a regular routine, not a seasonal harvest.

Looking for ways to sustain your future? When in doubt, go back to basics. More frequently small adjustments make bigger splashes, and we hold more power in our communities than we realize. As a consumer, shop smart! Get to know your roasters and understand their processes. Remember that coffee is a crop — first and foremost — and who stewards the coffee countryside? Farmers.

As a coffee professional, urge your team to make smarter decisions. Open the conversation to include diversity, inclusiveness, long-term growth, and quality of living. Give back to the people who give you so much already, and check to make sure the wheel is always spinning. Slow growth doesn’t happen overnight, and that’s the true secret of sustainable success.