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How Women-Led Roasters Are Changing the Game

Shaping a more equitable future for coffee.

by Ashley Rodriguez | March 03, 2022

In 1987, the United States Congress designated that March would be Women’s History Month, and every year the National Women’s History Alliance chooses a theme to highlight the annual event. This year, 2022, the theme is: “Providing Healing, Promoting Hope.” The organization describes the theme as “tribute to the ceaseless work of caregivers and frontline workers during this ongoing pandemic and also a recognition of the thousands of ways that women of all cultures have provided both healing and hope throughout history.”

We wanted to use this lens to examine the contributions of a few of Trade's roaster partners. Many of these roasters go above and beyond the confines of the roasting machine or the cupping table — through the choices they make and the environment they foster, the women-led roasting companies below actively make the industry better and give us a window into a better, more equitable coffee future.

Jen Apodaca, Mother Tongue Coffee

Before Jen founded Mother Tongue, she started #shetheroaster, an organization that aims to get women and people of marginalized identities into roasting roles and increase their visibility within the industry. Beyond a hashtag that connects women across the world, the organization has given away scholarships, hosted cuppings and educational events, and generally works hard to make everyone feel welcome.

With Mother Tongue, which is based in Oakland, Calif., Jen set out to treat every member of the supply chain with dignity and respect. “Mother Tongue started as an experiment to see if it is possible to create a coffee supply chain that does not have to profit off the backs of others,” she says. Jen’s goals go way beyond providing marginally better wages and prices for green coffee — she wants to provide wages that match the reality of her workers’ and farmers’ lives. “Oakland’s minimum wage is $15.06, we pay $20,” she says. “If I say I pay 33 percent above minimum wage, I sound like a hero, but in reality, if you are making less than $30 an hour as a parent with zero subsidies for healthcare and daycare, there is no way you can do it alone. So as our business grows, $30 an hour is our goal for all employees.”

Jen has two kids, and many of her employees also have families and children to take care of. “Being a mom means using all of your PTO on your kids when they are sick. It means always being noticed when you have to ask to leave early for a doctor's appointment or any school activity. If your coworkers have kids, they get it and don’t consider it special treatment, but when you work with people that don’t have kids, you are constantly being judged about your commitment to your job,” she says.

Mother Tongue is actively welcoming to mothers and caretakers with some folks working at night and others bringing their young children with them to work. “We have legos, puzzles, and coloring books for any kid that has to come to work. Being a mom also means you are busy all of the time so we have snacks and also buy dinners a couple times a week which no one has to clock out for. We also provide N95 masks and COVID tests for any employee that needs it for themselves, their kids and family, or roommates,” she says. “Reducing stress for parents is important for us.”

If coffees from Mother Tongue taste distinct or different, that’s on purpose. “We buy specialty grade coffee that is often overlooked by specialty roasters because of the lack of acidity and is usually sold to the local market for far less,” Jen says. Many of these coffees end up in Nebula, a dark-roasted blend that allows Jen to buy more coffees. On top of that, Jen looks to work with like-minded importers who want to highlight the work of women in coffee producing countries, like Rosalba Cifuentes Tovia of Mayan Harvest and Jeanine Niyonzima-Aroian of JNP Coffee. “They pay women farmers substantially more than the local market rates, but the true goal is to make all of us not just sustainable, but profitable,” she says. And, as Jen is quick to point out, “both of them happen to be mothers.”

Rose McCutchan, Red Rooster Coffee

You might read this article and think we’re talking a lot about parenthood and the struggle of accessing childcare, but lack of reliable childcare is one of the biggest factors that keep women out of the workforce. The Center for American Progress reports that “child care challenges have become a barrier to work, especially for mothers, who disproportionately take on unpaid caregiving responsibilities when their family cannot find or afford child care.” Mothers specifically were 40 percent more likely to express that childcare concerns affected their career prospects.

Red Rooster decided to tackle this challenge by providing on-site subsidized child care to its employees. The daycare is called Yellow Hen, and Red Rooster offers to subsidize 85 percent of the costs for its 30+ employees.

Access to affordable childcare is a significant hurdle in Floyd, Virginia, a town of less than 500 people and where Red Rooster is based. “I love living in Southwest Virginia but one of the drawbacks is the lack of high-quality childcare,” says Jolie Greatorex, who does marketing and branding for Red Rooster. “Working at Red Rooster has relieved a lot of stress since my husband and I don’t have family living close by. Not only do we have access to convenient and affordable childcare, but most importantly, our daughter is happy and thriving.”

Red Rooster was started by Rose McCutchan and Haden Polseno-Hensley six years after Rose moved back to Floyd to open a coffee shop with her mother and sister. After she decided to invest in roasting, she brought in her husband, and it’s clear that serving their community is a core value. "Red Rooster is in a small rural community with few child-care options. We're a family run business with an emphasis on community,” says Haden, “so helping our employees feel safe and comfortable and cared for is a pivotal part of our daily practices."

Many of the leaders at Red Rooster are women, and the Yellow Hen daycare makes it possible for many employees to balance work and childcare without sacrifice. “When we started Yellow Hen it was very important for me to stay working while knowing that my children were close at hand and well taken care of,” says Rose. “Too many mothers and single parents have to make a choice between caring for their children or continuing their careers. I didn’t want anyone at Red Rooster to have to make that choice."

Red Rooster has accomplished all of this while still being one of the best roasters in the nation. They were Good Food Award winners in 2017, 2019, and 2020, pay their staff a living wage, and provide full health care benefits to employees.

Roasters like Mother Tongue and Red Rooster are helping to shape a more equitable and brighter future for the coffee industry. Their work goes beyond the cupping table, past the coffee beans, and looks at what it means to provide healing and promote hope.

Show your support for Mother Tongue and Red Rooster.