90+ Profiles: Getting to Know David Griswold

Who are you and what do you do in coffee?

My name is David Griswold and I’m the CEO of Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers. We sell green coffee to roasters in the US and Canada, and source certified (Fair Trade, Rainforest, etc.), organic, high-quality coffee from countries around the world.

We pioneered the Relationship Coffee Model, which has had a significant impact on the way business is done in the specialty coffee industry. By focusing on increasing transparency and trust throughout the supply chain, we’ve created a system that provides our customers (roasters) with a more reliable, sustainable supply of traceable high-quality coffee.

How and when did you get started in the coffee business?

It all started in October 1989, when I was working as a volunteer for the National Coordinating Body for Coffee Farmer Cooperatives (CNOC) in Mexico City and a man named Pedro knocked on my office door. Representing forty coffee-farming families in the state of Nayarit, he had come seeking a way to sell their coffee.

At that time, the coffee supply chain was an opaque system—farmers did not know who was buying their coffee and why. Roasters were at the mercy of the quality and quantity delivered by producers.

The beans in the plastic bag of coffee Pedro gave me were still coated in golden parchment. Though I was new to the coffee industry, I knew two things: first, to sell their coffee, farmers needed to send samples to potential buyers in North America or Europe; and second, Pedro’s sample could not be sent in its current form with the parchment still surrounding the green bean—the golden husk had to be removed. But no one had ever explained that to Pedro.

Not only did farmers like Pedro need access to markets that would pay them a fair price for their coffee; they also needed a significant amount of training and education to understand and succeed in the global export and sale of their coffee. Pedro was just one farmer who happened to come to my office. There were hundreds of thousands of other men and women like Pedro, in Mexico and the other coffee-growing countries around the world, who depended on coffee for their livelihood but had no idea how to sell it.

In the years since that afternoon, Sustainable Harvest has grown into a company of nearly forty dedicated staff members. We import coffee from fifteen countries around the world and are headquartered in Portland, Oregon, with offices in Oaxaca, Mexico; Lima, Peru; Moshi, Tanzania; and Medellin, Colombia. I’m pleased to see that today we’re able to work with great roasters to create positive change in the industry, moving specialty coffee far beyond the exploitative model I saw in 1989. In the process, we have helped create sustainable livelihoods for tens of thousands of coffee farmers while bringing their high quality beans to thousands of consumers around the world.

What jobs have you held in the industry?

My work in the coffee industry has revolved around my role as CEO and founder of Sustainable Harvest. I have held several positions with the SCAA—President (2003–2004) and before that, Chair of the SCAA International Relations Council, the SCAA Environment (now Sustainability) committee. I also ran a coffee importing company called Aztec Harvests for Mexican growers in the early 1990s.

What people and/or things inspire you, coffee-wise?

People in the industry who push the envelope in order to grow opportunities throughout the supply chain inspire me. For example, the many “Third Wave” roasters whose commitment to quality, direct connections, and aesthetic has captured imaginations and expanded coffee culture. Michael Sheridan of CRS whose work at origin continues to advance the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.  And, lastly, our customers, who year after year have demonstrated a commitment to the transparency and trust that is so crucial to our Relationship Coffee model.

What would you like to see change in the industry?

I’d like to see a pledge that focuses on transparency and relationships. Trust and transparency are the pillars to long-term, mutually beneficial relationships that will enable us to collectively and successfully navigate the future.

If you were get reincarnated and come back as a drink, what drink would you be?

If a coffee drink, it would be a Chemex pour of a single origin coffee—an authentic, transparent yet simple representation of all that goes into coffee—the hard work at the farm level, the flavor of the roast, and the skill of the barista.

Outside of coffee it would be a pint of Belgian Trappist-brewed beer because, much like coffee, great relationships tend to be cultivated over pints of beer, but the best moments come when you are working with the best.

What do you think others would say is your greatest contribution to coffee?

Being a voice for innovation and the importance of thinking holistically about the supply chain.

What’s next for you?

There are a number of challenges ahead for the coffee industry—increased competition for high quality beans as a result of growing demand, heightened attention to traceability as a result of food safety legislation, and the reality of climate change.

The Relationship Coffee model is an ideal platform for addressing these challenges. So my staff and I at Sustainable Harvest are working to help our supply chain partners navigate these challenges in innovative ways that not only mitigate risk but also create new growth opportunities.

In what ways has coffee affected your “non-coffee” life?

I wasn’t aware—is there “non-coffee” life?

Who’s the person you’d most like to see us interview next?

Rick Peyser of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, about his extraordinary work supporting small-scale coffee producers.