East Meets West: Everything Old is New Again

By Andrew Hetzel

Earlier this year, I voted alongside fellow SCAA Board Members unanimously in favor of pursuing unification with SCAE. We recognize that such momentous change will not be easy. In return, the price of that effort promises a new world of benefits for our members. Yet, it wasn’t until weeks after this vote that I felt the historic importance of the occasion. The realization was later sparked by two words at the SCAA Awards ceremony, held during our annual Expo in Atlanta: “West Coast.”

On that Friday evening, Ms. Leonor Gaviña- Valls of F. Gaviña and Sons received the 2016 SCAA Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of her family. While accepting the award, she made a reference to one of many accomplishments: “first female West Coast President (then Chairperson) of the association in 1985.”

“West Coast,” I wondered? Did I hear that right?

She continued, “Some of you in this room may be too young to know that we used to have East Coast and West Coast Presidents of the association.” Yes, I heard it right; the information was completely new and shocking. Why did I not know the association was at some time divided into groups representing Atlantic and Pacific Coasts? Curiosity piqued, I reached out to two of Ms. Gaviña-Valls’ East Coast contemporaries, Mr. Dan Cox of Coffee Analysts and Mr. Don Schoenholt of Gillies Coffee, for more information.

“There was a lot of mistrust between East Coast and West Coast coffee people,” replied Mr. Schoenholt, association Charter Member and its first East Coast President (1983). As the first bylaws were being negotiated, there was concern over which coast might gain control. “This was resolved by creating a bicameral governmental structure; dividing the country into two regions, East and West, at the Mississippi River.” It was always one association, but split into two geographic areas of governance.

There were also practical reasons for this division. With no executive director, staff, or offices, volunteers were performing all of the essential functions for SCAA. “Long distance telephone calls were expensive,” reflected Schoenholt. “Fax machines were not in every office, and air mail was reliable but not quick. The distance between East Coast and West Coast appeared much greater than it does today.”

Mr. Cox, also a Charter Member and the association’s second East Coast President (1984- 1986), put things into historical context. “Back then, working at Green Mountain, the limit of our vision was New England,” he recalled. “The people at Green Mountain, Gaviña, Thanksgiving Coffee, and others—we were all little guys that didn’t know each other. Our scope of view was measured in tens or hundreds of miles, not thousands.”

The East and West Coast structure also helped as volunteers planned meetings and events. SCAA was born out of the specialty food movement, which was just starting at the time. The Fancy Food Show, held on both the East and West Coast each year, became a convenient home to SCAA’s early meetings, sometimes right on the exhibit floor.

Tensions eased between East and West with SCAA’s first origin trips for members. “When we started traveling and spending so much time together, we all became good, lifelong friends,” said Cox.

More important still was what members learned about coffee production and its farmers. “We knew so little about where coffee came from at the time, I couldn’t have told you the difference between a finca and a co-op!” Cox quipped. His tone abruptly turning somber, “We had also never seen starvation before, or the gross imbalance of wealth in coffee farming. It opened our eyes and launched the idea of sustainability that forever changed the way that we thought about our purpose.”

By the late 1980’s, the East and West Coast coffee rivalry had faded. “The idea of separate East/West regions seemed both unnecessary and, in fact, silly,” commented Schoenholt. Soon after, the association bylaws were rewritten to recognize one united leadership. I can’t help but wonder if a geographic split between Europe and America within our industry may seem just as silly twenty years from now as an American East and West Coast split does today.

It’s hard not to make the comparison between the East and West Coast split of SCAA’s past and the decision it faces to unify with SCAE today, but that’s not entirely what gives me pause to consider the importance of this time in our history.

The potential benefits of unification between SCAA and SCAE are clear:

  • Community – Welcoming others like us beyond our geographic borders to our circle. All members can join activities and events that advance communication and connect the participants of this global industry;
  • Education – Providing skills training and professional development courses for career advancement. A united association will avoid redundancy of overlapping programs and expand the range of available content;
  • Research – Along with World Coffee Research, developing strategic relationships with academic institutions in America and Europe. The results of which can then be disseminated worldwide among membership;
  • Authority – Becoming the recognized global authority on coffee issues. Unification provides greater influence over standards and practices, legislation and advocacy of our shared values;
  • Sustainability – Pursuing shared values that advance environmental and social causes. The challenges of sustainability affect us all.

But consider this: we recognize these benefits by looking back at the past. What occurred to me as I spoke with SCAA’s founders is that the best things ahead remain unknown. Sure, we can point to reduced redundancies as expected tangible results, but it’s what we don’t know, what we can’t know now, about the future of our collaboration that will lead to the greatest advancements for our industry.

As with the first awareness of sustainability, the best achievements of a unified association will be unplanned, resulting from the collaboration between smart people with different backgrounds focused on a common cause. We know how far we’ve come while working separately in the past. Imagine what we can discover about our industry and about ourselves by working together in the future.

andrew bioAndrew Hetzel is a coffee value chain consultant with fifteen years’ experience advising private and public sector stakeholders in more than forty countries. He improves the value of coffee production by building producer association institutional capacity, implementing quality improvements or other strategic differentiation initiatives, and by facilitating access to international markets for high value specialty coffee trade. He has served as a SCAA Board Director since 2013.