Just Coffee Cooperative was formed in 2001 and started roasting coffee in 2002. Back then, we were working with Zapatista growers in Chiapas, Mexico, who were looking for better markets for their coffee. After failing to find roasters in the US to buy their coffee, we reluctantly decided to do it ourselves. With no experience, but plenty of idealism, we set out to become Madison’s only 100% fair-trade coffee roaster.
From the start, working with cooperatives all the way down the commodity chain was very important to our business. The growers in Chiapas formed a cooperative called Yachil at the same time Just Coffee was getting off of the ground. We joined an importing co-op of U.S. and Canadian roasters, called Cooperative Coffees, to maximize our buying power and to work on projects within grower communities. This enabled us to connect with other co-ops of small-scale growers as well as providing us with a wealth of knowledge that we could dip into as people with no business experience.
There were only two of us in the beginning, and we added members slowly, so we were forced to organize as an LLC. Wisconsin law requires a cooperative to have at least five members, and we did not qualify until 2005. We began our reorganization then, and filed our paperwork in 2006 to become all legal-like.
Today we have seven worker-owners and four main employees. Anyone who works at the co-op for a year is eligible to petition for membership. We pay between $13.50 and $21.00 per hour, depending on worker-owner status and seniority. We also offer health care benefits to anyone working over 20 hours a week. At this time, JC pays 70% of the cost and the worker pays 30%. We constantly strive to make sure that we are compensating fairly for the work we do.
We see our co-op as an experiment: an anti-capitalist endeavor in a “free-market” capitalist system. We try to challenge every assumption of how a successful business is run. and are very vocal about our successes, and our failures as well. We try to offer complete transparency by putting all our contracts and profit and loss statements online, and we encourage people to demand this from every business they patronize. We feel that being a cooperative, and stressing partnerships with other co-ops, is a huge part of any attempt to democratize trade.
Photo by Susan Frikken. Used by permission.