Coffee In the Mist

In 1989 an unpretentitious mail order shop opened quietly in Manhattan Beach, California called "Urth Caffe". "Urth" is the ancient Welsh spelling for earth and "caffe" is Italian for coffee. They were selling exclusively sustainably grown, fairly traded, organic coffee beans, unheard of in the coffee world at that time. They were tiny, a David in the impending Goliath coffee explosion.

Urth Caffe has what the French call, "le petit je ne se quoi" which has catapulted the now elegant restaurant chain and catering business into the premier position of America's #1 organic coffee chain.

I had to find out more about this "petit je ne se quoi" so I met with co-owner Shallom Berkman on a misty afternoon recently at the seaside Urth Caffe in Santa Monica. As the interview begins, Shallom is pouring us delicate Taiwaiinese Oolong tea. Its warmth and perfume unfold upon violin music wafting luxuriously in the background of the restaurant.

Karen: Shallom, something works here. Why do we all feel so happy here? What keeps us coming back for more?

Shallom: Part of it is outstanding service. Our model for service is the American filling stations of the 50's. Those guys would come out...sometimes even with white gloves on...and completely take care of your car. They'd wish you a good day. They were grateful for their job and they were proud of what they did. They did it 110%. America was built on outstanding service. I want to bring it back again.

Karen: Okay, but your people so happy. Why?

Shallom: Jilla, my wife and co-owner, really knows how to inspire and train our staff. And, they are grateful. We interview a lot of people before we actually find the ones that can work for us. If they come to this job grateful to have a job...then, believe me, they're going to be a great worker. You can never pay a person enough money to make them grateful. They have to start by being grateful. And I think they're proud to be working for a company that cares for the earth.

Karen: Speaking of the earth, tell us about the Mountain Gorilla project.

Shallom: Love to! Henry N'Gabriano, who is head of the Ugandan Coffee Authority , had tasted our coffee at Urth and knew that we had something special. He invited me to Uganda and took me on a tour of the farms throughout his country. It was pretty sad. I mean, you'd see lying next to the dirt road these bags of unprocessed coffee cherries, mixed with pebbles...just lying there-- the farmers hoping that maybe some one would buy their bag. They had next-to nothing to show for their hard work--earning 25 cents a pound for their coffee. Meanwhile the Kenyans are earning at least $3.00 a pound. So, we came to the village of Kisoro and the Afromontane Forest. That's where half of the world's 700 remaining Mountain Gorillas live. It was like nothing I'd ever experienced in my life. Breathtaking. Life changing.

Karen: How so?

Shallom: The gorillas are peaceful-- the opposite of the "behind the bars" zoo image we have of them. They were the consummate hosts, welcoming me into their forest home. I fell in love with the gorillas, the farmers, the land...everything about that area. My wife, Jilla and I became committed to do all we could for the farmers and the gorillas.

Karen: It's a noble commitment. What role does Jilla play at Urth? She inspires staff and what else?

Shallom: Jilla?! Jilla is the genius behind Urth. She's actually the president. She's just very low profile. I'm the P-R guy.

Karen: So I'm talking to the right person. I heard the President of Uganda is in on your Mountain Gorilla project.

Shallom: We're big fans of President Museveni. He is a visionary who has brought Uganda into the forefront of winning the fight against AIDS. After working with the Kisoro farmers for only one year, they turned out a phenomenal harvest that met Urth's stringent standards. In Washington D.C., we presented President Museveni with this product, which we named Mountain Gorilla Coffee, at a special ceremony thrown by U.S. Congressmen, honoring his AIDS work. He was so proud. He loves his people.

Karen: How do you work with the farmers?

Shallom: Organically. We go into a place--like Kisoro--and see if there's a real relationship to be developed. Each cup of coffee served at Urth represents the relationship that goes into producing it. From our highly trained barristas, to the farmers who grew the beans, we want everybody to win. That's the soul of Urth.

Karen: How does the relationship help the gorillas?

Shallom: We see those farmers as the guardians of the Mountain Gorilla. All the monies made from selling their coffee goes directly back to them so that they can improve their living conditions and the gorillas' living conditions. They're not going to need money made from poaching because we're setting up a system that earns them a decent living. And the Ugandans are so happy about this. We're actually working with President Museveni towards a gorilla preserve.

Courtesy of Mike Johnson

Karen: I think we're heading toward why you've been called a model businessman for this millineum...

Shallom: We are avant garde in our approach because we do not sacrifice beauty and pleasure. We use socially and agriculturally sound investment techniques to bring our clientele beauty, elegance and pleasure. Jilla always wanted to do European-style cafes and I always wanted to do organics. It's a perfect marriage!

Karen: It's a perfect marriage? Really?

Shallom: We have our challenges, like any married couple. But we're committed to the same goal and Urth Caffe lets us realize that. I love Jilla and deeply respect her. And she's my #1 fan.

Karen: Before we finish, what's the difference between organic, sustainable and fair trade?

Shallom: These words have been tossed around a lot, but they're not interchangeable. Here's the difference: A coffee could be produced without the use of pesticides, for example, and called Organic, with no regard for Fair Trade. Fair Trade ensures that the farmers get paid well. Also, Sustainability is important to Urth, so we only use shade-grown coffee. This sustains and protects the rainforest. You need the canopy of the forest to protect the old world coffee trees. Conventional coffee farming mows down the rainforest and plants genetically engineered sun-resistant trees. 70% of the world's coffee is grown this way, which has led to documented bird extinction.

We take our time. We go in and give to the farmers what we can and we learn from them, too. This is part of the "petit je ne se quoi" of Urth.

Karen: That's it! That's the" little I don't know what"--You use standards that benefit everyone involved to provide us pleasure and excellent service, so we actually feel good about being pampered. Thank you, Shallom Berkman.

presshal.jpgShallom and President Museveni