February 12, 2021 - 8:29 am

A Conversation with Higher Grounds Trading Co., a 20Fathoms Sponsor and Fellow Community Builder

By Maria Purvis, Engagement Manager

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down (virtually) with Jennifer Yeatts, Director of Coffee, at Higher Grounds Trading Co. Our discussion was far-ranging, wandering from coffee farms in Mexico and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the farmers market in downtown Traverse City, to a shop located in The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Threaded through it all, despite the distances traveled, was the idea of community: creating it, sustaining it, and supporting it.

A Traverse City coffee business rooted in Mexico

Jennifer told me about the origins of Higher Grounds, how in its very founding Chris Treter, Director of Higher Grounds, used the power of community—be it large or small—to make peoples’ lives better. At its inception, in 2001, Chris was doing post-graduate work in Chiapas, Mexico. He was studying the origins of coffee production, and while doing so, he was confronted with the realities of growing coffee, from the lack of clean water to the sheer amount of work farmers were doing for a low return. He built relationships with farmers who had banded together to start a producer cooperative, and this relationship gave birth to Higher Grounds.

When Chris made his new home in Northern Michigan, he began selling his Mexican coffee in the Traverse City farmers market.  Roasting was originally outsourced, but Chris soon took over.

“This was a time when people weren’t necessarily willing to pay six bucks for a pour-over (coffee),” Jennifer said. But Chris harnessed the power of the local community to support and grow his business.

Business growth enables community support and sustainability efforts

It was this focus on community that led Chris to form a nonprofit called On the Ground. With an established coffee roastery in Traverse City, he wanted to support the farmers with whom he had formed relationships in Mexico. 

Higher Grounds - Chris in Mexico

Jennifer says, “A for-profit coffee business is a good thing for the farmers, but it can’t also solve all of the other challenges they’re facing. We had to find another way to engage and support them.” 

The nonprofit helps to provide access to clean water, education, and to tackle many other struggles coffee farmers face. And, in fact, as Higher Grounds has grown to source coffees from other regions around the world, the nonprofit has grown to support more of these communities. It’s these reciprocal relationships, founded on the basis of coffee consumption, that have grown to support sustainable community development through Higher Grounds.

Higher Grounds has always been focused on sustainability: their importer is Fair Trade Certified and they carry organic coffees. But, as Jennifer said, “Certified fair trade doesn’t mean the people creating the product aren’t poor and that they’re drinking safe water.” They wanted to prove that their business model—physically distant communities supporting one another through the consumption of coffee—was larger than just the stamp of a certification. 

Enter the B Corp, a new type of rubric that shows that the organization in question is balancing purpose and profit. Following an elaborate assessment of community connection and outreach, environmental impact, how they treat employees, and their impact on the planet, an organization is B Corp certified. 

“We focus on transparency. We are happy to show you our contracts, how long we’ve been in a partnership, what the quality score was.  Trading fairly is about that transparency,” Jennifer says.

Fueling 20Fathoms

That very search for community that led to the formation of both Higher Grounds and the related nonprofit also led to the organization’s sponsorship of 20Fathoms. For the past year, Higher Grounds has been providing the fuel that our local startup and tech community runs on.

General Manager, Josh Brandt, says, “Coffee has a way of bringing good people and ideas together and we are proud to support and enhance the collaboration facilitated by 20Fathoms. After first learning about 20Fathoms’ model and how we could engage in that collaborative partnership, we knew it would be an excellent fit. The success of Higher Grounds has manifested largely from collaborative cross-organizational partnerships that allow for the achievement of an objective together that would have been outside of their separate reach.” 

Community support for Higher Grounds means that their nonprofit initiatives can thrive, and that the benefits of the relationships in a small town in Northern Michigan can flow down to the small towns in Mexico, and around the world.

Images courtesy of Higher Grounds Trading Co.