Thanksgiving Coffee: A Fair Trade Pioneer

The Mendocino Coast is one of California’s best kept secrets. Tourists who visit Northern California generally visit San Francisco and the wine country. No big interstate highway goes up the California coast between the Bay Area and the Oregon border, so that region is relatively quiet. It is a double-edged sword: on one hand the coast is breathtaking and beautiful; making a living, however, is difficult because of limited economic opportunities.

Joan and Paul Katzeff, however, have found success in Fort Bragg, California, for almost 40 years. In the early 1970s they started a small coffee roasting business, barely getting by at first. After all, the USA was a coffee wasteland. Back then, most coffee was boiled to death by percolators(everyone had an avocado green one at the time!), and if you bought it to go, it came in a Styrofoam cup. And if all that were not bad enough, Mocha Mix was often the creamer of choice. But the Katzeff’s were persistent, making ends meet from their small roasting operations and later, a restaurant.

Thanksgiving Coffee grew and became the first specialty coffee maker to sell its product to a major supermarket chain–in their case, Safeway. The company had become a leader in specialty coffees in the early 1980s when events abroad changed the company’s focus forever.

In 1979 the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza government in Nicaragua. By then the USA had taken a hard right turn under Ronald Reagan, whose administration began funding a covert war against the Sandinistas. Reagan imposed an embargo against Nicaragua, and appalled by the economic effect the embargo had on the country’s poorest people, Paul Katzeff went so far as to sue the Reagan administration. To that end Thanksgiving Coffee introduced “Coffee for Peace” and imported Nicaraguan coffee via Canada in defiance of the USA’s embargo.

A decade later coffee, as a drink and habit, had been transformed throughout the USA. While the Katzeffs were still engaged in promoting social change with their products, they also had become more interested in organic coffee. The company pursued various environmental initiatives, from planting trees to waste reduction; meanwhile Thanksgiving became the second of Transfair USA’s (now Fair Trade USA) coffee partners.

The last several years, Thanksgiving Coffee has focused on improving the lives of African farmers. USAID invited the Katzeff’s to Rwanda to serve as advisors on a coffee cooperative development project. Now the company sources coffee from Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda, in addition southeast Asian and Latin American nations.

Throughout Thanksgiving Coffee’s evolution as a company, the Katzeff’s have continued their committment to only sourcing fair trade certified coffee. Their determination to buy from organized coffee cooperatives has allowed farmers to build schools, improve roads, and provide health care for workers. It is an uphill battle to convince Americans to shift their buying habits and get them interested in where their daily purchases originate. By building a better life for farmers and their families abroad while selling a quality product at home, Thanksgiving Coffee has found a formula that works. And works well–living in a neighborhood where artisan coffee is king, I have to say that the Rwandan Musasa blend is a definite must have to start the morning.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

One response

  1. Really nice article. I’ve never heard of Thanksgiving Coffee, but you’ve got me wanting to give them a try.

    I think we coffee lovers should try and support fair trade and organic coffees as best we can. Coffee is such a social experience and let’s try and make that experience more peaceful and beneficial for all!

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