I don’t know what the founders of Summit Coffee envisioned for their business. I don’t know if they expected Summit to make it to September 2019, to the celebration of 21 years. I don’t know if they ever glanced in the magic eight ball and saw a roasting business, or more cafés, or a kitchen to bake in. But I hope that if they saw what Summit has become, what we are, what we stand for and what we aspire to be, they’d be proud.
Rather than reflect on the past year, or the 20 before that, I want to share a story. On the eve of our inaugural “Manos de Mujer” event, this is why bringing María Julia Pleitéz’s story, and her coffee, from El Salvador to Davidson stands for everything that Summit Coffee aims to be.
This is a story about employee empowerment. Last winter, I invited our staff to apply for a sourcing trip to El Salvador, where they would taste some amazing coffees alongside other amazing coffee people. Where they could walk the farms of coffee producers, pick the cherries, hear their stories and, for at least a few days, be part of their story rather than making them part of ours. Dora Callahan, our Director of Retail Operations, wrote in her essay:
“We’re a company of change agents. People who thrive on giving in big and small ways. Empathetic, humble, and bright people. Each day, I’m searching for ways to be a better ambassador of Summit to the world around me. I’m searching for ways to uplift women, uplift strangers, uplift coworkers. One of my greatest privileges is my community. I want to share a portion of that. I want to witness a community apart from my own. Learn how, why, who coffee comes from first hand. I want to share our story, return and share stories big and small, learn a lot of new things, grow in empathy, love, and understanding, invite people to our table and become a better agent of change.”
And so Dora earned the right to travel to El Salvador, along with our then Director of Coffee Evan Pollitt, and because of Dora’s essay about being a change agent, she had the fortune of meeting María Julia Pleitéz’s coffee, and then meeting María herself. Of tasting one of the world’s finest coffees — the #1 in all of coffee rich El Salvador — and deciding to break from protocol and buy this coffee on behalf of her company. It was a chance to change Maria’s life, to “uplift women, uplift strangers, uplift coworkers.”
This is a story about changing lives. Summit paid $19.60/pound for Maria’s coffee, or more than 15 times what she had ever sold her coffee for before. I want to make sure it’s not seen as a gift, however. Maria earned this, for her hard work producing one the of the best coffees this world has ever seen. We had the privilege to write the check, and we have the privilege to own this coffee. When Maria met Dora and Evan, after she trekked and then hitchhiked to make it to the auction in the first place, she didn’t have much to say. She was probably in shock, of how after decades of working by herself that here were these people from North Carolina who wanted to pay her more than $10,000. But she was able to say one thing: “The one who lends to the poor, God repays.”
This is a story about relationships. It’s easy to buy coffee. You can pick up a phone, or send an email, and green coffee of all quality will show up at your door in no time. But the genesis of sending people to El Salvador, or to Colombia and Peru and Guatemala where we’ve also gone, and to Honduras where we’re going in 3 weeks, is to establish relationships. It’s been a hallmark of the Summit business at every level for as long as I can remember, and this was reason #1 we started roasting in the first place. We opened our roasting operation to become more innovative and impactful. In so many ways, it feels irresponsible to sell ourselves as an intentional purveyor of craft coffee without lending a similar energy to being partners with the producers themselves. We meet with farmers on their farms to show that, to Summit, coffee sourcing is a two-way-street. That we care about more than the coffee they grow. It’s expensive and exhausting, but it’s our responsibility to the entire supply chain — from the farmers who harvest the coffee all the way to the customers who enjoy it.
This is a story about taking chances. My goodness did I freak out when I heard we bought Maria’s coffee. And not in the celebratory, we won something sort of way. It was so shocking, even to me, and something so new and uncharted that I had a hard time wrapping my head around it all. But our mission is to be committed to excellence, and so why wouldn’t we deserve the opportunity to buy this coffee? When Dora and Evan outbid roasters from all over the world for Maria’s coffee, they didn’t know how we’d sell this. When they sent me a Slack message in Italy to fill me, I certainly didn’t know how we’d sell this. I’m not sure I still do, entirely, if I am being honest. I do know, however, that I am sipping on the best coffee I’ve ever had and I am excited for others to taste it, too. I just want to walk around and share sips with everyone I know, and even people I don’t. Germs be damned, people need to try Maria’s coffee. Great reward comes only with great risk, with taking chances and daring to try something new.
This is a story about being great. Or at least aspiring to be. In 2016, I wrote a blog citing the author Jim Collins’s quote, “Good is the enemy of great,” and from my perspective that was the greatest challenge facing Summit. It’s easy to be good, as I opined then and still believe now. It’s really hard to be great. Now, as we celebrate our 21st anniversary, this coffee is a testament to aiming for greatness. We don’t find a coffee, or launch an event, or hit a profitable quarter and say, “Sweet, now we’ve done it.” We look for opportunities to improve, to be better, to make a bigger impact, to be even greater than yesterday.
This is a story about community. Back to “Manos de Mujer.” When we brainstormed for days and weeks on how to sell Maria’s coffee, the story we kept finding our way back to was one of celebrating this remarkable woman. A story of how a widowed farmer no taller than 5 feet could grow one of the world’s greatest coffees, and how this deserves to be celebrated. Well, Maria’s just one of so many remarkable women in the Summit circle doing remarkable things, and an event to celebrate all of them makes all the sense to us. So while we’re sipping Maria’s coffee on Thursday night, we can also sip on wine from Lindsey Williams, and kombucha from Olivia Wolff, and eat food from chefs Courtney Spear and Tara Ebersold, and listen to music from Caroline Keller and hear stories from restauranteur Jamie Brown, all in a space brought to life by Katie Dixon. Maria, and her coffee, are giving us a reason to bring these remarkable women together under one roof — to bring together community to celebrate them, and each other.
This is a story about loving what you do. In two hours, I am teaching the first class in Summit’s new “Managing Ourselves” course, and one of the key lessons we’ll talk about is identifying and aligning with our passions. The author James Michener writes, “The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is why. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he’s always doing both.”
As I reflect on 21 years of Summit, in preparation for “Manos de Mujer,” I can assert that this business is a passion project. Not just for me, and not just for my family. Not just for our staff. But for our community, near and far, for the tens of thousands of people who would identify themselves as Summit Fans. Summit Coffee has always been more than a business. It’s always been more than a coffee shop, and a coffee company, and a coffee brand. Summit is the confluence of hard work and employee empowerment, of changing lives and building relationships, of taking chances and daring to be great, of building community and loving what you do.
I hope if, in 1998, the founders of Summit could see what 2019 would look like, they would be proud of this. I know I am.
Thanks for 21 great years. It’s both an honor and a privilege to be leading Summit.