By Cliff Collins
|Jeff Furchtenicht with his wife, Kim, and their daughters.|
What has become a business venture with a social conscience began innocently enough. Furchtenicht, a lawyer in San Francisco, and his wife, Kim, a health educator, took a sabbatical to Costa Rica in 2003. They managed an inn for six weeks, but in traveling about, discovered to their disbelief that they could not find a decent cup of coffee — an amazing fact considering they were in the heart of coffee-raising country, he thought.
The couple visited coffee farms and talked with growers. They learned about how coffee is produced, how it is blended, roasted and distributed, and how little of the profit is returned to the growers. Local coffee gets mixed with that from other farms, "the price is set low by the commodity market, and there’s a race to the bottom in quality." They found in what Furchtenicht calls "the Napa Valley of coffee" that individual farmers grew outstanding coffee, but any single farm’s distinctive flavor got lost in the shuffle, and the middlemen made the money shipping, roasting, distributing and selling the end product.
What if, he asked, the farmers could sell directly to the consumer? His original idea was simply to obtain for his friends and family the fine-tasting bean he had found, but he also wanted to help the farmers obtain a fair price. This "single-source" coffee quickly caught on with those who sampled the fare back home, and Remy Sol Coffee was born.
Named after the couple’s baby daughter, the enterprise sent out its first shipment under that label last July. He and his wife handle every aspect of the marketing, packaging and shipping, from coffee that is shade-grown by a small cooperative of 700 farmers, most third- and fourth-generation growers.
"By helping to create a direct retail market, Furchtenicht says, "we hope to help build a sustainable long-term business that rewards these farmers’ quality and practice, and does not depend on the commodity giants. If we are successful, we think there can be an outsized effect that other farmers will see."
Furchtenicht passed the Oregon bar two years ago, and his family is searching for jobs and housing here. Remy Sol Coffee may or may not derail those plans — the business has taken off to the degree he is not sure yet whether it will remain a sideline or become the main show. He would like to do consumer law or criminal defense, perhaps work in a public defenders office. His wife is from the Northwest, and Oregon’s beauty and affordability attract the couple as a good place to raise their two young daughters.
After obtaining his J.D. with honors from Hastings College of Law, Furchtenicht joined Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison and later Cooley Godward, where he focused on transactional work for a variety of business clients. After a stint with a startup and consulting, he gained courtroom experience working as a public defender and went into private criminal and civil practice.
Raised in the Bay Area, he was "oriented to law from high school on," strongly inspired by a grandfather who had been a labor lawyer on Wall Street. "I thought of the law as a way to have a disproportionate influence for the good," Furchtenicht says. "The cases that attract me are the ones where I feel there is an injustice, and the law allows for a different result which I can help a client achieve. I’ve always wanted to be the guy who can make the law work to fix something that has gone wrong."
What he saw in Costa Rica was a similar kind of situation, where farmers with distinctive coffees lacked direct market access and often were receiving less than the cost of production, while consumers, despite paying relatively high prices, were getting poorer coffees that had been blended.
"We thought that by creating a direct-to-retail market for the farmers who have the best quality, we can fix this and reverse this," he says. "We are sort of taking the case of the farmers of this coffee and using skills we have to make things better. And in the process, perhaps we will even help to set a precedent."
Furchtenicht credits his law background as helpful in numerous ways. "We approached this project in the same way we might build a case, starting with the big picture and then marshaling the details. He found his background international and transactional experience invaluable in organizing the venture.
"We think we’re onto something," he says, conceding that he would like to expand Remy Sol Coffee to other parts of the world. "We would like to add more single-source coffees." He hopes his fellow attorneys will appreciate the option of buying direct from the farmer. The venture also has a program to donate part of its website (www.remysol.com) sales to various causes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cliff Collins is a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.
© Cliff Collins