(Steven Lane/The Columbian)Buy this photo
(Steven Lane/The Columbian)Buy this photo
The coffee at the Salvation Army thrift store on Highway 99 is good. Really good.
Not just flavorful, that is, but ethical too -- supporting farmers and orphans in Pleiku, a Vancouver-sized city in central Vietnam that was devastated, deserted and virtually destroyed during the Vietnam war.
"Any proceeds from this go back to Vietnam," said the Salvation Army's Maj. Jack Phillips, who operates a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program near the Portland International Airport. "The U.S. has a history with Vietnam."
The Salvation Army is getting into the direct-trade coffee business, Phillips said -- maintaining a relationship and buying beans directly from Pleiku farmers, paying them more than they'd make on the open market, and selling the coffee and the beans at hundreds of Salvation Army thrifts in the western United States. The Portland area's thrifts are among the first to start stocking and selling the coffee, according to area retail manager Steve Cermak, but if all goes well, the product may even make the jump to non-Army retail store shelves in the near future.
And it all started, Phillips said, with too many mugs.
"About 20 years ago, my wife and I were trying to come up with something to do with all these coffee mugs," he said. The thrift they ran back then, which underwrote a rehabilitation program, was drowning in donated mugs. This was before coffee grew into today's caffeinated craze, he said, and there just wasn't much market for millions of mugs.
Phillips pondered the fact that wives tended to shop with purpose while husbands got bored. He hit upon the following scheme: Sell the mugs for a dollar each, keep a pot of coffee going and encourage people to sip while they shop. Husbands would enjoy the bottomless cup while their wives browsed; at the end of their shopping date they could either return the mug or keep it.
"It was all about, how to move coffee mugs," said Phillips.
But a few years later, a co-worker suggested closing the loop. The Salvation Army operates 23 recovery facilities in the western U.S. for people beating drug and alcohol addiction, Phillips said, and all the staffers and clients in those places consume a vast quantity of coffee each day. He thought: "Why don't we do the whole process -- buy a bean from a third-world country, grind the bean ourselves, serve it to our men and women? They get a fresh cup of coffee and we can reduce our costs. We can take the proceeds and put it back into this third-world situation. Those farmers get a higher price for their bean."
Vietnam was chosen. "Vietnam is the second-largest exporter of coffee beans," said Phillips. "We found some farmers who really needed the help. The term 'dirt-poor' really covers these people in Pleiku."
According to a spring 2011 story in The Salvation Army's publication Caring Magazine, contact was made with Vu Pham Huang, a young man who grew up on a Pleiku coffee farm but left for the big city to get an education and seek his fortune. Even while working for a BMW dealer, though, Huang's conscience wouldn't let him be, and eventually he developed a business plan for a network of approximately 50 coffee farmers in Pleiku, and returned home there. He connected with the Salvation Army though church, Cermak said.
Business between the Pleiku coffee network and the Salvation Army started up four years ago. The Salvation Army purchased 44,000 pounds of beans and hired a San Francisco coffee company for the next step.
Phillips had to become a coffee connoisseur in a big hurry, he said. One thing he learned is that most of the world loves arabica coffee beans, but what's grown in Vietnam is largely robusto, which is a little darker, bolder -- and more expensive. "It was mostly in gourmet shops and preferred by real coffee lovers," Phillips said. "It has a little bitterness at the end."
To save some money, cut the bitterness and come up with an original flavor, the Salvation Army settled on a blend that's three-quarters robusto from Vietnam and one-quarter arabica from Guatemala. It's called Cafe La V, and the foil bag it comes in features a big map of its country of origin.
"I contract with a local roaster here in Portland, they roast for us and we do some blending and tasting," said Phillips. "And we use program participants to do some of the packaging too. They provide some service in this project. They learn to give to folks who are less fortunate than themselves. They may be in recovery, but some people have greater needs than they do."
The coffee has been served for the past few years to people at those 23 recovery facilities, like the one near PDX, but it started hitting thrift store shelves only in time for Christmas 2012. Marketing in pursuit of widespread sales is just starting up, Cermak said.
"We wanted to have some holiday product out for the general public," Cermak said, "but it's still a work in progress."
Cafe La V goes for $5.35 per 16-ounce bag. (Also available is a Salvation Army blend called New Day, sales of which raise money for local needs and isn't connected to Vietnam.) If you can't make it to a Salvation Army thrift, you can learn more and make a purchase at http://dbsthriftconnection.com/brewing-hope.php. All money from sales of the coffee will go back to farmers, orphans and villages in Vietnam that are beset by leprosy, Phillips said.
"A lot of people think leprosy is gone, that it's a disease of ancient times, but it's not," said Cermak.
Caring Magazine cites Huang as saying that typical coffee farmers in Pleiku spend approximately $1,300 per acre per year to earn $1,350. In other words, they barely come out ahead. But farmers who sell to the Salvation Army make $2,120 per acre.
Asked to go into more detail about the financial arrangements and benefits for Pleiku, Phillips demurred. "I'm hesitant to give that out," he said. "Vietnam is still a communist country and sometimes they are not happy about admitting their people need the kind of assistance we're providing." The story in Giving Hope says the Vietnamese government placed Huang on a "blacklist" after he started dealing directly with the Salvation Army; it also mentions a 2011 Human Rights Watch report that says the Vietnamese government "intensified its repression of activists and dissidents in 2010, and cracked down harshly on freedom of expression, association and assembly."
How's the coffee?
"It's excellent," said shopper Marcia Clemans, who paused for a sample cuppa on her way into the store bright and early on half-off Wednesday. "It tastes like expensive coffee. We'll be buying some."
"It's black and it's hot and I didn't pollute it with sugar or cream," added John Scherger, who didn't expect to bag a bag but sure appreciated the extra morning jolt. "I never even knew they had free coffee. I would have come here more often."