Freelance photographer Clay Enos ’91 recently founded Organic Coffee Cartel, an online business that sells specialty coffee based on a humanitarian model of quality, respect and creativity. Every bag of coffee is sleeved in a numbered collectible art print, and 51 percent of profits are donated to charities.
Staff writer Shea O’Meara spoke with Enos about what kick-starts his day and his inspirations, objectives and the collaborative efforts of his coffee company.
Shea O’Meara: How did OCC get its start?
Clay Enos: I was on assignment in Wahaca, Mexico with a bunch of coffee professionals … some of the finest importers, roasters, buyers and journalists. I was really inspired by the work they were doing and the power quality coffee had to improve the lives not just of us who drink that coffee but [also] of the farmers who grow that coffee.
SO: Is OCC sold exclusively on your website?
CE: One of the folks on that trip owned the URL organiccoffee.com. … So I said to him, “Listen, let’s turn it on. Let’s make a company that gives money away but sells this quality coffee and does it online but with all of the best practices in the industry.” And he was willing to do it. … I essentially run the thing by myself — lost a ton of money so far, but I’m committed to this idea that coffee can change the world. Just by making better choices, we as consumers can affect that change. Right now it only exists online, but I’m working with people to develop it further to maybe start getting it into cafés.
SO: Do you sell the art as well?
CE: I don’t sell the actual art, but every bag that comes with an artist’s work has the URL on the inside and [customers] are encouraged to work with [them] directly. I see this more as a promotion for the artists. The artists are contributing to me. I’m not paying them or anything.
SO: How did you find the artists that are featured on the website?
CE: … I have this notion to get it away from my circle of influence, to allow each artist who I’ve already chosen to choose the new artists so there becomes this kind of creative family tree. … I’ve spent the last year traveling the better part of this hemisphere taking photographs and visiting coffee farmers, really as a photographer with a passion for coffee.
SO: How large is your consumer base now?
CE: Oh, it’s tiny. I think I’ve sold a few thousands — nothing that’s going to allow me to live off this by any chance. Ultimately, I don’t want to depend on just me. … My challenge isn’t the artistic side. My challenge is getting customers. It seems people aren’t quite as enamored with experimenting with coffee online.
SO: What inspired you to create this new idea?
CE: I was struggling a little bit with some of the kind of holier-than-thou notions that are very much integrated into specialty coffee. … I was interested in the power of coffee as an economic model but also in the way relationships were formed through coffee. Everyone loves their coffee. … It’s a way to establish friendships. Why not reward that with a visual relationship where artists can be part of that?
SO: Do you have one specific story about traveling to all of these places that really stands out?
CE: I was in Guatemala just recently, and I was visiting a co-op, and it was so humbling and rewarding to know that my efforts, really as a photographer but also as a potential buyer, were going to change the way these people were living. … The world of coffee has spilled huge economic disparities. … By drinking better coffee, by extension it helps farmers like that. You can’t help but being humbled.
SO: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about OCC?
CE: Business doesn’t always have to be about profit. … The majority of our profits go to charities committed to … improving quality [and] understanding throughout the coffee supply chain. … It can be about making the world a better place and a more visually interesting place, which is always the artists’ priority.
SO: How can Ithaca College students get involved with OCC?
CE: If you’re making coffee for yourself and you’re interested in making the world a better place and treating yourself, drink specialty coffee. … As young, intelligent, creative people, they should go to my website, design some art and send it my way. They could be customers, and that would be lovely, but what would be more fun would be for those inclined to send me a sleeve that we can put out into the world.
Organic Coffee Cartel is available online at www.organiccoffee.com