For years, the founders of FreshFarm Markets resisted including local coffee roasters at their farmers markets. The logic was sound: Roasters rely on an agricultural product grown along an equatorial belt, in countries far from the local fields and pastures where animals and vegetables are raised for FreshFarms' producer-only markets.
But since FreshFarm was founded in 1997, both the market and the coffee industry have changed dramatically. Markets such as those run by FreshFarm at Dupont Circle and near the White House are packed with "value-added" vendors who may use only a percentage of raw local ingredients in their products. At the same time, local roasters such as Qualia, Compass and Vigilante take pains not only to source quality coffees from around the world but also to roast them to exacting specifications, based on what brings out the best flavors in each bean.
“I think that’s very much in our wheelhouse" to add roasters, says Mike Koch, FreshFarm's fresh new face as executive director. "It adds value to the industry around us.”
Starting Sunday at the Dupont Circle market, FreshFarm will introduce its pilot coffee program. Zeke's Coffee on Rhode Island Avenue NE will lead the way. The small-batch roaster, known for its wide variety of blends, will sell beans and cups of fresh brewed coffee. Zeke's will set up shop on Dupont every other Sunday through the end of March.
Qualia Coffee, the Petworth shop run by roaster Joel Finkelstein, will appear at the Dupont market on alternating Sundays, starting Feb. 7. Qualia will offer batch-brewed coffee, a liter at a time, and will sell bags of freshly roasted beans.
"We will use the winter months as a vetting process" to decide if the coffee program will be continued through the full season at Dupont, notes Nony Dutton, deputy director of markets for FreshFarm. Other FreshFarm markets could then follow suit.
FreshFarm's change of heart about coffee roasters coincides with a change in leadership at the nonprofit: Last year, FreshFarm founders Ann Harvey Yonkers and Bernadine “Bernie” Prince retired after building what's widely considered the gold standard of farmers markets in the D.C. area. Still, the founders held the line against adding local roasters into the mix of their markets, even though they experimented with coffee pop-ups as a holiday fundraising tool.
As the new leader of FreshFarm, Koch decided the time was right to review all the organization's rules and regulations to see if any needed revising. Lifting the coffee roaster ban was a no-brainer. Both shoppers and farmers at the Dupont Circle market wanted it, and a coffee vendor's presence could increase foot traffic, which in turn could increase sales. Plus, other markets around the country, including some in the D.C. area, had already partnered with local roasters to keep their customers properly caffeinated.
"We are definitely not trendsetting here," says Koch.
FreshFarm will not be accepting just any roaster into its coffee program. The nonprofit has been vetting potential vendors based on their business practices, including the sourcing of beans, the disposal of coffee grounds and the seasonality of products. But if certain roasters fail to appear at Dupont, it may not be because they didn't make the cut. Some roasters may balk at the 12 percent fee on sales that FreshFarm is asking from coffee vendors, more than double the 5 percent fee that some other markets charge their java partners — and even 2 percent more than FreshFarm charges its other value-added vendors.
Dutton e-mails to say that FreshFarm is "tightening our requirement that producers in our system source ingredients for their value-added products locally. Seeing as coffee is not grown in the region we decided to create a separate fee tier that addresses these types of exceptions. In doing some research we have found our peer organizations taking different approaches to how they treat coffee roasters."
Adds Dutton: "That said, this is just our pilot program. We will be carefully evaluating the role of coffee roasters at the market and may adjust the fee structure when we finalize the regulations for Dupont's full season."
Finkelstein decided the higher fee was worth it, not only because he's long wanted to be part of the busy Sunday market, but also because his business philosophy dovetails with those of the farmers at Dupont. They both want customers to enjoy their products fresh, whether vegetables freshly picked from the field or coffee beans freshly pulled from the roaster.
"It's kind of a perfect fit for what we do," Finkelstein says.