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Why two coffee entrepreneurs believe quality and ethics go hand-in-hand

The co-founders of Union Hand-Roasted Coffee pioneered a new way to work with coffee farmers across Africa – so their producers get a fair deal and can grow exquisite coffee at the same time.

Artisan coffee has never been so popular, and it is no longer the preserve of hipsters or specialty cafés. Today most people take their coffee pretty seriously. And it is not just the great taste we’re after. When we are increasingly aware of our dwindling resources, the origins of what we consume are just as important as the products themselves – as are the ethics of the businesses we buy from.

It may sound like a radical trend, but it is something that Union Hand-Roasted Coffee has been doing for decades. Partners and co-founders Steven Macatonia and Jeremy Torz turned their hands to the coffee market in the early 1990s, inspired by the booming coffee scene in California – and have made a name for themselves by supporting sustainable sourcing and ethical trading practices.

“A lot of people don’t realise how big the global coffee industry is,” says Mr Torz. “There are millions of people around the world who depend on growing coffee for their livelihood.

“Our responsibilities are to the producers that we buy from, as well as the people who enjoy drinking our coffee. Adding [a small amount] to the price of a cup of coffee, passed all the way down the supply chain, can be of huge benefit to those people.”

By supporting their suppliers, and paying them a living wage, the pair can help develop the coffee they grow to make it the best it can be. Mr Macatonia says: “We chose the name ‘Union’ because we wanted to bring together those values of great-quality coffee with ethical principles. Consumers shouldn’t have to make a choice between one or the other.”

Full of beans

The seeds of their business started when Mr Macatonia, then a research scientist in immunology, took a sabbatical in San Francisco. Mr Torz, who was working as an optician, joined him.  “Food and drink was such a big thing in California at the time – and coffee was the thing that really excited us,” says Mr Macatonia. To learn more about it, Mr Torz took a job as a barista at a Peet’s Coffee shop. “It was the beginning of a craft movement in coffee,” he says. “We didn’t know a lot about it to start with, but enjoyed discovering more: about the flavour, the brewing process and so on.”

But passion aside, starting out with no equity or retail management experience meant that getting a business off the ground was tricky. Unerring determination kept the duo going.

“It felt like jumping out of an aeroplane – we may have had a parachute, but we didn’t know if that parachute was going to open,” says Mr Macatonia. “Certainly once I’d shut the door on my career in science, it wasn’t going to open up again. But that gave us the drive to make sure we put our heart and soul into succeeding. We could not fail.”

So in 1994 the pair set up their first enterprise, named Torz and Macatonia, with a wholesale model instead. Mr Torz says: “For us, the safest option to get a foot in the door was to get a business under way. We set up a small roastery in a little ‘wooden hut’ on the outskirts of London, about 1,000sq ft, started making our coffee – and trading it.”

Perfect blend

That business ended up supplying coffee to a number of respected coffee shops and restaurants, eventually merging with The Seattle Coffee Company and being acquired by Starbucks in 1998. A couple of years later, they had the idea for what is now Union Hand-Roasted Coffee – a business that buys coffee directly from farmers, and works in partnership with them to produce top-quality beans. They have now named this process Union Direct Trade.

It is a business model that is clearly working – the company won The Queen’s Award for Sustainable Enterprise in 2017 – and, importantly, it really resonates with their customers. Mr Torz says: “How do we earn trust in our brand? By walking the talk and being honest about what we do. Union Hand-Roasted Coffee is about being comfortable in our own skin and sticking to our core principles – that’s got to come from the heart.

“To those people who say sustainable businesses aren’t real businesses: I think we’re proving they can be. The cornerstones of Union Hand-Roasted Coffee are in line with what people are increasingly looking for today. It’s something we’re trying to do from the core, and we’re very optimistic for the future.”

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