Randy Wirth and Sally Sears outside their flagship store Caffe Ibis Gallery Deli. The couple has blended their passions with their values since 1976. Caffe Ibis has helped launch 400 startups nationwide.
Improving the World, One Cup at a Time
By Kristen Munson
Before green, before organic went mainstream, there was Caffe Ibis.
In 1976, Sally Sears and Randy Wirth opened a natural health foods store in Logan called The Straw Ibis Herb and Grain Company. However, their biggest seller turned out to be specialty coffee. The couple invested in a roaster for better control over quality and became pioneers of the organic and fair trade coffee movements by virtue of following their passions.
They shifted to artisan coffee and renamed the store Caffe Ibis Gallery/Deli. They are now the only roasting company in the world that focuses on triple certified—organic, fair trade, and Smithsonian shade grown and bird-friendly coffees. In December 2011, they were named Utah’s Green Business of the Year.
“People are starting to understand organic, but it has taken 40 years,” Wirth said, adding that many people’s understanding is limited to the bottom line—it costs more.
But for Sears and Wirth, longtime environmentalists and civil rights activists, the certifications listed on the bags of their coffee have deeper meaning. For them, the premiums they pay to sell products that do not harm the environment or the people bringing the items to market enable them to be socially and environmentally responsible business owners.
“Transactional transparency is key,” Wirth said. “It’s about a chain of command that goes from the farmer to the customer. A lot of people think it’s about passing the penny on to the farmers; it’s about more than that. It’s about democratically-run cooperatives. It’s about no child labor. It’s about women getting paid equal pay to men. It’s about empowering people.”
Caffe Ibis was among the first six roasters certified as fair trade. The walls of the roasting company are decorated with photographs of some of the farms contracted with Ibis. The company partners with cooperatives in 26 countries, many of which comprise smaller family farms that otherwise couldn’t afford to undergo the certifications required to be labeled organic. To meet such standards, crops are farmed without synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers.
One picture shows children in school uniforms. They are recipients of scholarship aid produced from sales of Café Feminino, a specialty coffee produced by a consortium of female coffee growers and sold by roasting companies like Ibis. The group was founded to combat abuse and marginalization of women in rural Peru. Ibis was one of the first companies contacted to carry the specialty coffee.The partnership allows the Ibis owners to see the impact of their business in the global marketplace.
“In raising up the women, you’re raising up the whole village,” Sears said.
Roasting is a sensory process—one needs to pay attention to the color, sound, and smell» of the beans. Fifteen seconds can be the difference between a dark roast and burnt carbon. Wirth is the company’s roastmaster and has trained with some of the world’s best. He worked with software engineers to develop a tracking system that maps the journey of a bag of coffee from the farm to the customer. Being able to trace the beans is crucial to claim premium status as an organic roaster where even the warehouse coffee beans are stored needs to be certified.
“It’s about trying to make sure these certifications are meaningful,” Wirth said.
Much of the coffee sold at Caffe Ibis is also shade-grown, “bird-friendly” certified through the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center—another premium Sears and Wirth believe is important to support biodiversity on farms. Scientists at the SMBC discovered that the population of migratory birds in North America was dropping dramatically due to loss of habitat. The mass production of coffee by industrial farms was coming at a cost to the native trees in coffee-producing regions, Sears said.
The Smithsonian center established the rating system to protect refuges for migratory birds by providing financial incentives to growers to revert to traditional practices of growing coffee in the shade, without pesticides. Premiums also help fund research on migratory birds.
The rating was one Caffe Ibis could support. Cache Valley is a sanctuary for migrating birds and the store is actually named after the marshland species. However, Sears and Wirth pay the additional price because it is part of larger code they live by. They are partners in life. They make business decisions using the Allen Test, named for their mentor, the late wildlife biologist Allen Stokes. Sears and Wirth use the question ‘What Would Allen Think?’ as a principle to guide their actions.
“He always held our feet to the fire and to do more than what we thought we could do,” Wirth said. “He was fearless. He took on very controversial causes regardless of what people would think in his professional community and his larger community. Sometimes we fail miserably. Sometimes we pass. But it’s always there.”
For instance, recently Caffe Ibis stopped carrying a specific Ugandan coffee because of ongoing political issues in the country. The owners didn’t feel they could carry the beans with good conscience. Sears and Wirth are feminists. They are environmentalists. They support gay rights. The logo on Caffe Ibis merchandise reads celebrate diversity.
“It’s diversity in the environment, but also in humans,” Wirth said.
The couple will admit their politics are often too high profile for the average business. But voicing their opinions is who they have been since arriving in Cache Valley in the 1970s. They met at an anti-Vietnam War rally on campus. Wirth had just returned from serving in Vietnam to study population studies in the sociology program.
“Vietnam changed me in a lot of ways,” he said. “That’s where I got into demography.”
During the war, faculty members from universities around the nation came and taught college classes for the soldiers. Wirth took an interest in population studies and began picking out universities to apply to after he got home. Utah State was at the top of his list.
Sears came from New York City to study special education. They came for the mountain beauty and stayed for the community of artists in the valley, she said.
Setting an Example
The couple opened The Straw Ibis to serve as a resource for others who wanted to eat and live healthy after learning how to survive on bulk grains and a food budget of $40 a month. Sears is president of the company and her appreciation for locally-grown products has been reflected since Ibis’ inception. The couple helped establish the Cache Valley Gardener’s Market and their deli features locally-grown produce. Over the years, Sears has taught vegetarian cooking courses for Utah State’s Extension division and Wirth has taught classes on alternative economic modeling.
“If it weren’t for the university community we wouldn’t be here,” he said.
To show their gratitude, the couple is ardent supporters of community groups. They provide support to several local and national organizations such as Four Paws Rescue, Children’s Justice Center, Stokes Nature Center, Planned Parenthood and the Cache Chamber Music Society. Since opening, they have won more than a dozen awards for their environmental stewardship and philanthropy.
“We believe you give back to the community in which you live,” Sears said. “We have the privilege of supporting our farm producers and giving back to the community here. What an amazing opportunity we have with our business as a vehicle to contribute.”
Sears and Wirth know how easy it can be to be disenchanted by politics, by all that is wrong, and feel paralyzed to change it. They aim to show that it is possible to make a difference in one’s own backyard. They set out four large piggy banks for staff to fundraise at the caffé.
“It’s important for us to be mentors and teach them about how important it is to give back,” Sears said, tearing up. “We are getting older and our amazing staff is the future.”
“That’s what I do,” he said.
“We both do it,” she smiled, wiping her eyes.
Sitting in the tasting room of the roasting company Wirth explains that there are 100 steps in producing a single cup of coffee. Part of Ibis’ mission is to educate others about the value of a cup of coffee and all that goes into the making a great cup.
“It’s the most undervalued and underappreciated food product on the face of the earth,” he said.
Eventually Sears and Wirth aim to spend more time away from the roasting company and on the ground with the coffee farmers learning best practices. They have spoken at conferences, including Transfair USA—the largest group of Fair Trade farmers—and their commitment to sustainable business practices has won recognition by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. They are now engaged in conversations about how the organic and fair trade movements should proceed to monitor regulations and to expand their impact.
“We may be small, but we have a voice,” Wirth said. “The people we work with are amazing, the technology is amazing, and the customers are pretty amazing too. It’s been fun, and it’s still fun. Total retirement really isn’t part of the plan.”