How to Make Your Importer Your Best Outsourced Employee

As part of a multi-day Introduction to Roasting program taught by Greg Luli at the San Diego Coffee Training Institute (SDCTI), Dana Andrews, a trader in our San Diego office, recently taught a 90-minute class they loosely titled, “How to Use Your importer.”

SDCTI is a Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) campus in San Diego and the only one in the country that operates as a non-profit, using tuition to fund program costs for at-risk populations in San Diego.

While wanting to respect that people pay for the class, Dana agreed to share a taste of what she discusses.

“One big idea we want to get across is that if you really use your importer strategically, they’re like your best outsourced employee,” said Dana. “Really, you can use a trader not just for coffee but for education on things like harvest periods, pricing and what differentials even mean—things like that.”

Might she give a more specific example?

“The quality control lab is a good example,” she offered. “A lot of roasters don’t have a QC department, so they can effectively make use of ours, since we check moisture and quality. We are constantly cupping with several SCA-certified Q Graders.

What about the offer list? How helpful is that?

“If I were to look at our offering list, it would be overwhelming at first glance. But as traders we can more quickly narrow that down for someone and say, ‘This one has nice body, this one’s getting old and this one’s delicious.’ I mean, you can spend a lot time looking at offer sheets online, or you can call us, communicate what you’re looking for and we’ll get those coffees in front of you.”

Pro tip: Make use of your importer's cupping lab and its Q Graders.

Why do you think people don’t make more use of importers?

“Some roasters have the impression they’re ‘too small,’ or not big enough to matter to an importer, which isn’t true. I get that a lot. People say , ‘I know I’m just buying a few bags, and I don’t want to waste your time.’ But honestly, we all love talking about coffee. Or maybe a buyer is nervous about their knowledge or ability to express what they’re looking for.”

If expressing what they want isn’t easy, where should they start?

“Score and flavor profile are a good place to start. Sometimes someone will say, ‘I just want a nice Colombia,’ but it’s when I know them and I know what they like that I know what to select from our list for them. Some people are more sensitive about price and some are more focused on quality. Or someone might want to make a blend, and they have one component—we can offer recommendations!”

So, a good lesson is: Don’t worry about “wasting” a trader’s time—let them help you save time.

“Exactly! There might be four Huila, Colombias—everyone here knows how they’re different, and we can save you that time.”

One more example?

“It depends how close you live to your importer, but cuppings are another thing we do for customers. We had someone recently who just bought a roaster and asked, ‘Help, I’ve never done this before!’ We sample roasted seven coffees and invited him in for a cupping. We picked his favorite three to get started with and he gained confidence and experience in the process.

So, total bonus for those in Providence, Houston and San Diego! (Or if you’re on vacation, add a few hours to stop by and say hi/help!)  And for everyone else?

“Another way importers can help is with the coffee calendar, especially if people want to buy forward,” said Dana.

“For example, if in January you want to buy and allocate a year’s worth of Costa Ricas, from the one spot sample you tried—well, in three months that’s going to be past crop and we’ll have new lots. Or, if you book a Guatemala right now, and you think you only want to book until August—it’s probably going to be the same coffee, because we’re not going to get the new coffee from Guatemala until next February.”

So, another lesson learned: Use your importer’s knowledge of coffee seasonality to buy the freshest lots.

“Absolutely. We like to sell coffee. But more, we want a relationship you trust, and we want to help you buy the best coffee for you, at the right time. It’s the most fun part!” •

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