Women make the best coffee. Here’s how they are transforming the industry
Women make the best coffee. Here’s how they are transforming the industry
Behind your morning cup of coffee, there lies an entire ecosystem filled with farmers, roasters, importers, distributors, baristas, shop owners, and marketers. It stretches from El Salvador to Uganda to Indonesia to the United States and is made up of millions of people working hard every day to ensure your coffee tastes great.
And increasingly, it is made up of strong, tenacious women.
The coffee industry has a reputation for being male dominated, but women provide 70% of the labor involved in global coffee production and run 20-30% of coffee farms. Men in the industry, however, continue to have more access to capital and land, which allows them to reap more economic rewards.
20 million coffee farmers live in poverty, many of them women. While there is still a long way to go, a shift is taking place. The global coffee industry is projected to reach more than $143 billion by 2025, and women are demanding their share of the wealth.
Women’s work is being increasingly recognized, and more and more women are entering the field, whether as roasters, growers, shop owners, or executives. With this influx has come a renewed focus on equitable, sustainable practices that emphasize fairness throughout the entire supply chain, from seed to cup.
The world of coffee is increasingly becoming an industry made up of fierce, resilient women all over the world, women focused on equity, on empowerment, and of course, on making damn good coffee.
Two of these fierce, tenacious women are married couple Jodie Dawson and Kristine Petrik, who opened their coffee shop, Java Love, in 2011.
At first, they didn’t know what they were doing. They also didn’t know that their one tiny location would soon become four, or that customers from New York City would begin flocking to their store in the New York Catskills to stock up on as much coffee as they could carry.
Dawson and Petrik discovered both coffee and entrepreneurship by accident. Dawson is a child psychologist and Petrik spent 24 years as a journalist and marketing executive for CNN. They had no background whatsoever in coffee. What they did have was a second home in the Catskills in a community they called lovely, but economically challenged.
They wanted to contribute to its growth and thought they would open a small French market. When Dawson contacted a roastery about providing coffee, the roastery said it was actually looking to sell its equipment. So the couple decided to take a leap of faith and buy it.
Together, they went to the barn where the equipment was stored and learned how to roast. Petrik was already a certified sommelier, and she began to apply that knowledge to coffee.
“Coffee and wine are incredibly similar,” she explained. “In fact, coffee has a more complex flavor profile. So, I just took my wine brain and turned it into a coffee brain.”
Dawson, on the other hand, was more excited about the business side of things. Together, they made a perfect pair.
On May 1, 2011, they opened Java Love in Kaunenoga Lake, New York. It was a 400-square-foot space that only fit four customers at a time because the roaster took up so much room. Dawson and Petrik were still working their other jobs, as well as raising two small children. With so much on their plate, they only served coffee on the weekends. But the customers kept coming.
“People from the city would come in and grab armfuls of the coffee and take it back,” Dawson said.
“It was nuts,” Petrik added. “You can’t swing a cat in Brooklyn without hitting a roaster…[But customers kept saying] it’s different. There’s something about your coffee, and so we were like, oh my God we may actually be good at this.”
After two years, they moved to a new and larger space, an old house filled with gorgeous woodwork and a view of the lake. In 2014, they opened a second location, and then a third, in Montclair, New Jersey. In 2019, they opened another shop in Suffern, New York. There was just something about their coffee, and everybody wanted in.
Today, Dawson and Petrik are no longer taking orders from their offices at their day jobs, and even more, the couple is using their success to prop up and celebrate other women in coffee.
Dawson and Petrik’s dedication to uplifting women farmers appears to be par for the course among women in the industry.
“Usually, when you look around and talk to people about what they’re doing and how well they’re paying people and if they have these same [equity-focused] values, it just so happens that a lot of them are women,” says Jen Apodaca, founder of Mother Tongue Coffee in Oakland, California.
Apodaca was the first woman roaster at both Intelligentsia and Blue Bottle Coffee, two industry powerhouses. She is also the founder of the hashtag #shestheroaster, a social media campaign to promote women in coffee. She wants to dismantle the age-old notion that working in coffee requires brute physical strength or that women are somehow any less capable than men of dominating in the industry.
“Women roast some of the best coffee in the world,” she said. “It’s not lumberjacks and giant burly men with beards.”
At Mother Tongue, Apodaca focuses on sourcing her coffee from women farmers who pay their employees well.
“When you pay women, women take care of the household,” she said, “women take care of families, women make sure the kids have money to go to school. They’re just making sure society is running.”
“I’m trying to create a supply chain from seed to cup that is no one profiting off the back of another,” she added. “I don’t have to rob you in order to survive.”
At first, Dawson and Petrik didn’t like to lead with the fact that Java Love was women-owned, let alone that they were a couple.
They weren’t hiding anything intentionally, they said, but they also didn’t have the awareness that they could own their identities in a way that would make a difference in the industry. Besides, they were constantly underestimated or ignored by financiers and importers.
“As it happens in many other industries, women are taken for granted,” said Blanca Castro, chapter relations manager for the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA). “As if women were some sort of super-powered human that can hold what others can’t. Women need to be heard and seen.”
Dawson recalled once sitting across from a banker while applying for a loan.
“He’s looking at all my numbers, and he looks at me [with shock and says] ‘you have a real business.’ … from that point on, [I was] only working with women.”
Petrik also remembered attending a large coffee conference and feeling completely invisible.
“Men would walk by us to go talk to the man standing next to us. We were looking at wanting to buy some pretty expensive equipment, and I think we stood there for five minutes and not one person came to talk to us. In those moments, I’m thinking, is it because we’re women?” she remembered. “Is it because I don’t have long hair and makeup on and they’ve made me? That’s it, I’m a gay woman and they’re not going to come to talk to me?”
So, the couple kept their products-and not their identities-at the forefront of their business.
“We just came as we were and that’s it,” Petrik said. “We were Jodie and Kristine and we owned this coffee shop and we had these two little kids who were adorable and cracked everyone up and that’s who we were, and we didn’t feel like we needed to define that ourselves or to anyone else.”
But things have changed. The couple has since realized it’s more than possible to both sell good coffee and celebrate who they are. Not only that, but they’ve found that doing so actually makes them stronger.
“We find that the more we voice women empowerment, LGBTQ [pride], the more our fan base really gravitates towards it,” Dawson said. “They want to see us in that position, in that light, and it feels good to us to inspire other women and other communities.”
For a long time, Java Love has worked with Peru’s Caf’e Femenino, a co-op of women coffee producers founded to give women more economic power in the industry. Dawson called the program “the pioneer of creating infrastructure for women in coffee.”
But the couple wanted to do more. They wanted to directly promote the women around the world working so hard to keep our coffee mugs full. Java Love’s “Women Coffee Producers Series” takes their customers from Peru to Mexico to Honduras to El Salvador, telling the stories of women producers in the regions while also selling their coffee both online and in stores.
“They’re just incredible,” said Petrik. “Why wouldn’t we want to give back to that and have that grow?”
“For a lot of these countries and regions, it changes the socioeconomic status for women,” adds Dawson. “Before they were farming, they had to stay home and take care of the kids and didn’t have as much power economically or socially, and after having this infrastructure and the finances and the economy around it, it raises them up and that’s the part we really love.”
In El Salvador, Java Love has been working with a farm called Finca Noruega, which, until recently, was owned by the company SiCafe. SiCafe is run by Carmen Da Silva and her husband, though it is she who manages the day-to-day operations.
The couple started SiCafe in 1996. In charge of sales and commercialization, Da Silva has helped it become an international sensation, selling to shops around the world. And in El Salvador, Da Silva believes things are changing for women in coffee.
“There’s a big movement…empowering women to do their part,” she said.
“Generally it was believed that coffee production was for men only but it was because of the limited incentives for women, although there are many women coffee growers,” Da Silva continued. “Times have changed though and now we see many women in this business, but with limited access to credit and struggling to support their families as well.”
Da Silva is part of the efforts to improve women’s standing in the industry. As a member of the board of directors of the El Salvador chapter of the IWCA, known as AMCES, she helps women secure land and microloans for coffee businesses.
“There’s more support to [women] than there was before because of all the programs that not only the government is pushing, but we as accessors of women in coffee are subsidizing and helping to move on this for women.”
Now that Dawson and Petrik are out and proud as both women and LGBTQ business owners, one of their main goals is not only to celebrate producers abroad, but also to make sure every single customer and staff member feel welcome inside their shop. They pride themselves on their diverse clientele, as all as the accepting community they perpetuate at Java Love.
“We always felt like if you’re not comfortable and you’re not able to be yourself in the space, that’s going to resonate in the space, and also you’re not going to be your best self,” Dawson said.
With the Trump era came the couple’s increased dedication to publicly signal that hate is not tolerated at Java Love-from diversity training to displaying rainbow flags and Black Lives Matter signs, and encouraging staff to come as they are, emphasizing they don’t need to cover up tattoos or hide anything else about themselves.
“Ways to signal to the public that they are walking into an inclusive space,” Dawson explained. “That they’re making the choice by frequenting our business that this is who we are.”
And of course, that philosophy guides who they source their coffee from as well.
“Everyone that we work with, our importers mainly, are very much of the same mindset,” Petrik said.
LGBTQ-owned businesses like Java Love are not only fueling acceptance and women’s empowerment-they are also fueling the U.S. economy.
According to Sabrina Kent, senior vice president of the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC), there are about 1.4 million LGBTQ-owned businesses in the country. Together, they contribute $1.7 trillion to the U.S. economy.
“So we’re not talking about a small market,” Kent said. “We’re saying that the LGBT business economy would be the tenth wealthiest economy in the world if we were our own country.”
Not only that but many of these businesses are owned by women. Kent said that of the approximately 1800 businesses certified by NGLCC, almost half of them are women-owned.
Queer women entrepreneurs of course face outsized challenges, Kent acknowledged. Like all women, they struggle more often to be taken seriously. And while it’s unacceptable that being a woman in business requires more tenacity, more hard work, and more determination, it also instills a resilience that can lead to success.
“At the end of the day, women know how to lead,” Kent said. “We know how to put our business forward. We know how to put our people forward. We know how to put our products and our services forward.”
“It’s that tenacity. It’s that drive… to get things done,” Kent added. “I think the biggest thing is persistence and not giving up. Particularly when people might question why you should be in a space and why you’re qualified to be doing what you’re doing, [it’s crucial] to continue to show up and prove that you have the knowledge, you have the expertise, and you are the right choice.”
For Petrik and Dawson, it’s their passion for the business that keeps them going every day.
“We love coffee and we love our product,” said Dawson. “This endeavor has allowed us to really live our values as far as women empowerment and transparency and putting more good into the world… and I think inspiring other people and other women to be able to do the same. That is what we set out to do. We took those risks, we’ve met the most amazing people, we’ve had incredible opportunities and partnerships, and that’s what inspires me to continue along this path.”