It feels really damn weird to say this, but I’m writing to say thank you and goodbye. After more than two decades of leading Atlas Coffee Importers, I’m stepping aside to let my amazing colleagues at Atlas run the show with the support of the Neumann Coffee Group, and under the leadership of the incredible and talented Jennifer Roberts. I’m a bit uncomfortable in the role of old fart reminiscing about the way things were, but it is amazing to think of how many changes the industry has seen over the last few decades. So, bear with this crusty oldster for a moment while I prattle on about the before times.
When I started, arabica coffee futures were traded in person at the World Trade Center: a press of frenzied men and women hollering at each other and waving scraps of paper. For all the visceral immediacy of how the commodity was traded, the coffee itself changed hands primarily via a string of transactions that put a lot of distance between coffee growers and roasters.
The idea behind Atlas was to focus on smallholder farmers and small volume roasters, to shrink the gap between them by providing both parties information about – and direct access to – each other. I wanted the coffee trade to build community. I didn’t accept the idea that capitalism had to be a zero-sum game, where one person could only win if someone else lost, and I believed that “good business” was based on prosperous producing communities, a healthy environment, and great coffee. As I put it in my initial marketing sketch, “What is good for Atlas should be equally good for the people selling to us, buying from us, and working with us.”
Obviously, these weren’t new concepts. Atlas’ business model was inspired by the good work already being done by many others in the specialty trade. Still, our approach wasn’t exactly common at the time. In fact, when I first described my plans for a transparent, relationship-based coffee importing business to one old school New York trader, he laughed in my face and said I suffered “a lack of subtlety of thought.” Now, a couple decades after I endured that pompous asshole’s little pep talk, specialty coffee has changed the way the business is done. Growers and roasters speak a common language of quality, consumers expect to learn something about the people who produce the coffee they enjoy, and sustainability is no longer a niche market concept. That shit is mainstream, baby! The specialty coffee trade is far from perfect, of course, but as an industry we have struggled in the right direction. It is something we can be proud of.
Well. It’s not easy to walk away from a company that has occupied my heart and mind for so long, but I do so with the satisfaction of knowing that Atlas is in great hands, and it has a bright future. Many thanks to my partners past and present, and in particular to NKG for carrying Atlas into the future. I am, of course, forever grateful to all my friends at origin, and to those of you on the roasting and retail side of this business. I was lucky to have been a part of this unique and passionate community for so many years.
Now that I’m not Atlasian, I’ll be spending more time with my family, and trying to learn how to relax. I will also continue to write books. Hopefully, someone will publish my new novel, Not Much of a Hugger, and I will spend a lot of time promoting that thing. (If you’re interested in keeping tabs on my writing life, look for @craigholtwrites on social media.) Beyond that, I’m open to whatever comes next. Who knows – maybe I’ll pull a Samuel L. Jackson and just walk the earth.
Finally, a special thanks to all the Atlasians I’ve had the great good fortune to work with over the last couple decades. What a pleasure it was to share my professional life with such fine people. What a joy it has been to know you, my friends.
Featured image of me visiting with folks of the Mya Ze Di community in Shan State, Myanmar.