Forget earmarks and political donations. Pura Vida Coffee, of Seattle, won the right to sell coffee at the U.S. House of Representatives through an old-fashioned taste test.

Share story

Forget earmarks and political donations. Pura Vida Coffee, of Seattle, won the right to sell coffee at the U.S. House of Representatives through an old-fashioned taste test.

Last November, about 40 House staffers chose Pura Vida over Fair Trade-certified coffees from Starbucks, Seattle’s Best Coffee, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Bluebird Artisanal Coffee Roasters.

“When we decided to switch to Fair Trade coffee, there was some nervousness about whether that coffee is as good as regular coffee, which is one reason we had the taste-off,” said Dan Beard, the House’s chief administrative officer. Pura Vida began supplying the House with coffee in December.

Fair Trade certification means that coffee farmers receive a fair price for their beans. Pura Vida’s coffee is also organic and shade-grown, which protects bird habitat and reduces clear-cutting.

Pura Vida is majority owned by F5 Networks co-founder Jeff Hussey. It was started by two Harvard MBAs in 1998 with the goal of improving the lives of children and families in coffee-growing countries.

A nickel of every pound it sells goes to a nonprofit, Pura Vida Partners, that shares space with the company in Fremont and distributes the money to organizations in coffee-growing countries. Over the years, the for-profit Pura Vida has contributed more than $2.5 million in cash and other support to the nonprofit.

Pura Vida is at the end of an effort to raise $3.5 million in capital to help grow the company, which is expected to become profitable for the first time this year, said President Jeff Angell. It has 17 employees; the nonprofit has two.

The company sells much of its coffee to hundreds of cafes on university campuses, Angell said. “They’re very discriminating consumers with high expectations for the quality of the product as well as the truth in what you say you’re doing.”

Pura Vida is served off campus as well, including at Washington Mutual’s headquarters in Seattle and at four Smithsonian Institution museums in Washington, D.C. The company hopes to expand more off-campus, Angell said.

Pura Vida’s coffee is roasted to its specifications by S&D Coffee in Concord, N.C.

The House of Representatives is its largest customer, sipping about 100 pounds of drip coffee a day.

Pura Vida doesn’t disclose sales. Its House contract is with the food-management giant Compass Group, which also sells Pura Vida coffee to some colleges and universities and recently began offering it to corporate, health care and other clients.

For every pound of coffee Pura Vida sells through Compass — at the House and elsewhere — the two companies contribute 30 cents to Pura Vida Partners.

At the House’s biggest cafeteria, a flat-screen television plays a video from Pura Vida.

“When you see this guy who picked the coffee beans, it really drives home a message,” Beard said. “I like the fact that you can buy a cup of coffee and do a little good with it.”

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312