"This is a coffee problem, it’s not one single business' problem,” said one speaker at a coffee symposium in Seattle this week, reflecting on the arrests of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks.

Share story

Coffee farmers, buyers, roasters, retailers and baristas from around the world are gathering in Seattle this week to show off their wares, compete in the U.S. Coffee Championships and do business.

And nothing goes better with coffee than conversation.

At an industry symposium on the sidelines of the Specialty Coffee Expo in Seattle, talk focused on challenges ranging from climate change and consolidation to the industry’s struggles with equity, diversity and inclusion up and down the supply chain.

The arrests of two black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks provided immediate context.

Most Read Business Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz told CBS he was “embarrassed, ashamed” at the incident. He added: “There’s no doubt in my mind that the reason that they (police) were called was because they were African American. That’s not who Starbucks is.” Starbucks has pledged to make changes, beginning with new training for 175,000 U.S. employees next month.

But speakers at the coffee industry gathering said Wednesday this is by no means a problem limited to Starbucks.

“In the time of Black Lives Matter, when we see over and over again how coffee spaces, cafes, and the coffee industry exclude people of color — and I’m not just talking about the events that happened in Philadelphia … this is a coffee problem, it’s not one single business’ problem,” said Colleen Anunu, director of coffee supply chain at Fair Trade USA, introducing a session on building diverse and inclusive coffee communities. “Coffee, cafes are seen generally as the first wave of gentrification into black or people-of-color communities.”

Other speakers pointed to an economic reason to welcome more under-represented minority groups into the coffee business, particularly as the industry looks for its next wave of growth. In the U.S., young, ethnic minorities represent a huge and growing market of would-be specialty coffee drinkers, but they may not see themselves reflected in the industry, said Phyllis Johnson, president of BD Imports.

How should the industry increase coffee consumption among African Americans and other minority groups, Johnson asked. Her answer: “Hire them.”

The Specialty Coffee Expo runs through Sunday at the Washington State Convention Center.