Magazine article University Business

From Doctorates to Dark Roast: Widener University's Foray into the Multi-Billion-Dollar Coffee Industry

Magazine article University Business

From Doctorates to Dark Roast: Widener University's Foray into the Multi-Billion-Dollar Coffee Industry

Article excerpt

I live in a world of lectures, faculty meetings and final exams. For my environmental science students and me at Widener University in Chester, Pa., however, it's also a world of hands-on research on a butterfly farm in Costa Rica, or experiential learning in the rainforests of Peru. This world didn't include university food service contracts, price points, or product launches until my chance meeting with an alumnus who shared a passion for environmental sustainability. That meeting led to a simple, delicious cup of coffee.

Since then, I have worked closely with John Sacharok, a 1980 Widener grad and founder of Golden Valley Farms Coffee Roasters in West Chester, Pa., to launch WU Brew, our own brand of shade-grown, environmentally sustainable coffee. The development of WU Brew is an initiative that addresses coffee from "cultivation to cup." Students travel with me to the coffee farm in Las Lajas, Costa Rica to participate in the harvest and learn about sustainable farming methods. The coffee is then imported by Golden Valley Farms, where it is sold by the Widener community. Students named the coffee, and the University Relations Department designed the packaging and marketing.

Growing industry

Just how big is the coffee industry? Coffee is the world's most widely traded agricultural commodity with annual revenues high into the billions. According to the International Coffee Organization, more than 600 billion cups of coffee are consumed annually. Among natural commodities, only oil has more value.

The worldwide demand for coffee over the last 30 to 40 years has changed the way coffee is farmed. Although coffee evolved by growing under a canopy of shade trees, often in rain forests, most coffee farmers now cut down forests to produce sun-grown coffee. For that reason, much of Costa Rica now looks like Iowa for the mass production of crops, with dire long-term effects on the environment and wildlife.

Before we could launch our shade-grown organic brew outside of the university community, however, we first had to make it available on out own campus. It seemed easy enough: serve WU Brew in the Widener cafeteria and at catered events and sell it in the university's bookstore. However, as is common practice at colleges and universities, neither the food service provider not the bookstore is an entity of the university.

As it turned out, Widener's food service provider already had a preferred coffee supplier. …

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