How Toby’s Estate adjusted its green bean buying during COVID-19

Toby's Estate green bean buying COVID-19

Toby’s Estate Green Bean Buyer Charlotte Malaval tells BeanScene how the coffee roaster has adjusted its green bean buying during COVID-19.

The life of a green bean buyer is usually full of travel and excitement, visiting farms and producers growing the best coffee around the world. But since March, borders have been closed and coffee volumes plummeted.

Toby’s Estate Coffee Roasters buys a large volume of coffee from many different producers, with seven single origin coffees available every month – four filter, three espresso – and more than half a dozen blends in its roster.. When COVID-19 restrictions first hit in March, Green Bean Buyer Charlotte Malaval says the roaster had to quickly reconsider the coffee it was buying.

“This was a lot of work, as we source 80 per cent of our coffee directly. This means we are cutting out the intermediaries, so all of the risk and management is on us. Direct trade allows us to have more control, transparency, and traceability on the coffees and the prices that we pay, which involves working closely together with producers and exporters at origin.” Charlotte says.

“When you take the risk to do direct trade, the relationships, the trust, and friendships really play a crucial role. I spend a huge amount of time building those relationships [with producers] and we really do care about them. Working together has allowed us to manage the damages during these challenging and uncertain times.

Toby's Estate green bean buying COVID-19
Green Bean Buyer Charlotte Malaval has been grounded since March.

“The forecasting must be quite precise, as specialty coffee is based on freshness. So, we need to anticipate the harvests, the seasons, the shipping times, or any unexpected situations. There’s always some drama when you bring coffees from overseas.”

Toby’s Estate usually commits to prices and green bean volumes in advance, making forecasting very important. But due to the sales downturn restrictions have caused, the Toby’s Estate green bean team had to monitor its forecasts closely.

“We weren’t going to cancel any of the contracts we’d already signed, but there were so many discussions with producers from around the world, texting and calling day and night as we had to reschedule all of our shipping months. In addition, we also looked to build future agreements with our partners to give them confidence we weren’t going anywhere,” Charlotte says.

She adds this was a huge job that would not have been possible if Toby’s Estate didn’t have such strong relationships with its producing partners.

“I spent the last number of months talking with our suppliers to see how we could get through this situation together. This year really showed us why it is so important to travel to origin. We couldn’t do it this year, but I believe if we hadn’t built those strong and amazing relationships, we wouldn’t have been able to move those things around as smoothly. It would have left us in a really bad position,” Charlotte says.

“All of our producers have been so helpful and understanding, because at the end of the day, we’re all in this together. Everyone understands supply versus demand. They know if I overbuy coffee this year, I will have too much stock and won’t be able to buy again next year. Our joint goal was to manage the damage from this year in order to come back stronger next year.”

In many cases, while rescheduling shipping months, Toby’s Estate increased its buying commitment. Charlotte says the roaster usually buys coffee at a fixed price one year in advance, but are looking to extend some contracts to 2022.

Charlotte attributes Toby’s Estate’s strong relationships with producers to its ability to adapt to COVID-19 restrictions.

“For producers, it’s safer to know they’ll have a buyer in the next year at a set price. We’ve been discussing new arrangements so everyone can come out of this situation in as good a position as possible,” she says.

“For our up and coming producers who we would usually buy a smaller amount of coffee from at the beginning of the relationship, this year has been difficult with currency and the pandemic. They have been very understanding of this and in return, we have been working on ways to allocate them greater volume. More volume next year will help strengthen the supply chain, as it means more diversity and stable quantities coming from multiple suppliers.”

Even in cases where Toby’s Estate has had to reduce its 2020 volume, Charlotte says it is still committed to on-the-ground community projects in producing countries. This includes supporting a Day Care Centre and scholarships in Guatemala, the Matão Women’s group in Brazil, a kitchen and dining facility for farm workers in Nicaragua, and a School in Ethiopia, among others.

“[The pandemic] has affected everyone at so many different levels. Some producers live in cities in lockdown and haven’t been able to travel to their farms. Or they have no pickers or labourers and can’t pick their coffee,” Charlotte says.

“They need security, because for many of them, this means a drop in what they’re going to be able to sell next year too.”

At the moment, Charlotte says Toby’s Estate’s shipments are on track, but there have been issues along the way and COVID-19 is just one thing that can impact shipments.

“We were supposed to receive a container from El Salvador in the last few weeks, but it couldn’t be sent because there was a huge storm and [the producers] couldn’t get the coffee to the port. It’s just something you have to deal with when you import coffee,” she says.

Hygiene is another new consideration. Toby’s Estate has implemented measures at its roastery to ensure all cupping is done safely and hygienically. Despite the new protocols, Charlotte says the coffees she has received recently are among the best she’s ever tasted.

Unable to visit these coffee farms and exporters and cup the usual thousands of coffees, the samples have been pre-selected by Toby’s Estate’s partners at origin and sent to its headquarters in Sydney. “Those coffee cuppings have been the most important part of the process, and the yearly calibration with coffee producers has shown some very positive results on the samples we received,” Charlotte says.

“High quality and consistency are what our customers expect – the same taste in every cup. The replicability that we are able to achieve every harvest by being so close to producers is the most important factor in our buying and a strong part of what we stand for as a brand.”

While Toby’s Estate has taken a hit from COVID-19 like many roasters, at-home coffee consumption has been a saving grace. Charlotte says the higher number of home brewers has actually made its filter coffee more popular, emphasising the importance of its single origin line-up.

“Things are starting to slowly come back to normal. Thankfully, we didn’t push too many shipments back, as things are already starting to reopen.” she says.

Charlotte says it was this forward thinking and those strong relationships with producers that have made Toby’s Estate successful through this crisis.

“I have to say that for me, COVID has actually been very interesting. With my team, we have been constantly monitoring the situation, texting day and night about how things are going and how the market is evolving,” she says. “This situation actually required a stronger knowledge over the total supply chain from farm to cup, so I have learned a lot, and this part has been exciting.”

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This article appears in the August 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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