While some businesses are motivated by money, Dean Gallagher explains why Five Senses Coffee is motivated to make the world a better place.
One Sunday afternoon, Dean Gallagher received a call from a café he had been trying to do business with for about four months. The café owner asked Dean to bring him some samples of his roasted coffee, then asked: ‘Can you get me 30 kilos tomorrow?’
This café would become Five Senses Coffee’s first customer. Just 12 hours earlier, Dean had become disillusioned as to why his roasted coffee was yet to break through to market.
He and his wife Stacey had arrived back in Australia from Papua New Guinea at the end of 1999 and had agreed to put every cent into their new business. Dean had bought a one- kilogram shop roaster and had started roasting a few bags of green beans in a shed. Those bags soon turned into a pallet, Dean bought a factory unit, and he went to a marketing agency and said, “make me a brand”.
“I found a packaging company, stuck the brand sticker on the bag, roasted the coffee, put it in the bag, and went around asking people to ‘taste this, taste this’. However, it was August 2000 and we had no money left – not one cent. I still hadn’t sold one thing,” Dean says.
But somehow, he had an “unshakable, unwavering belief” that the business would work. The day before securing their first customer, Stacey had gone to Church while Dean was looking after their sick three-year-old child. She returned convicted that the company would be successful, but they had to ensure they remained humble and never take credit for the success of the company.
The whole experience, Dean says, was a journey of faith and spirituality, but the pivotal moment was a deep sense that he had been called to do this work.
Dean grew up in a remote village of Africa to missionary parents. He called Africa “home”, and himself “Australian”, travelling back and forth between the two continents. He later studied in Perth, and quickly realised what he didn’t want to become.
“I started off wanting to do business but a Bachelor of Commerce was the most boring thing I’d ever seen in my life. So, I ended up doing a primary school teaching degree,” Dean says.
In search of a “normal life”, Dean decided not to do his first teaching post in a remote country town after spending his childhood in a rural village. He took on yearly teaching contracts until one year he didn’t receive one.
Instead, a teaching position in Pannawonica, an iron-ore mining town in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, came calling. With five years teaching experience, Dean was the most experienced teacher there. He was soon pushed into the principle’s role, looking after 120 children and 13 staff.
He lasted a year and a half before his attention turned to international school principalships, suggesting to his wife that he apply to an “exotic location”.
“I hadn’t been looking at teaching roles but I found a position for Kimbe Bay in West New Britain in PNG. He pictured white beaches, coconut palms, snorkelling reefs, and I thought, ‘if I’m going to go back to being a teacher, then this is the world I want to be part of’,” he says.
Dean applied, and as luck would have it, he was instead offered a principal’s role in Kundiawa in the middle of the PNG highlands, prime coffee producing territory.
“Nearly all the cash in our society came from coffee, other than government. I could tell when my school fees were coming in by the colour of the cherries, and then I’d have half my staff go missing because it was cherry picking season. It was a school or place which just moved with the ebb and flow of coffee seasonality,” Dean says. “All of my peers were either mill owners, they ran mills, or they were government officials.”
Dean did the role for three years, all the while observing what felt like millions of non-government and mission organisations feed into the country.
“The longer these organisations are there, the more effective they become in the language and culture, and they start to really have impact and make real progress. But over time, just when they start to become really useful, their resources dwindle down and they go home. That’s where it grabbed my heart,” Dean says. “It dawned on me that as much as I could support people on a wage, there was always going to be limited capacity. Finally, I had found my purpose in life – to support these communities.”
To do that, Dean didn’t have to look far. Without realising it, his life had become entrenched in the local coffee culture. He would roast coffee at home from local green bean suppliers and take it back to Australia to share as gifts for family and friends.
Dean decided to start selling his product, as it was the only way he knew how to support the local PNG communities. It was the start of Five Senses Coffee, and a time when the words “specialty coffee” wasn’t even part of the Australian vernacular.
“It really was just a culture that had attached itself to the idea of cappuccinos and espressos, and it was all old and over roasted. At the time I came into the market [in 2000], there was very much a mindset from roasters that their blends were ‘special’ and what’s inside was a secret,” Dean says. “The language around where things were coming from was not around specialty. It was broken down as having beans from South America or Central America, not even by country.”
While it was no marketing genius, Dean says treating coffee like fresh bread was a game changer.
“I didn’t think what I was doing was particularly unique or wild. If I’d known how much I didn’t know I probably would never have done it. I only knew coffee because I had invested in it for three years. I knew it had an aroma and tasted better fresh, so I committed to bringing in really good quality coffee direct from PNG, roasting it fresh, and having it arrive on somebody’s doorstep the next day. It wasn’t a complex proposition,” he says.
Without realising it, Dean was already talking about the nano or micro region of where his coffee was coming from, at a time when people didn’t know the country it came from. Eventually, the market caught up.
Aside from putting an identity to each coffee, Dean says travel has been critical to developing long-term relationships with producers.
“Relationships are expensive things when you think about the investment in them over the years; spending time on the road, developing actual connections with people and understanding what their needs are, but it’s been a really big deal in terms of getting us to where we are,” he says.
Five Senses Coffee now has a dedicated coffee department, led by Matt Slater, who continues to build and maintain those relationships, and ensure that its farmer relationships are honouring their efforts.
“At the end of the day, we need to know that our supply chain results in a net benefit to the grower,” Dean says.
He adds that it’s very difficult to know from the outside what the exact needs of farmers are without being on the ground and understanding those needs.
“It’s not formulaic. Every single area and need is completely different, and help can come in so many different ways,” Dean says.
For Five Senses Coffee, for example, that help has come in the form of providing the Heza washing station in Burundi, created by the Long Miles Coffee Project, access to market, and adding funds for the development of a nearby maternity hospital.
“Funding can have nothing to do with coffee. It’s about people. But the flip side, is that the exact same people that go to the hospital are producing the coffee that goes to the Heza washing station that we buy,” Dean says.
He says it’s easy to become discouraged because the job is just too big. Projects may or may not pay off in years to come, but adds that it’s important the world embraces a long- term perspective.
To ensure Five Senses Coffee continues to make the world a better place through the distribution of quality coffee, Dean shaves a fixed percentage of the company’s profits that go straight to unrelated coffee projects, such as donations to the hospital. Five Senses’ CEO Jason Gray does the same with profits that are specific to coffee projects, such as supporting CoGround and Shalom House in Perth that run a café staffed by recovering addicts. At origin, funds may be put towards buying physical infrastructure.
“The minute [producers] have access to resources they need, they can start to produce and have access to market that they didn’t have before. Then suddenly they have this economic lift in the area,” Dean says.
What motivates Dean, is that there is never an end date to his work. There will always be a project to support or progress to observe, but he’s content with his vision.
“The only way I can do better, is to continue doing what I do better. I measure my success by how much of my purpose I achieve. Yes, we are a profit business. I have to make enough money to keep my business sustainable, but there’s a reason that we make profit. And if you do something for a reason, then you can have an impact on your staff and the supply chain,” Dean says.
That impact, Dean adds, also needs to be felt at the end of the value chain. He says better connect with consumers is needed to explain the value proposition of specialty coffee, which is critical to the future of coffee and the poorer countries that produce it.
To help bridge that gap, Five Senses Coffee supplies a range of coffee to Coles supermarkets nationally to make specialty coffee more accessible.
“It’s our responsibility as part of the supply chain to keep educating people along that line. People are happy to go to a bar on a Friday night and spend $100 on cocktails, which cost nothing in comparison to the labour inputs by people who are far poorer, and the number of people’s hands that have touched that coffee along the way. Yet they struggle to pay $6 for a cup of coffee,” he says. “Specialty coffee is a different product to what people were drinking before.
“If we can all celebrate the success of specialty, the world will be such a better place.”
This article appears in the October 2022 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.