Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op – Growing a Business

justus_logo_0Coming in from the crisp, cold morning in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, the heat generated by the roasting machine is most welcomed. The smell of the coffee, as it makes its many thousands of rotations over the gas flame, is intoxicating. Down in the lower level of Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op in New Minas, Nova Scotia, David Mangle spends most mornings supervising the transformation of the glossy green organically grown beans into the aromatic coffee bearing such enticing names as “Jungle Blend,” “French Roast” and “Rainforest Rhapsody.”

Only eight years ago, David would have spent his mornings teaching music at the local high school. The idea of starting the worker co-op grew from a commitment of a group of friends and family members who wanted to own their own business, which contributed to their personal satisfaction and desire for a more just society. They wanted to offer a fair and just return to the farmers from whom they purchase their beans. They were ahead of their time even by most international standards. The International Fair Trade Association only came into being in 1998. Now they continue to lead. Just Us! Is one of a few groups trying to organize a national structure for worker co-ops involved in fair trade.

“We are committed to quality, to fair trade and to growing the business,” says Mangle. All these have taken time to set up and require a major financial contribution by the members who each have to personally guarantee $75,000 for each shipment of green beans.

Just Us! strongly supports fair trade and delivers several educational events to promote this, each year. They also donate coffee to community activities and, as individuals, the members have taken leadership roles in various community organizations. Four of the original five founding members are still working at the Co-op. They also have seven full-time and seasonal part-time employees.

Mangle will roast 500 pounds of beans today in 25-pound increments, each roast taking about 25 minutes. All the jobs are important, but that of coffee roaster is especially critical, because a poorly processed batch will have to be destroyed costing the Co-op hundreds of dollars. David learned roasting from Jeff Moore, also a member-owner who except for a few short visits to roasters in the United States and Mexico is self-taught.

Since their roasted coffee and now fairly traded tea has become known, the Co-op has made the decision to purchase a building in a nearby community and renovate it specifically for roasting and storing coffee and operating a café and small farm market selling organic produce and natural ice cream.

Customers are loyal to their current location on Commercial Street in New Minas, which includes a cozy coffee café, because there is a lot of history there. However, with business up as much as 150 per cent in the past 18 months, changes must be made. If plans materialize the Co-op will be moving approximately 12 kilometers to Grand Pre, but will remain an important part of the communities of Wolfville, Kentville and New Minas.

Mangle says that change is inevitable and good. “To grow the business you need people, products and ideas. Innovative thinking emerges from group synergy.” Together David, Jane, Valerie, Debbie and Jeff, as well as the others who work with them have dreams about Just Us! One of their most innovative ideas was to set up an investment fund, which allows people outside the Co-op to contribute money to their personal RRSP plan and receive an equity tax credit of 30 per cent. Then this money can be used toward the capital needed for the expansion. Investors get a tax credit and a portion of their investment is guaranteed. The Co-op gets access to capital. The fund, supported by policies put in place by the Nova Scotia government, means that friends, families and others who believe in the Co-op and its fair trade vision have an option to demonstrate this by working together to make the dream a reality. Mangle concludes that for Just Us! producing an excellent product, opportunity for expansion, access to capital and commitment to the co-operative’s social vision are all integral parts to growing the business.

“Growing a Business” was written by Maureen MacLean and Brenda MacKinnon, Rising Tide Co-operative Ltd., as part of a research study on “Worker Co-ops and their Impact on the Atlantic Economy” supported by funding from The Co-operators.