Carabello Coffee: building bridges in the coffee industry here and abroad

This year, Newport, KY’s bustling Carabello Coffee will celebrate 10 years of coffee roasting. What began humbly as a small roasting operation in the Carabello home is now a full-service coffee shop in Newport’s historic Taylor’s Landing neighborhood with a selection of specialty coffees served and sold at dozens of locations around the Cincinnati area.

Justin and Emily Carabello are what some might call “big vision people” and their Carabello Coffee brand is about much more than coffee. Their business is built on a commitment to giving back to the communities who produce their beans and to inspire that same commitment in their customers.


A vision for giving that grows with the business

From the very start, Justin and Emily Carabello geared their business plan toward philanthropy, planning to use their profits to directly benefit works of compassion in coffee-producing countries. The deeper they embedded themselves in the coffee industry, the more invested they became in securing its future.

Coffee, Emily notes, is the second most valuable commodity in the world. (Crude oil is number one.) But — much like tea, garments, or diamonds — the average consumer doesn’t think much about the impact of their coffee consumption on the global economy or the lives of the people who produce the products.

They decided to use the platform created by roasting coffee to help tell the stories of these farmers and of how the coffee industry has contributed to cyclical poverty in their communities. This meant more than simply paying a fair price — as popularized by the “fair trade” industry; it meant going above and beyond to know their farmers personally and meeting the needs in the community as they arise. (They have even, at times, sent extra money to support one of their farmers who was struggling through a bad crop year.)

It started as very simple math.

“The more coffee we sell, the more money we can give away,” Justin says.

This “coffee and compassion in tandem” concept really resonated with customers and, within five years, they had expanded their roasting operation enormously and opened a brick and mortar café.

The first recipient of the Carabello’s generosity was an orphanage in Nicaragua that Emily’s parents were involved with. Because more coffee means more giving, now, in addition to the orphanage, they support a ministry in Nicaragua called The Mercy Kids. In Africa — another major coffee-producing country — they support Compassion International and Kenya Kids Can. Their business and its scope of giving have, basically, grown up together.

Now, as the relationship between the US and Nicaragua has become more stressed, the Carabellos are exploring other avenues for giving in South and Central America, in case their access to the country is someday cut off.

They’ve recently developed a relationship with a nonprofit called Coffee Kids that works to strengthen the next generation of coffee farmers throughout the global coffee community.

The average coffee farmer, Emily explains, is now aging out of work and many of their children are choosing to abandon the family farms in favor of more profitable work elsewhere. Coffee Kids is providing the chance for a more sustainable career in coffee production, helping train them in agricultural and marking skills, best business practices, etc.

This is a mission that she gets really excited about.

“It’s also helping them build a community internationally among [other] young people through social media … They’re creating international connections so they don’t feel like they’re out on their own without assets or resources,” Emily explains.

Emily says they donated about $5,000 to the organization last year and will visit Honduras this month to see how Coffee Kids operates on the ground to decide whether or not to ramp up their investment.

Thanks to the Carabello’s ability to travel and the accessibility of the world via the internet and social media, these strong connects are being made among all sorts of coffee industry professionals. Through personal relationships with the people and organizations they support, they can be more intentional about where they give.


Elevating the coffee industry here in Cincinnati

In 2013, after a few years of roasting their beans at a different coffee shop in Florence, KY, Carabello Coffee opened in Newport. The Carabellos admit they opened the coffee shop, mostly, for the purposes of marketing their own coffee product and serving it in a controlled environment.

They never imagined it would grow to become such a strong presence in the Newport community. But this is one of the “side-effects” of their business that they now enjoy the most: the relationship between their shop and their community and how deeply embedded they now feel in Newport.

They have also been working to elevate the industry in the mind of the public and support the development of its professionals. In addition to its place in the immediate community, Carabello Coffee has become a hot bed for innovation in the local and regional coffee scene.

As recent as ten years ago, Justin explains, there weren’t many career options in the Cincinnati coffee scene. People were either baristas, managers, or owners. He says Carabello Coffee is one a few companies in the area — he names Deeper Roots and La Terza as two others — who are helping reshape the scene to provide a clearer pipeline for professionals to find their place in this global industry. There is now room for jobs in quality control, education, event planning, menu designing, and more.

“We’re pushing into roles that require a more mature coffee scene with companies that have a vision to build out their infrastructure to create new jobs,” he says. “[There is now] the potential for people to be in this job a long time and go deeper in it.”

The Carabellos estimate they spent $10,000 investing in professional development for their staff last year. Their employees have taken classes, judged coffee competitions, visited coffee farms, completed barista certification programs, etc. These things are more common in other larger cities where the coffee scene is more elevated. In Cincinnati, coffee hasn’t yet achieved that level of professionalism in the public eye.

“As much as we’re thankful for what a company like Starbucks has done to get coffee into people’s hands every day,” Emily explains, “they’ve removed the skill portion of it with super automatic machines. Automatic machines have their place, but not everywhere in the industry.”

For their part, the Carabellos are tying to design their shop so that the average walk-up customer can get a great cup of coffee and their staff can exercise their professional skills.

“In a café like ours,” she says, “we have professionals who want to be baristas. That’s why we don’t make them clean out blenders or make sandwiches. They want to be baristas.”

Carabello Coffee’s Analog Coffee Bar has helped make this possible. The Analog Coffee Bar was opened in 2016 when the Carabellos purchased their building and expanded into the storefront next door. It was initially supposed to be used for special events only, but it has been wildly successful and is now open a few days a week.

The bar has its own menu of highly curated drinks, designed by a staff barista. The menu rotates each month. By design, on this menu, coffee is an ingredient, not the main event. It could be compared to a chef’s table at a fine dining restaurant. It’s a chance to let their baristas really shine and develop their skills in a way that’s just not possible in their normal, quick, to-go coffee line.

Just recently, they’ve invited two different coffee roasters — one local; one regional — to host a “takeover” of the Analog Coffee Bar. They were asked to design and brew their own menu of particularities for customers, featuring their own coffee. Breweries do this all the time, Emily says. Why not coffee roasters?

The Analog Coffee Bar is also the center of community education for Carabello Coffee. It’s where customers can sit down for a lesson in things like brewing, roasting, and barista basics. This is one more effort to invite the customer deeper into the story of coffee so they can truly understand and appreciate the beauty (and complexity) of the product they so casually consume.


Inviting customers and clients to engage deeper

Justin (center) and Emily buy directly from Nicaraguan farmers Joaquin Lovo (left) and Luis Alberto Balladarez Moncada (right).

Last year, Carabello Coffee roasted about 100,000 pounds of coffee. About 20 percent of that was consumed or purchased on the premises; the other 80 percent was purchased by local wholesale customers or brewed by other cafes that serve the coffee. (Including a few proprietary coffees for local restaurants and hotels.)

The wholesale business is booming and they admit it might be time to expand the operation again, increasing their capacity for roasting. They are also redesigning the website to make it more user-friend for online customers who have grown accustomed to having their favorite products delivered quickly to their door.

With all this growth, what excites Justin most about his wholesale sales is not the numbers themselves. He is excited about the way these larger customers — colleges, churches, and restaurants — are engaging deeper with the global industry. Like him, they are dreaming bigger than “fair trade,” bigger than just buying local.

He’s been able to personally guide representatives from Xavier University and Crossroads Church around coffee farms, introducing them to the farmers, talking through the ways their large institutions can engage deeper in the issues affecting the global coffee community.

“We want them to think what’s possible,” Justin says, “to help them bring their value system into that relationship and create the opportunity to impact people’s lives.”

While those inside the US coffee industry have been dreaming like this for a while, the average consumer has not. So, when a church like Crossroads (that brews 35,000 pounds of coffee a year) starts buying directly from the Carabellos who, in turn, buy directly from a Nicaraguan farmer — a man named Luis Alberto Balladarez Moncada, to be precise — it can spark a significant change.

This is the kind of thing Justin and Emily always hoped for.

When they began their operation, Emily says she had the audacious goal of growing to the point where they could give away $100,000 a year. At the time, she had no concept of how large their operation would have to be to get there, how massive their infrastructure would need to be, nor how long it would take.

“I suppose we could still get there,” she says laughing, “but I didn’t realize it would be a 15–20 year journey!”

They are now almost ten years in. And those ten years have been a long process of discovery, Justin says, watching the pieces come together.

“We see where we’re headed — big picture — but the rest has been a surprise,” he says.

Justin also says he feels like he’s “building a bridge that he can, eventually, take other people across.”

So far, the math has worked out — more coffee does mean more giving. And the more people they take on the journey, the more the numbers continue to increase.

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.
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