By Brie Roper
It’s been two weeks now, and not a day has gone by where I have not thought about it. Daily, I have wondered how to share my own perspective while honoring the existence, dedication, and courage of colleagues that I never even knew I had.
My name is Brie Roper, and for the last 15 and a half years I have worked for BIGGBY COFFEE in some capacity or another. I have served coffee as barista, run a store as a manager, supported our franchisees as a business coach, and now I help develop the people and culture of BIGGBY Nation.
In December of 2023 I was offered the opportunity of a coffee lady’s lifetime: A trip with One BIGG Island in Space to visit the people who produce our coffee. A chance to walk with them on their farms, hear their plans for the future, see their families and neighbors, and sit down with them for lunch.
Expect the Unexpected
This would be my first time traveling to Central America, and in the weeks leading up to the trip, when I would tell someone I was visiting Mexico, it was mostly assumed that I was headed somewhere like a tropical beach resort. When I would say that I was actually traveling to a remote area in Chiapas, which is the poorest state in Mexico, to meet coffee producers, the responses landed somewhere on a spectrum between “very excited for you” and “very worried for you.”
In many ways, the experience was exactly what I had been told to expect. The weather was rainy and warm, the ground was muddy, and the car rides were long and bumpy. The language was unfamiliar, and the food was like nothing I have ever had before. The beauty of the natural landscape was juxtaposed starkly against the poverty-stricken communities that are nestled into the sides of the mountains and the lush green valleys.
Aside from those expectations, I was only told one thing: This trip will be life changing. I had no idea what that meant, so I focused on leaving myself, my heart, and my mind open to letting that happen however it would happen. And happen it did.
As I scroll through the photos that I took in Chiapas, I feel overwhelmed at the thought of writing every detail, sharing every moment, explaining each new experience. There could easily be a separate essay for each day, each meal, each bumpy hour spent in the car, and each coffee producer. Even then, there still would not be enough words to properly honor this experience.
Rather than attempt to recount the events of several days, I would like to focus on one of the several moments in time that has been lodged at the forefront of my memory for these last two weeks.
It was Wednesday, and we were traveling to El Chich to meet with one of the coffee producers from whom BIGGBY COFFEE purchases our coffee. The producer’s name is Pascual Hernandez Guzman. When we arrived at his place, we were greeted by a lot of family and neighbors. There was a flurry of activity as we exited the van, with people greeting each other in a couple of different languages. Those who had met each other before embraced like old friends do, and those who were new, like me, were given tentative hugs, handshakes, and smiles.
We were ushered into a garage where some chairs had been set up for a meeting. Pascual Hernandez had brought some of the other coffee producers from his community to meet with Bob and Michelle Fish, to hear about the OBIIS project and ask questions.
I moved myself to the back of the room to ensure that I wasn’t a distraction to the meeting. There are a few reasons I wanted to fade to the back, to be present and engaged, but not in the middle of everything.
First, the producers needed to be up close and personal with those who are leading the OBIIS initiative. Second, since I only speak English, it wasn’t important for me to hear much, and I wanted to leave plenty of space for those who did the translating. And finally, I wanted the chance to observe the flow of such an important business meeting in another land and in another language to see how it compares to the meetings I attend for my job at BIGGBY COFFEE.
Not Lost in Translation
I noticed right away that Pascual Hernadez is a leader among his community. It was clear that when he spoke, the others leaned in and listened. I was also struck by the unrelenting desire for everyone to understand the conversation.
This is a meeting that had to be translated through three different languages, back and forth and back again. I couldn’t help but think how, in some meetings at the BIGGBY Home Office, we have trouble staying patient and curious long enough to truly understand each other and we are only speaking one language.
My biggest take-away from this meeting, though, is that business meetings are business meetings, no matter where they happen to take place.
This was a gathering of people who have their livelihood entirely invested in producing coffee, just as our franchisees have theirs invested in selling coffee. They care about deals being good and fair, they care about what kind of support they need, and they care about sharing the good things with their neighbors. They care about making their community a better place.
Human beings are wildly more alike than we are different.
Sharing a Beer isn’t Just about the Beer
In my mind, there is one image from this day that is etched so clearly that I don’t need a photo to remember it, though I am still unpacking why the moment has been so deeply embedded in my heart.
After the meeting, Pascual Hernandez took us back to his house where we were given a beautiful lunch of mole, rice, and chicken. We were sitting around the table, each engaged in different conversations, some in English, some in Spanish, and some switching between the two.
As we were waiting for all of the plates to be passed around, Pascual Hernandez appeared at the head of the table with a canvas tote bag from which he produced several cans of Modelo beer.
It was the smile on his face as he passed around the cans of beer that is my clearest memory from the day. I don’t know if I have ever felt more honored to be sitting at a table for lunch than I did on that day. I don’t know if I will ever find the words to more accurately describe the moment.
So, did this trip change my life? Yes. Some changes are tangible. For example, I have already begun learning Spanish because I promised my new friends that I would be able to communicate better with them the next time I visit. I know there will be a next time.
Some changes are intangible, though. There is a constant stream of questions going through my mind, mainly about how to better connect the people who grow the coffee to the people who sell the coffee and then right onto the people who drink the coffee.
With the right amount of care and intention, coffee could really save a lot of lives.
Just like a trip to Chiapas changed my life, coffee could change the world.