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Adventures in Coffee Importing (Part 1)

I never had dreams of importing coffee. It wasn’t a career goal, or an ambition. I just wanted what I grew up with, and nothing I could get in this country was as good. 

I tried- I bought a different bag of beans every time I went to the grocery store for years, and ground the beans, and brewed the coffee, and no matter what I did, I was always disappointed.

It wasn’t until I started looking at a different part of the label that I finally understood a good part of why it wasn’t as good: time.

The coffee I tasted all had one thing in common- it had been harvested nearly two years ago. The rule of thumb with green beans is one year. Not more than one year between the time it is harvested and roasted, and trust me, it matters.

The quality of the coffee is something I have a say in- and once I began the process, I knew that even if it cost a little bit more, even if it was a challenge (as most things worth doing turn out to be,) I was going to do whatever it took to get it right. 

This did prove to be a challenge. 

The first shipment of green beans, which arrived in December, sailed through- the amount I imported was small enough that customs didn’t give me any resistance- but the second shipment, in March, proved a little trickier…. 


On Monday, March 15th when I arrived in Boston with my paperwork and handed it over to the customs agent, he just shook his head a little, pushed my paperwork back to me, and said “you need a customs broker to clear your coffee.” I had known that with a larger order, this might be a possibility, but it doesn’t mean I was really prepared for it. A broker, and the additional paperwork that would go with it, meant two things: time and money, but mostly time.

I was already behind in my production plan- I’d had this shipment sent by air, despite the added expense, instead of by ship, because I couldn’t wait those extra days. The coffee had arrived Saturday, when customs was closed, so I’d been paying for storage since then, on top of that. 

So I got on the phone, and started calling brokers. And then kept calling brokers, my stress level rising every time I heard the words “short-staffed” or “too busy.” I called the freight company, and they referred me to others. One of them asked me how much the coffee was actually worth, and how much I’d spent on air transport, musing that it might not be worth getting it out of customs at all.  She said I needed an FDA certification- which I would need to apply for, and that would take even more time.

My eyes were watering, my voice was getting tight, and I just didn’t have time for any of it. I had a business to run, and kids to pick up- my brain kept whirling faster and faster, as I tried not to panic. My husband Dan suggested getting a hotel room in Boston, just so I’d have a place to be, close to my coffee beans, until it was figured out and I could bring them home, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. How long would it take? Who was going to feed the kids and put them down for naps while my husband was working full time?

Dan got ahold of a firm in Chicago, and patched me in to the call, and the woman on the other end finally gave me my first little bit of good news: I didn’t need an FDA certification, the exporter back in the Dominican Republic did. All I needed to do was find a broker.

I could barely trust my ears when I finally got a broker that said she could represent me. I gave her my information, and told her where to send the paperwork, and by 12:30, I was finally in the car and on the way back home. I had to get there, and fill out the paperwork, and get the documents that proved FDA certification from our exporter in the DR.

I got home, filled out the paperwork, scanned it in, picked up the kids, and got the paperwork to the broker just before the 5pm deadline. At 5:01, she called to tell me she had everything she needed. I knew it wouldn’t be resolved that night, but I had a broker, she had filed the paperwork, and for the first time that day, I was hopeful I’d have my coffee soon.

It was an intense, challenging day, but we hadn’t given up, and now it felt like we were heading in the right direction. At that point, all I could do was have a little faith, and leave it in God’s hands. I had to trust that I had done all I could, and He would do the rest. In my head, I heard “God helps those who help themselves.”

To be continued…….