July 27, 2005
An e-mail interview with Tom Kilroy, co-founder of Contra Café
[editor’s note: this post was “pasted” in — it appeared originally at the old Dawson’s Danube site, which is archived here.]
Background: Contra Café markets coffee grown by Nicaraguan farmers who were Contra freedom fighters against the former Communist regime. They tell their own story better than I possibly could, so go visit their website, read more about them, and order some coffee!
Recently Contra Café enjoyed an “instalaunch”, having been mentioned by Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit. That’s how I found out about them.
The co-founders of Contra Café are two Dartmouth students. Tom Kilroy was kind of enough to respond to my request for an “e-mail interview”, which appears below. Thank you, Tom!
Interview with Tom Kilroy, co-founder of Contra CaféDD: Tom, first I want to say thank you for taking the time to answer some questions.
Let’s start with the coffee itself. Although I am an addict, I’m not necessarily a connoisseur. How would you describe your coffee in terms of some of the lingo I’m familiar with? For example, Starbucks shows three categories (Mild, Smooth, Bold) with multiple coffees in each. Where would you say your coffee fits in?
TK: Our beans fall towards the mild end of the spectrum. The taste is smooth, almost sweet, with no harsh overtones. This sweetness is actually pretty standard for really high quality Central American beans. What’s unique about the Contra Cafe coffee is that it also offers an extremely full body and rich flavor. I’m not a coffee expert, but I find the taste to be outstanding. It’s definitely one of the best coffees I’ve ever had.
DD: Personally speaking, do you take milk and/or sugar in your coffee?
TK: No milk or sugar for me. I learned to drink my coffee black when I worked in the coffee industry down in Nicaragua. With really great coffee, there’s no need to mask the flavor. That said, it’s really an individual thing. Almost all of our farmers drink their coffee with very heavy milk and sugar.
DD: Are you planning to sell using other channels/distributors besides the website?
TK: We’re exploring other distribution channels but haven’t had much luck so far. I think that most retailers and distributors shy away from carrying products like Contra Cafe. Most businesses want to stay away from controversy, not attract it. This is especialy true in the coffee business where most cafes have sympathies on the left. So if we’re going to move beyond the web, we’ll have to find a partner who is willing to weather a few angry customers. Right now the most promising possibilities for us are in Southern Florida with stores that serve communities of Cuban and Nicaraguan exiles. We are looking into that market and hoping to make some progress.
DD: Tell us a bit about the Nicaragua of today. After the whole Iran/Contra thing and, later, the fall of the Sandinistas, we don’t hear a whole lot about the country anymore. What are the government and economy like now? Is the economy, relatively speaking, a free market? Do communists still enjoy a large voting bloc?
TK: It’s not a bright picture right now in Nicaragua. The democratic government is controlled by corrupt strongmen who are out to increase their own power, not improve the welfare of the country. The current president, Enrique Bolanos, is above corruption and a strong supporter of free markets, but he’s been hobbled by a lack of political support from his own party. It’s hard to believe, but Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas still enjoy a large voting bloc. Ortega basically owns the judiciary because he appointed most of the judges during the Sandinista dictatorship. Now he leverages that power over the judiciary to build his own political base and undermine opponents. Just last week, on the anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, he gave a speech that still harped on the same Marxist themes: rich vs. poor, capital vs. labor, etc. It’s amazing that people still buy these lies, especially when Daniel has stolen so much that he is now one of the richest of the rich.
DD: What are some other Nicaraguan exports besides coffee?
TK: Nicaragua mostly exports other agricultural products like beef, tobacco, sugar, and shrimp. There is also a bit of textile manufacture and export. I’m wearing a pair of Columbia shorts right now that were made in Nicaragua.
DD: You make it clear on your website that Contra Café is not “certified Fair Trade Coffee”. What is “Fair Trade Coffee” and why have you chosen to not be part of it?
TK: When you see the Fair Trade label on a bag of coffee in the store, it means that the farmer received at least $1.26 per lb for the beans (or $1.45 in the case of organic coffee). It also means that the coffee is coming from small farmers as opposed to large producers. We chose not to put the Fair Trade label on our bag because the groups that control Fair Trade in Nicaragua blocked the Contra farmers when they applied to sell as Fair Trade about five years ago. Even though these former Contras met all the requirements — they are small farmers and produce coffee of outstanding quality — they were put on a waiting list and told there was little chance they’d make it off the list. The groups that control Fair Trade certification in Nicaragua have strong ties to the Sandinistas, but I actually think they blocked the Contra farmers more out of greed than political avarice. They preferred not to expand the circle of eligible farmers because that would have meant sharing the wealth of higher prices with more farmers rather than keeping the group small and enriching themselves. Indeed, many believed that the Fair Trade-certified cooperatives were purchasing coffee on the local market for 50 cents then turning around and selling it as their own Fair Trade for $1.26 and pocketing the difference. I should mention that the Contra farmers now tell me that Fair Trade in Nicaragua has cleaned up a great deal in the last few years. Apparently, they now run things much more transparently. Be that as it may, I’ve decided to stay away from the Fair Trade label.
DD: You’re too modest to mention it in your short bio at Contra Café, but nosey people like myself will have noticed that you earned two awards within the Notre Dame Great Books program. In ’98 you won the Edward J. Cronin Award, “the highest prize for writing in the course of ordinary course work.” Then in ’99 you won the Willis D. Nutting Award as “that senior who has contributed most to the education of his or her fellow students and teachers.” Which of your writings do you think (or know) was most responsible for the Cronin award?
TK: I’m impressed by your detective work! I received the Cronin award for an essay comparing the merits of the Ptolemaic, Tychonic, and Copernican cosmologies using the evidence available in the early 16th century. However, most of my academic work in the Great Books program focused on the Federalist Papers and the American Founding. My senior thesis argued that Publius thought a democracy could not be built on self-interest alone; a reasonably virtuous political leadership is also a necessity. I’ve seen this theory come to life in Nicaragua’s struggle with venal politicians.
DD: Are you looking forward to doing in Cuba — hopefully soon — what you’re doing in Nicaragua today?
TK: I look forward to visiting Cuba (and buying their coffee and tobacco) when it is a free country. I’m optimistic that day will come soon.
DD: Tom, thank you again.