Strong Coffee, Stronger Women
Portland Roaster’s Cups Brim with Social Justice
If you love coffee, you likely know Coffee by Design. This Portland-based roasting company has racked up industry accolades near and far since it opened in 1994.
Should you prefer tea, you should still get to know more about Coffee by Design’s co-founder, Mary Allen Lindemann. Her work in sourcing coffee beans from female-forward growers in Africa, South America, and Asia defines her international humanitarian approach to doing business. And her work with groups like Women Standing Together, the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, and Maine Businesses for Social Responsibility demonstrates her commitment to tackling social justice issues locally.
During the early phases of the COVID-19 social distancing, Lindemann and business partner Alan Spear were creative about sustaining a coffee business in a coronavirus age. They temporarily shuttered all locations but their flagship coffeehouse at 1 Diamond Street; complied with the takeout-only guidelines; sanitized surfaces every 30 minutes; drove customers online to purchase any of the company’s dozens of single-sourced and signature blends of whole and ground coffee; and reduced staffing levels drastically.
But Lindemann is still upbeat. “I’m very appreciative that we’re in Maine. I feel our [state and local] leadership here is so great … people really do come together,” she says.
Since Lindemann and Spear opened their first of five coffeehouses on Congress Street, in what was known then as Portland’s “Pornography District,” their mission has centered on two tenets: providing quality beans and brews to their customers, and offering accessible education about sustainably sourced coffee to the community at large. The goal was to use their small business to support people and the planet, and “to improve how we all live together, locally, and worldwide.”
As much as Lindemann loves Maine, her business was built by making connections elsewhere in the world. She works directly with farmers in Bolivia, Brazil, Burundi, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Indonesia, and Panama. Her legwork demonstrates her commitment to sourcing great coffee while improving the quality of life for coffee farmers, their families, and their communities.
Because pandemic-fueled travel restrictions forced her to postpone an April coffee-buying trip throughout Ethiopia and Rwanda, Lindemann had time to talk with us about women she’s met on past trips to coffee-growing regions of the world, and speaks reverently of their courage and creativity. She points to Olga Hazard, who, with her father, owns a coffee plantation in Guatemala. Hazard protected her land from development by establishing it as a private nature preserve. Hazard also provides her workers with health care services and a primary school. For Lindemann’s part, she is both a major supporter of the school and a buyer of Hazard’s coffee beans.
“A lot of women farmers are doing all the farm work and also taking care of their families,” explains Lindemann. Making sure these female farmers are well taken care of on the job, with improved wages, working conditions, and fair payment for their cherries (coffee beans), benefits all those around them.
In Burundi in 2016, Lindemann met Isabelle Sinamenye, president of the Burundi chapter of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA). With Coffee by Design’s support, Sinamenye ensures Burundian women have ownership in their coffee businesses and receive bonuses for their work. As an active member of the IWCA herself, Lindemann advocates for women to have an equal seat at the table.
“Because of the efforts of IWCA chapters worldwide, women now are getting paid directly for their work,” she says. And now, even better, women are buying coffee mills. She explains, “Farmers get a certain amount of money for the coffee cherry, but it’s at the mill where you can add value to the product, where you start to make decent money.”
Back from her armchair recollection of past visits with her growers, still busy by day adjusting her business to a new normal, Lindemann says her evenings are quiet since most of the fundraisers for the social justice causes she champions have been curtailed by social distancing parameters. She says, should that free time continue, she may get back to writing poetry (which she holds an undergraduate degree in). But for now, remaining loyal to her core values—being a steward of the planet and creating a business environment where everyone is welcome at the table—is enough to fill her cup.
Rosie DeQuattro is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Edible Maine and, formerly, to Edible Boston. She loves to tell the stories of the dedicated and passionate men and women of Maine who produce our food, and about what it takes to get it to our plates.