If you buy coffee in King County, whether from a grocery store or a boutique cafe, there’s a good chance the beans have passed through The Green Room in Auburn, Washington. The Green Room is a major stop in the coffee supply chain and one of the top green coffee warehouses in the Pacific Northwest for storing commercial and specialty coffee. The warehouse receives coffee beans from afar and stores them for buyers.
To thrive as a coffee distributor in a region rich with coffee, their operation is large. The Green Room opened in 2000 and in the early days shared its warehouse space with outdoor adventure gear and apparel. Over the years, the operation grew, and now the entire building is devoted to coffee.
Inside the 200,000 square foot facility, 222,000 bags of coffee beans from 32 different countries tower over forklift drivers, who busily load up empty semitrucks for their scheduled trek across the vast network of roads in Washington state.
“The way a roaster gets their hands on coffee most of the time is they will go through an importer,” The Green Room Operations Manager Rob Hitztaler said. “We’re in the middle, handling it and moving it around.
“There’s no domestic coffee grown except in Hawaii.”
Surveying from atop a wooden mezzanine, Hitztaler sweeps his hand across rows of burlap bags resting on wood pallets. “The coffee that you see, on average, is about 150 pounds per bag,” Hitztaler said.
Giant shipping containers are stacked to the ceiling with bags of coffee and shipped across the world from places including Brazil, Ethiopia, Somalia and other African regions to the U.S.
According to Hitztaler, warehouses like The Green Room were created to address issues that happen during the three-to-four-month ocean journey. “There was a challenge in the industry to safely transport coffee,” Hitztaler said. You can’t prevent torn bags or mold during transport, so facilities like The Green Room were created to have a place to store and serve as quality control for each shipment.
Hitztaler saw his supply chain tested when the pandemic hit. While most industries were either slowed or completely shut down due to COVID-19, coffee sales remained strong, but the way people purchased their piping hot cups of joe changed.
Spooked by the economic shutdown and facing changing restrictions, small roasters and cafes halted new coffee orders. Hitztaler saw a drop in his specialty coffee orders while his commercial coffee orders exploded.
“Anyone involved with a grocery store that’s going to have a product on the shelves, like the k-cupping world, went flying up,” Hitztaler said.
Big corporations were trying to scrape up as much coffee as they could from around the U.S. because they didn’t have enough to meet their demand.
From the months of March to August in 2020, Hitztaler’s delivery bay became a revolving door of semitrucks. “Our [storage] space wasn’t even affected because it would come in and boomerang right back out.”
Hitztaler said things have calmed since the initial shutdown and he is starting to see a familiar rhythm return to his workplace as smaller roasters are slowly reopening.
Further on the supply chain
Every morning in the Fremont neighborhood, Susan Wilcox, the quality control manager of Seattle’s Sucafina Specialty, starts the daily coffee-cupping process. Wilcox will sample coffee that is being stored at The Green Room and beans mailed directly from the countries they are grown in.
Over several hours, Susan grinds and then pours hot water over the grounds, first smelling the rich aroma, then slurping the black elixir and even tasting the grounds before marking whether the sample passes inspection.
Wilcox and her assistant, Lucas Rickerson, will qualify 20 to 30 different coffee samples a day, each sample representing 300 bags that will then be bought by local roasters, such as the Seattle coffee shops of Caffe Ladro.
“What a coffee drinker is buying really does have an impact on the entire industry,” Wilcox said.
The sudden shift to living at home or people feeling strapped for cash, perhaps due to a recent job loss, has had a direct influence on what coffee people are choosing to buy.
“As a coffee drinker, if you are wanting to spend a little bit less money, you might go with a slightly cheaper coffee,” Wilcox said.
Consequently, coffee roasters have turned to buying coffees that they can blend during the pandemic because they are cheaper. This has created a trickle-down effect that impacts which coffee beans are grown and which countries importers decide to buy from.
According to estimates by research firm Euromonitor International, the U.S. will have 25,307 outlets specializing in coffee or tea at the end of 2020 — down 7.3% from 2019 and the first decline since 2011.
Small, independent cafes have taken the brunt of this decline, while large chains like Starbucks have resources to outlast any dips in profits incurred by the pandemic.
Despite the pandemic, people still seem to long to meet at coffee shops and experience that face-to-face contact over a warm or caffeinated drink, so local coffee shops may still weather the storm. “I think coffee is very experiential for a lot of people,” Wilcox said. “Especially on the specialty side. It’s the experience you’re having around it in addition to what you’re drinking.”
Wilcox believes there will be a revitalization to coffee shop drinking come spring or summer, but how quickly people return to their old drinking habits and routines will entirely depend on the state of the pandemic.
“At certain points in history, cafes were looked at as dangerous because, unlike sort of depressing people or causing people to relax and be chill, caffeine has the opposite effect,” Wilcox said. “Cafes are often the foundation of a lot of political revolutions. ... It brings people together and then there is that exchange of ideas. I think coffee is vital.”
Read more in the Jan. 13-19, 2021 issue.