A Cup o’ Conscious Capitalism

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“We wanted to start something that combined coffee and philanthropy,” says Suzanne Bernal, General Manager of Axum Coffee in Winter Garden.  From the day the first shop opened in 2010, she says the intent has always been to give away 100 percent of net profits.  “The owner doesn’t make a dime,” Suzanne says of her friend, Renaut van der Riet, a full-time pastor uninvolved with the shop’s day-to-day operations. “Anything left over goes to charity.”

So far throughout the start-up stage, much of the company’s donations have been made in the form of coffee, food and gift cards for local charities such as Relay for Life. Modest financial proceeds primarily go to Love Made Visible (an outreach of Renaut’s church), which focuses on child-related causes in many areas of the world — including Axum, Ethiopia, a place with “thousands of street children and orphans, and no running water,” according to Suzanne.

Axum, Ethiopia is also where Renaut and his wife, Brooke, adopted four of their eight children — hence the company name. Although Ethiopia may be considered the birthplace of coffee, it’s not actually the source of the company’s main product.

Suzanne admits their philanthropic mission is not the only reason for customer loyalty. “If we had a terrible product, they wouldn’t come back. Our mission is an added bonus,” she says. The mission is, however, a frequent topic of conversation between customers and employees.

Some of her employees have been steaming lattes for the company since the shop first commenced.  “We’ve got a really, really low turnover,” Suzanne says. But she believes it’s not just the social mission that earns their loyalty. “The key part to me is caring for my staff. Taking an interest in their personal lives — not overly chummy, but loving, helping them any way we can,” Suzanne says. “My staff is a huge part of what I do.”

One of Suzanne’s greatest challenges has been to provide socially-responsible coffees. She says she understands why some people only buy Fair Trade coffee, but she is shocked by the amount of political maneuvering and the expense involved in obtaining a Fair Trade or Organic label. “Small farms simply cannot afford to be certified as Fair Trade or Organic.”

Suzanne envisions in the coming years to circumvent the flawed system and develop their own relationship with coffee farmers. “I want to able to say, ‘I know you, I know your family, and I want to pay you a fair wage.’ But for now, I have to trust the suppliers.”

Since the first shop opened in 2010, Suzanne —with the help of her husband, Mathias— has been steadily growing the enterprise:

  • A second shop, Axum Roastery, opened in Winter Garden’s Plant Street Market in April 2015.
  • In February 2016, a branch of Axum Coffee opened in the new Florida Hospital.
  • In March or April of 2016, a new shop will open in conjunction with Orlando Cats Café, where customers can pet a cat (in a separate room) or adopt a cat, for a fee that goes to an animal shelter.
  • In spring 2016 they will launch an Axum Market Café in the Dr. Phillips YMCA.

In the meantime, Suzanne and her team are experimenting with coffee blends, with the plan to sell branded Axum Coffee wholesale.

Looking through the lens of Conscious Capitalism® at how she runs the business, Suzanne says, “The ‘conscious’ part of it…I try to be really ethical. It’s natural to me.  I want to take care of people.”