Sign of the times

As many coffee-centered folks out there in internet land are probably familiar with by now: a majority of the stock in Blue Bottle Coffee has been purchased by Nestlé. I’ve already seen a torrent of negative comments being thrown around about Blue Bottle being sell-outs, and about the evil empire that is Nestlé.

While some are funny quips like the one above and below, a great deal of them are vitriolic.

I don’t think anyone’s opinion is wrong. Everyone is allowed to come to their own conclusions about life and the things that happen in it. I however think that seeing this move as a misstep on the part of Blue Bottle or Nestlé is shortsighted.

Nestlé has the corporate rap sheet of a career hitman with so many abuses and infringements that when you go down the list it is sincerely challenging as a reader to stay “tuned in” to the sheer mountain of wrongdoing.

Yet beyond all this there are some shining beacons to help the rational mind. First, Nestlé is a Swiss company, not one seated in the United States, and although nothing says rabid-capitalism like a transnational corporation, it is slightly comforting that it’s not actually headquartered in the corporate oligarchy of the U.S.

Nestlé is 151 years old and, according to Forbes: Nestlé is the biggest food company in the world, with a market capitalisation of roughly 231 billion Swiss francs, which is more than US $247 billion as of May 2015.

With that long of a track record and that many moving parts… if there was not something controversial in the company history, one would have reason to think they were hiding something. To be fair there is plenty controversy to go around, but some of the worst of it was actually in the open.

Nestlé has in recent memory done the opposite and dug dirt up themselves and thrown it in the public spotlight. But why would you air your own dirty laundry? Perhaps because it is time for it to be cleaned.

In the above linked article Nick Grono, the chief executive of NGO the Freedom Fund (which is very anti-human trafficking), was quoted as saying “Nestlé’s decision to conduct this investigation is to be applauded, If you’ve got one of the biggest brands in the world proactively coming out and admitting that they have found slavery in their business operations, then it’s potentially a huge game-changer and could lead to real and sustained change in how supply chains are managed.”

In the same article it is noted that Nestlé has been working with Verité, a company which works closely with organisations trying to help improve their supply chain transparency.

I know what you’re thinking. “But what about the ‘water is not a human right’ CEO guy?” His name is Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, and he never said those particular words. He did however say after some social media pushback that he does believe that water for basic hygiene and drinking is indeed a human right. He isn’t the CEO anymore, he is however still on the board. (I co-founded a small co-op cafe/roaster in Berkeley and we banned using Nestlé products in the cafe based on that presumed talking point alone, so I know the power of that rhetoric.)

The current CEO is a guy named Mark Schneider who was chatted up in a Bloomberg article from June. “He has a reputation as somebody who does make a difference and drive change,” said Fintan Ryan, an analyst at Berenberg. “The Nestle organization maybe is a slower-moving beast than what he’s used to given the scale, but he’s ambitious to make his mark on the company.”

So what does this all mean? This seems to me to be an attempt to bring their company into this century: where consumers want the things they put on their shelves and into their homes to match the ethics in their hearts and heads. I think the Blue Bottle acquisition lines up with that.

Nestlé’s choice of Blue Bottle as an investment means they are getting the brand power of a company that has built its foundation around the principles of Deliciousness, Hospitality, and Sustainability. In doing so Nestlé is getting the chance to show the world that this 21st century company also values those same principles.

It is of course not all warm fuzzies either. With this merger they are both capturing a piece of the bite that specialty coffee has been slowing gnawing out of the throat of commodity coffee for the past twenty years. There is money to be made.

This buyout will be funding the next massive wave of growth for Blue Bottle, which honestly, despite what some critics say, consistently has the best tasting and highest quality coffee in the specialty industry. Which, with the new funds thanks to Nestlé, will probably be coming to a city near you.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Go try the coffee, and check back in a month or so. The baristas will still be there, the quality will still be there, James Freeman will still be there. Hell, even I’ll still be there. Why, you ask? Because I’m a veteran Blue Bottle barista of seven years and I will be stoked to make you a drink and to try my best answer any questions you have about this whole thing. Oh and try the Gibraltar. It is this barista’s favourite.

This isn’t the end of the world, but it might be the beginning of some truly great coffee.

Thanks a latte for reading this whole thing.

James Parrish

Bryan Meehan and James Parrish