10 Reasons Don Schoenholt is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

I am a fan of Donald Schoenholt, owner of Gillies Coffee (New York) and co-founder of the SCAA. During a trip last month to New York City, Ashley and I made a special trip to visit Don at his roastery and we recorded a podcast interview with him that is a truly magnificent hour on specialty coffee history. I hope to release this audio later this summer.

Unfortunately, the content of that podcast and the respect and admiration I have for him has now been overshadowed by a reactionary version of Don that is truly dismaying and disappointing.

I somewhat reluctantly draw your attention to this missive, posted yesterday to Don’s blog and distributed to certain SCAA members, apparently via Thanksgiving Coffee Company’s mail servers. “10 Reasons 10 SCAA Presidents VOTE NO On Consolidation.”

If you don’t care about SCAA-SCAE matters, then little of this may matter to you.

Over the past 12 years since attending my first SCAA show, I’ve been highly and actively engaged in the work of the association. I served on the first Barista Guild of America Executive Council. I served on the SCAA Board of Directors. I served on the joint SCAA-SCAE World Barista Championship Board of Directors. I remain highly and actively engaged in SCAA work, vision, and purpose.

Respectfully, I submit a point by point rebuttal of Don’s email. Don’s words are blockquoted.

The trade stands on the shoulders of folks that pioneered specialty coffee, and the birth of SCAA. Right now is the most critical time for the members since the founding of the association. If you choose poorly you will lose your trade association.
The subject is complex. We can’t cover all the aspects of it in this conversation. We offer you 10 of the most important points to think about.

“Perspective” is an interesting point to start with. I’ve worked very hard over my career in the coffee industry to speak with, listen to, and learn from as wide and diverse voices within our industry as I can. Unfortunately, this entire piece from Don comes from an isolationist, anti-globalization, fearmongering, fallacious perspective. Also, this first “reason” isn’t a reason at all. Was it that important to have 10?

You and your trade association have ignited specialty coffee associations throughout the world. We think the focus of the association should always be on you, the SCAA members.
The Board wants to be of world importance. That’s nice, but what’s in it for you? Nothing much; except probably dues and fee increases after the 1st year. The top Staff will rejoice. They may all get raises.

“The focus should be on you” is everything that’s wrong with America.

The focus needs to be the collective benefit that a specialty coffee trade association has on the entire industry, the entire value chain, and also to the membership. If there’s one thing that’s changed from the days when these past-presidents were actually responsible for leading the association, it’s that the scope and work of the SCAA has moved beyond serving the needs of a few roasters, retailers, and importers, and now also includes farmers, producers, exporters, baristas, as well as real diversity in race and ethnicity, a growing and prominent LGBTQ presence, and a fast-growing membership from outside the USA.

To accuse the members of the SCAA Board of Directors of wanting “to be of world importance” is insulting and ignorant. As much as half of the current SCAA Board will not go on to serve on the unified association’s Board, yet they unanimously support the unification.

“The top Staff [sic] will rejoice. They may all get raises.” is beyond insulting and ignorant. This is beneath you, Don. I could easily come up with comparable accusations of corruption and self-interest directed at you, but I refuse to sink to that level.

“Except probably…” really?

Those favoring merger talk a lot about unifying standards and teaching practices but, universal norms only flatten the specialty coffee world destroying the wonderful diversity of exceptional farming, processing, roasting, brewing practices and cultures throughout the world. To put it in another way, we are diminished when Sumatras are judged by Costa Rica cupping criteria. The benefit of globalization should be in sharing knowledge, and discoveries, not in imposing international norms.
In a world where all are equal, only the mighty thrive. It’s the diverse nature of specialty coffee on all levels, and only that that guarantees the success of the little fellow. Diversity is our friend. Big businesses labor when they are faced with a diversity of products to develop, manufacture, distribute and market. A cataloged, categorized, quantified specialty coffee world plays into the hands of big institutions alone.

This is a textbook example of a “straw-man argument,” which is a fallacy that raises and addresses an argument that your counterpart never made, implied, nor supports. “We are diminished when Sumatras are judged by Costa Rica cupping criteria,” is simply not anything that anyone is proposing, it has nothing to do with the unification whatsoever, and is in fact a common myth among those ignorant, uninformed, and uneducated about SCAA cupping standards. What “international norms” are you talking about?

Fearmongering about “big institutions” is also ridiculous. Starbucks, Keurig Green Mountain, Dunkin Donuts, and other large corporations have already been SCAA members for many years, and over the most recent 10 years, the SCAA has been more third-wavey and than ever, thanks to the leadership of our SCAA Board, our SCAA staff, and highly-engaged member volunteers from around the industry.

Diversity, in fact, is exactly what the association unification will promote. I, for one, will continue to be active in pushing the unified association to serve even more diverse communities, including those beyond just Europe and the USA. However, an isolationist position is antithetical to diversity.

SCAA is not an institution as others we know. It is an extension of us, our hopes and dreams for our families, our businesses, and the future of coffee. If that seems overly sentimental to some, it isn’t to you and to us. It’s very personal. What we want for you is an association whose 1st priority is the support and service of you, the members.
Around the world specialty coffee people look to SCAA as the world leader in specialty coffee education, networking, and promotion. As good neighbors you and I share our knowledge with them through our trade group. At the same time we celebrate the unique cultural perspective that makes us American in character as well as in name. You will lose out when the focus leaves North America, unless there are safeguards to protect you built into the deal. They aren’t there now.

This is just the worst.

This only serves as proof that Don hasn’t been paying much attention to what the SCAA is today, and has been for 20 years.

The SCAA is a diverse community of coffee professionals from around the world, from up and down the supply value chain. Appealing to reactionary, xenophobic, nativist inclinations among certain people is sad and unfortunate. Will you next suggest that SCAA Expo build a physical wall between North Americans and those from Central and South America? Which side of this wall will those from Mexico get to go in your “North American” SCAA Expo, Don?

SCAA is the leading organization because America is the leading market for specialty coffee in the world because of worldwide consumption patterns. This will not change because of a trade association merger.

The UK decision to exit the European Economic Community (BREXIT) changes the viability of consolidation with SCAE. The Board has ordered updated financials, as if getting an update will give them powers to see the extremely uncertain world financial future. They might as well use tea leaves.
The Board believes BREXIT is no big deal. We believe this opinion is unique in the world. Turn on the TV. The European model of a new world economic order is failing. Now is not the time to throw in with that sinking ship.
You should keep your SCAA, and offer the Europeans a good deal to join your trade association, The Specialty Coffee Association of America, led by America, and benefiting your members at home and abroad, as you have for years past.

Brexit does not change the viability of anything relevant to this topic. It does raise questions about certain formalities and may cause the association administration to change certain plans. Aside from what impacts Brexit will have on everyone regardless of whether they’re SCAA or SCAE members or not, there’s nothing to see here.

“The European model of a new world economic order is failing.” Now we’re getting into some serious political slant stuff. This is the sort of rhetoric that falls firmly in the category of “the wrong side of history.”

Vote for Consolidation as presented and SCAA will cease to exist. There will be no more SCAA. It will be replaced by something else; something foreign. There will essentially be a new trade group. It will not be American in character, temperament, or name.

I’m “something foreign,” Don. Am I then not “American in character?”

The SCAA Board is not sinister. The Board is just wrong. We don’t know if unification is a good idea or a bad idea. We know the Board did this badly. They started by talking about the idea secretly, and then doubled-down by going about it foolishly. There was a nod toward transparency, but no actual openness. The provided information has left out just what the deal is and how it will work, and what happens if it doesn’t work. Here’s a case in point; there is no written Exit Plan for SCAA, if a year or three in, the merger is a failure. If we want out what will the dollar cost have been all-in from inception to withdrawal?
It’s all just one big marketing plan; a grand house blend of jargon, graphics, money, and little substance. They have done it all with mirrors. They may not have intended it but The Board has come off as all-knowing, inflexible, intolerant and conceited all at once. The result is that we must all question what we are being told.
This business of voting on July 5th is dumb. Your leaders are taking you down this path too fast without giving you the chance to digest information that was presented too late to be properly vetted. Being in the dark makes me nervous. How does it make you feel?
You don’t even know how much of your money has been spent on consultants, financial advisors, travel and other expenses in the last years to bring this merger about. We can only guess, and wince.

This one really gets to me.

Don, a few weeks ago, as we stood out front of your Gillies Coffee warehouse and I asked you about your feelings about the SCAA-SCAE unification, you said, “Why wouldn’t I be happy to have founded [the SCAA] what would become the ‘Galactic Specialty Coffee Association’?” and went on to explain that your only gripe was about what the bylaws state regarding the proportion of member votes required to affirm such a decision. You told me that you were all for it and that you supported the unification, and just had some concerns about the process.

I also happen to be privy to the email correspondence that’s occurred between you, other SCAA past presidents, and with SCAA leadership. I’ve seen the questions asked, and the answers given. If you’re interested in transparency, publish all of the relevant email correspondence between your group and Ric Rhinehart. Show everyone what “no actual openness” looks like.

Hundreds if not thousands of words have been written to answer your many questions. The process has been transparent. Ric did an entire hour podcast interview with us about this. Nothing is being hidden. Questions have been answered. Yet, you and the others have not been satisfied. Just what is it that you’re not getting answers about? I suggest you reread those emails before you answer that, because I’ll bet you’ve already gotten your answers.

We think that if unification is a good deal now it will be just as good in a year from now. We believe the opportunity to lose the deal to another is limited, and the need to give this idea more study, and get it right is compelling.
We want your businesses to thrive, and your trade group to move confidently into the future. You can’t get there using unwarranted and dangerous haste. Things are moving very fast now, and we believe that you need to take a breath. Recall the fundamental goals of the association that we built together, and move, after a season of knowledge gathering and reasoned open discussion, with steadiness and caution into a new place, if that is what you decide, and not just hold your nose, and jump into an unknown ocean.

So to reiterate, Donald N. Schoenholt is calling for a total and complete shutdown of the unification process until the SCAA past presidents can figure out what the hell is going on.

The Board points to past voter turnout and says you don’t care about your future. They think that gives them the right to do whatever they want. We believe that most of the time you are just too busy making a living to give thought to their decisions. Well, this time is different. The consequences are too big for you to leave the decision to them.
The Board is counting on your apathy. They will win a low turnout vote. A big vote will swamp the Board organized few who will vote for unification.

What a terrible lie this is. Nobody is against a democratic process with as high a turnout as possible. Don’t write “The Board.” Write out their names. You’re talking about people, right? Identify specifically who it is that you’re accusing of this crap. Call them out individually, if that’s your desire, but a vague but serious accusation like this is truly unfortunate and uncalled for.

You don’t often get the chance to save the world. Here’s your chance. Each of you holds the destiny of your trade group in your personal hands. So vote. Vote your conscience, and we will be satisfied. We believe in you, as we always have, and we will celebrate your decision, whatever it is.
We wish each of you the best of good luck, and good coffee.

SCAA members will vote, and the vast majority will vote “Yes” on unification, because it’s the smart, forward-thinking, prudent, wise, global, local, good, and perhaps most importantly: specialty coffee thing to do.

Maybe it’s because I’m Korean, maybe not, but I automatically come to every situation with a deep and profound respect for my elders. I have, more than almost any of my specialty coffee third-waver peers, spent a ton of time speaking with, listening to, learning from, and sharing ideas with people like Don Schoenholt and other coffee professionals from previous generations. It’s why I actively reached out and sought audience with Donald so I could share with my podcast listeners what I knew would be a fantastically educational experience.

However, considering the sum of what’s set in front of us, I feel deeply conflicted. Don has taken the lead in a public objection to the SCAA-SCAE unification. In frank honesty, I read through the list of the other signatories and I alternate between, “Well, of course that guy,” and “Oh no, not this person too.” I could easily come up with my own list of concerns about this unification, but when the positives so overwhelmingly outweigh both the negatives and the real risk to me and my member company, AND with the added fact that as an individual and business owner with the freedom to make choices (we can choose, now and in the future, to be or not to be a member of any organization that will have us), I believe that the path is clear. Unification, YES.

Donald said to me, when I visited him last month, that the future path for the Association and for the specialty coffee industry is in the hands of my generation and future generations. He’s right. Of course he’s right. Then what of this letter?

I’m not sure, but I do know this: I do still hold Donald Schoenholt in very high regard as an industry pioneer and as a man, nee, a “coffeeman,” who played a key role in establishing both the SCAA and the specialty coffee industry many years ago.

As I’m now in my early 40’s, I spend quite a lot of time thinking about what it will be like to get older. Not only for me, but also for those around me, because their consideration of me will ultimately be an important part of my legacy. I’m privileged to be able to say that I have some of my own contributions to the industry that are flourishing right now. Some of those, I’ve had to let go, and let others manage, evolve, and change. That hasn’t been easy, but aside from some private advice, I’ve publicly tried to keep my feelings to myself. When I haven’t been successful, well, I can honestly call those failings on my part. In fact, because there are some things that I think could truly use my input, I’m planning to get re-engaged with them in an active and official capacity. That’s the pathway to honest and fruitful change as someone with more experience. Not poison-pen screeds.

When I am at the point in my career when I will say to a younger coffee professional, “The future path for the specialty coffee industry is in the hands of your generation and future generations,” I hope to be able to say that with my head held high, knowing that my actions and words actually support that declaration. Otherwise, I risk endangering my legacy with what would in hindsight prove to a public position ultimately unworthy of such high stakes.

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