When Shaun Maeyens, owner of Zen Café Coffee Roasters in South Bend, posted a Facebook status to promote his new coffee beans from Honduras, he didn’t expect the “like” that followed — one from the grower himself.
The interaction sparked a personal friendship between Rudy Cárcamo, a coffee grower from La Union, Lempira, Honduras, and Maeyens, who roasts his beans locally. Their connection led Maeyens to visit Cárcamo in Honduras and ultimately help him raise $2,000 to fund a new coffee nursery.
“I always strive for more connect,” Maeyens said. “It’s about getting closer to the source and knowing the farmer. It’s not just a brown liquid.”
During their early conversations, Rudy was preparing to get a bank loan to expand his nursery and asked Maeyens for pictures to prove that his coffee was being purchased.
“I encouraged him to wait,” Maeyens said. “Every year it’s a gamble. Rudy won’t get the first harvest of his new crop until year four, so that’s a major investment. He didn’t mind getting a loan, but I wanted to give a gift.”
They met during harvest season in January 2014. Cárcamo and Maeyens spent days in the farm and fields, spent time with family and saw the growing practices for the Catuai, Lempira and ICafé 95 beans Cárcamo has grown for eight years without pesticides. South Bend photographer Gopi Kunanayagan of BlueKrishna Photography came along on the trip to document the experience.
“Coffee is a marvel,” Cárcamo said. ”I love growing it; it’s a plant of life. We spent a week working, getting to know each other. This made me very proud of myself, my family and the coffee we grow.“
Looking back on the trip, Maeyens recalled Rudy’s good sense of humor, sincere smile and passion for coffee. “He’s not in it for the income; he grows it because he likes it,” Maeyens said. “Many people just see the roaster and not the community, but it’s a whole community that you support.”
Before Cárcamo reached out, Maeyens had been trying to get in touch with his growers ever since he started roasting professionally six years earlier.
He started buying from fair trade organic cooperatives, which guarantee farmers a better minimum price, but when he asked for direct contacts, he was “gridlocked,” Maeyens said.
“They couldn’t trace it back to the farmer, so I couldn’t contact the farmer that was actually growing the coffee.”
Then he found Union MicroFinanza in Michigan. Though Maeyens uses several regional importers to get organic, fair trade and direct trade coffee from places such as Sumatra, Colombia, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Brazil, UMF was the first distributor that could tell him which farm each bean came from.
“You can see what the farmer was paid, what you paid, the whole breakdown,” Maeyens said. He explained that because UMF, unlike many other coffee distributors, rarely mixes one farmer’s lot, or harvest, with others, it is easy to trace back to its origin. “Which helps with the story and having a relationship with the farmer.”
UMF, which pays farmers higher wages than fair trade coffee, sent Maeyens a bag of Cárcamo’s coffee, and he was hooked. He is now the only known roaster that sells Cárcamo’s beans exclusively.
To help raise money for Cárcamo’s new nursery, Maeyens began selling burlap coffee sacks and postcards featuring Kunanayagan’s photos from the trip to Honduras.
Those efforts raised $500; Zen Café invested the remaining $1,500 to fund five more acres and expand Cárcamo’s lot to 60,000 trees.
“[In Honduras], every year is a lottery with prices of coffee in the market, but now that Shaun sells my coffee, I’ve obtained a better selling price,” Cárcamo said. “We’re going to continue our friendship: two crazy people with the same passion for coffee.”
As Cárcamo’s nursery grows, Zen Café will go through some changes of its own. Maeyens plans to open a coffee shop in the fall at LangLab, 1302 High St., South Bend, where he currently roasts 200 pounds of coffee per week.
The café’s walls will be decorated with Kunanayagan’s photos of La Union to remind visitors where the coffee begins.
“It was friends helping out friends,” Maeyens said. “You have to stick together in business. We all take care of each other here.”
Zen Café Coffee is available in South Bend at South Bend Farmer’s Market, Whole Foods, Bare Hands Brewery, Purple Porch Co-op and The Well, among other Michiana locations.
Read more about Zen Cafe in Flavor 574 Homegrown, the summer 2014 issue of our free digital magazine.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include quotes from Rudy Cárcamo, who talked with Flavor 574 via written correspondence. Original quotes were in Spanish and translated by Elkhart Truth staffers.