CONVERSATION / 44 North Coffee

Some people said we were crazy to buy this building at the edge of the earth. We are, literally, the island at the end of the earth, and it feels so good to build community over coffee, but also to build something bigger than that.

Co-owner of 44 North – Megan Wood – on community, mid-third wave coffee and what it means to be a global citizen.

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How would you describe yourself in three sentences or less?

My name is Megan Wood. I live on Deer Isle, Maine where I grew up. Five years ago I started a coffee company with a work friend, Melissa Raftery.

What are your backgrounds? How did you two land on coffee?

We previously worked in the outdoor industry together and shared an interest in coffee. We wanted to create a sustainable year-round business in a predominantly seasonal community. Roasting came to us and we ended up creating a wholesale business that also supports a communal space on the island.

What was the path to actually creating?

My background is in U.S. Foreign Policy in Latin America. An interest in agricultural products came full circle through coffee. Opting to both source and roast gave us the power to find ethically grown beans. It included a level of transparency that could assure us goods were organic and fair trade. That grew into our mission to bring awareness of the coffee process and stories relating to small farms in El Salvador or Kenya to our teeny island in Maine.

Any memorable bumps along the way?

Starting a business in a rural location, we had a lot going against it. We did a lot of research. One article said, sit in front of your storefront and count every person that goes by, which we did. It was ONE woman walking to and from the post office. That was not going to be a sustainable market for our product! It encouraged us to think outside the box and really push web sales nationwide. That’s our biggest source of revenue.

What sets you apart from other roasters and coffee shops?

We’re in mid-third wave in coffee, so education is key for us. In the beginning, we thought it beyond our community to appreciate slow brew methods, the value of organic and fair trade. They wanted something hot, dark, and bold. Strong. We’ve taken that vocabulary and dialogue to a different place. We’ve opened up the natural process, different regions, altitudes, brewing methods, etc. We offer manual brewing exclusively: aero, french press, pour over and cold brew. No espresso. That sets us apart. Sometimes we get someone asking for a mocha latte. We deconstruct what they want, what they really enjoy about coffee; it turns out they want something bold and bright. We construct their experience with our coffee and that makes it unique. It also throws their concept of what coffee is – maybe from a frothy milky coffee to something that has body and beauty and is unique to that origin.

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So you have people coming in wanting a mocha latte and then you have the local fisherman. As part of the coffee culture on an island, what has your experience been in introducing this type of method to those who haven’t been part of that culture-to date? People who use coffee purely as fuel? (laughs)

Even though this island is super rural and rustic and sustains itself primarily on RedBull, Marlboro Lights and lobster (laughs), there is definitely a palette here. It was shocking to see how fast people were interested in new coffees and brewing methods. That’s a really nice place to find ourselves in. It’s been a slow and strategic education within the community. We host cuppings all winter long. Deer Isle is a place that elevates agricultural & sea products – it’s an honor and enjoyment to have coffee become part of that.

A fisherman came in the other day, said he had been looking forward to a cup his whole day, which started at 430am. It was 430pm, and he knew exactly what he wanted. Natural process from Ethiopia. It’s a cup that has won awards the world over and he just loves it. It’s really nice to see that connection.

Is there something you wish you could have told your younger selves before getting into the business?

As someone who had never taken a business class, ever, I would just say to take the chance. We grew slowly; I’m not sure if that’s a rural or “woman” thing or neither, but take calculated risks because more likely than not you know what you’re doing and you will have time to adjust. It’s worth it to create something that’s yours for the making. You have the opportunity to create something completely different and your own. Take the risk and don’t be afraid.

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Is there a method to your madness, so to speak?

We are both completely involved in every aspect of business. This allows for oversight and collaboration, but also checks and balances. And appreciation. Building a business out of a working relationship, it’s one of the most incredible opportunities. It takes work, and forgiveness (laughs), but it’s one of the most rewarding relationships. That was a complete surprise.

You briefly mentioned your undergraduate work. Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something greater than yourselves?

To the core. Ethically, our generation is growing up in a time where you can no longer ignore that your actions have repercussions around the world. It’s our responsibility to know what those are, how they translate, and what we can do to be a global citizen. We have tools like Fair Trade and Organic Certification that are the first steps. There are issues with those systems… as with any, there is greenwashing paranoia. It would be great if we could visit every single farm and meet every farmer, have an intimate connection with them, their growing and employment practice… but because that’s not currently feasible, using these methods give us a benchmark. It’s feeling comfortable with where and what you’re sourcing. Who’s involved really makes a difference. It’s why it’s really important to travel and be aware. Get off the beaten trail. Visit a coffee plantation, even if you’re not there for that reason. Just to gain awareness of where things come from and who contributes toward it. Be aware of the whole train – from the tree to your morning cup. It’s beautiful and shocking. We should all be more aware.

Any thoughts on better questions we can ask, as consumers? 

Always pursue transparency. How can we experience coffee differently? It can be location specific. You could have had the same coffee two days ago in Manhattan, but when it interacts with the Stonington salt air, you get something completely different.

As someone in the agriculture industry, what does “sustainability” mean to you?

It means a lot. It speaks to agriculture, land, labor. It’s also really personal, growing a business in my hometown, a rural community on an island. Making that sustainable for myself and Melissa. Finding a model that works for us and doesn’t revolve around exponential growth. Enjoying where and who we are while also having purpose. Enjoying the beautiful place we live in. We just had this amazing coffee come out of a women’s cooperative in the Congo. They export through Ethiopia because they have no export infrastructure with the west. Being part of the sustainable force committing to this coffee year after year, enabling them to continue producing so we in turn can continue buying. We pay for that coffee upfront so they have the funds to purchase, grow and harvest. That speaks to a bigger communal partnership, which is unique in the coffee world.

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Talk to me about your choice and process to ethically source beans.

Our two main certifications are Fair Trade Proof (third-party certification- fair trade & organic at origin) and Bird Friendly through the Smithsonian. We have gone outside of those before, when we felt we had enough transparency with the individual, but we haven’t had the opportunity to do a lot of that. We’re working with a female farmer in Honduras, hopefully in the next couple of years her coffee will be on our shelves. It has been three years in the making, to give you an idea of how hard it is to grow coffee, export it, and have a market on the receiving end.

You mentioned there’s a certain amount of greenwashing in these organizations. Ethics and sustainability are not all fun and games. There are big challenges. Not to put you in hot water, but where do you think the system falls short?

Third-party certification is invaluable. It’s so important. When I was in school, I studied NGO’s. But how do you govern them? That’s where we sometimes fail. These third-party organizations don’t necessarily fall underneath a governing body. So, they’re on their own to have enough transparency for us to trust their work, but also them as an organization.  Certification comes with a not-so-small fee. Everyone from the farmer, exporter, importer, roaster, seller and purchaser bear it. That’s really hard sometimes. We pay for that certification every year, even when nothing changes about the coffee. But if the farmer in rural Ethiopia paid a premium to have his coffee certified, it’s our duty to carry that forward, even though the quality of product doesn’t change either way. There are a lot of people getting paid along the way, to keep transferring that certification. That’s really interesting, and in the future if we find farmers with enough connections and transparency to go without certification, it would be great. It allows them to have a market without having to pay a third-party. We’re not there yet. It’s also a hard marketing tactic. People don’t read it the same way, they trust FDA organic certification.

What is something people can easily do to be more sustainable?

Total plug here, but we have pasta stirring sticks instead of using wood or plastic. People flip out! You can always find or create reused sustainable products, you just need to put your mind to it.

But once they’re used, where do they go? Coffee-flavored pasta? (laughs)

I know! The resale! They actually go into the largest coffee compost you’ve ever seen.

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Are there any frontiers you have yet to explore?

We just opened a cafe in downtown Stonington, after throwing around a few ideas. The prospect of vitalizing our local community was so attractive. We found a beautiful building, over a hundred years old, tons of problems (laughs). We couldn’t resist. It’s on Main Street where everything closes in the winter. Having something that stays open feels really, really good. We pulled talent from the local community, hard. Furniture makers, metal workers, lighting designers, all within three miles of our location. I’ve also known them since I was a baby, and they were highly obligated to say yes (laughs). They did. It’s an honor to be surrounded by that every day.

We hope 44 will become a branded communal meeting place versus just product. To come and experience a mixing pool of fishermen, teachers, sailors, cyclists who have biked a hundred miles to get here. Some people said we were crazy to buy this building at the edge of the earth.  We are, literally, the island at the end of the earth, and it feels so good to build community over coffee but to also build something bigger than that.

What’s one thing in your past that pushed you to this moment?

I took a year off between high school and college. It’s probably the reason I finished both. School was not my thing. I traveled to New Zealand. It was an opportunity for me to self-explore and gain a drive to pursue what made me happy. To know I was capable, and not take “no” for an answer.

It’s amazing to experience how travel makes you feel completely insignificant and significant simultaneously.

Exactly. It’s that internal and often external [when you’re traveling] dialogue. You meet people and sometimes share experiences with those you might never see again, but that’s what makes you human. That brings it home, and fuels the drive to do something important. Something self-directed. Travel is the key.

What is your biggest achievement to-date? 

Creating a space in my hometown, where I grew up, that hires local people and is a place for  the community to come together.

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