When you step into Fair Grinds Coffeehouse on Ponce de Leon St., you will see the usual trappings of a New Orleans cafe: young college students peer into their Macs, sipping cups of caffeine as they type away. Two people linger at a table and have a quiet conversation. A barista is cleaning up while stacks of local free magazines sit nearby.
But Fair Grinds is different in one regard: it is the only 100% fair trade coffeehouse in the city. Just what is fair trade? Wade Rathke, the owner of the place, offer his take on it. "The basic principle is the producers get a fair shake." He sits in a chair in an upstairs room, his grey hair hiding a past he describes as "a hardened radical". Rathke has visited South American countries and seen firsthand the struggle they go through in picking these coffee beans and wants to help them. "Coffee is one of those kinds of crops that is hand-tended. You can't pick it in a mechanized fashion at the level we're talking about." Part of the money Fair Grinds makes is donated back to where the coffee has originally been produced and ensures the workers are making affordable wages and aren't being exploited.
Rathke is no stranger to mixing business with political activism; though he dropped out of college and was a former shipper, he became involved with the activist group ACORN, which was oriented around social justice, affordable housing, and other activities directed towards low-income families. The organization disbanded among a sea of controversy due to allegations of misplaced funds and alleged crime that was later disputed but Rathke is back at it again. He took over the building in October of 2011 and has attempted to promote it ever since. Though voted the best coffeehouse by numerous publications such as the Gambit last year and the year before, he struggles to compete with the big chains in town. "If I charge a quarter more than Starbucks or Community Coffee...I'm not going to have the same number of customers and all of our students, for example, who come here and like to study, they may love the Internet and like studying...so I've got to be competitive with the rest of the market...I can't be competitive on price." He also acknowledges that there's a lot of painting the place needs. In a touch of perhaps self-aware irony, he notes he's not a "green guy" and wants some bright oranges, to fit the vibrant quality of New Orleans.
One difficulty in getting Fair Grinds to be a thriving enterprise and establish fair trade coffee in the city is the port of New Orleans. Rathke says before Katrina a good bit of coffee used to come through the port of the city. Rathke still does this, not wanting what he calls "a race to the bottom", believing in supporting the dock workers in the city (believing the "real economic driver shouldn't be how to get naked in the French Quarter"). While at a port commissioner's meeting, Rathke says they have been unresponsive, despite portraying himself a small business owner and talking the union owners he knows. Contradicting what he says is the support for local businesses, he discovered coffee comes up through the port of Cortez and then goes through the New Jersey/New York port, being then driven down to New Orleans. This also frustrates him because of what he perceives as the increased carbon footprint. He claims there is a 40 year old tariff in Honduras that has not been changed, leading to lower shipping rates up north. "Why not bring that coffee back?" he asks.
For the future, though, more customers seem to be coming in. While Rathke says the turnover of baristas is high he knows how to hire good people and organize them, attributing this to his years involved in activism. He wants to maintain customer loyalty and so opens the upstairs space he sits in to all people, noting that it's been used for everything from study groups to meetings for managers at Barnes & Noble to yoga classes. He recalls, as he labels her a "Glenn Becker", who read about the mission behind the coffeehouse in an article and consequently swore she'd never walk in again. Even with such opposition, he finds more and more people are coming in every day, usually after finding out there is more to the place than quality java. Rathke simply says if you send him an e-mail or text message he will attempt to respond within 24 hours. "The arc of justice is long," he states.