Coffee with a conscience

CAMANO ISLAND – Camano Island Coffee Roasters’ java has just as much caffeine as any other gourmet brew, but the company’s founders like to say it will help you sleep better at night.

That’s because the coffee roaster and retailer makes sure all the beans it buys are 100 percent organic, shade-grown to preserve native plants and fairly traded. For the business based on Camano Island’s north end, helping farmers who cultivate some of the world’s best coffee beans is a zealous mission, not just a marketing angle.

“We’ve gone about it so we feel we can make a real difference instead of just paying lip service to it,” said Ron DeMiglio, who co-owns the business with Jeff Ericson.

The dynamic duo describe Camano Island Coffee as a mission business. When they sell roasted beans to customers via their Web site, $1 of each order goes to nonprofit groups that help coffee farmers buy their land and improve their communities.

“We looked at putting together a business model that really changed the circumstances of these Third World nations. Not just for the present, but for generations to come,” said DeMiglio, 48, who was raised in Everett and now lives in Snohomish.

Ericson, 46, then launched into what he calls his “coffee sermon.”

“Coffee’s the second-largest commodity traded on Earth besides oil,” he said, adding that consumers can’t do much to directly alter the oil industry. “But with coffee, we can actually make a difference. If every American made that choice with the coffee they buy, they literally could change the world.”

For that reason, DeMiglio and Ericson refer to their customers as “prosumers,” short for proactive consumers.

The good-hearted mission doesn’t get in the way of good coffee, however, DeMiglio said. While people can be persuaded for a while to buy an average coffee if it helps a good cause, they won’t usually do that for long.

“Our philanthropic aim shouldn’t be an excuse for mediocre service and product,” he said. “I like it when people share our vision, but if they don’t, we still want them to buy if they want the best coffee in the world.”

In the company’s roasting room, beans from exotic locales – Papua New Guinea, Sumatra and several Latin American nations – sit in sealed plastic bins. Roaster Dan Ericson, Jeff’s nephew, hovers next to the roasting machine with a digital kitchen timer in his hand.

For every 30 pounds or so of green coffee beans put into the roaster, about 25 pounds of roasted beans come out – lightened mainly by water evaporation.

“It’s similar to a front-loading washing machine,” Dan Ericson said of the roaster, which rotates the beans inside a ribbed drum to ensure an even roast.

The beans are roasted at specific times and temperatures listed in the company’s tried-and-true manual, which Dan Ericson refers to often. Before they’re finished, the beans are heated to 458 degrees.

When done, the roasted beans are packaged into half-pound and 1-pound bags, which are sold directly through the company’s Web site.

For just under $25, customers can order two 1-pound bags of freshly roasted coffee beans (the bags are stamped with expiration dates to let customers know when they’re at their best) and have them shipped within a day or two. Camano Island Coffee throws in a half-pound sampler of its coffee of the month and newsletters about the company’s purpose.

“The way Jeff and Ron are approaching the business with their mail orders is fairly unusual. But it’s been marvelous to see how that’s worked for them,” said David Carlson, director of development for Seattle’s Agros International.

Camano Island Coffee has partnered with Agros, a nonprofit organization that buys land in Latin America and sells it to poor farmers who cultivate coffee. The families eventually repay Agros to gain full ownership of the land.

That’s the key to really changing the living and economic conditions for families in that part of the world, Ericson said.

“America’s been known for raising all this money and throwing it at these areas,” he said. “It’s nice, but it’s not a long-term fix like this.”

Camano Island Coffee buys from Agros-sponsored farmers and Agros, along with a nonprofit agency called Coffee Kids, benefits from a $1-per-order donation from the coffee company. Ericson said he’s proud to help the nonprofit groups further their mission.

But the company itself is decidedly not a nonprofit, Ericson and DeMiglio emphasized. They believe that profitable enterprises can affect change just like nonprofits.

DeMiglio came into the company with an already long history in the coffee business.

In 1989, he founded Espresso Americano, which has a cafe in the Everett Public Library, and has licensed its name for more than 140 other locations around the world. In the coming years, 50 more Espresso Americano locations are expected to open in Saudi Arabia alone. Many of those retail coffee houses serve and sell Camano Island Coffee.

Camano Island Coffee has another sister company, Frozen Xplosion, which makes and sells a lactose-free base for smoothies, milkshakes and frappes.

Ericson came from a more varied business background. After selling his commercial printing business at the age of 30 and “retiring,” he became a business consultant while he looked to do something he would love. He’s definitely found that, he said.

“We will be owning Camano Island Coffee Roasters till the day we die,” he added. “We love it.”

Reporter Eric Fetters: 425-339-3453 or

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