Committed to Coffee
From farm to cup, Bruce Mullins has devoted himself to America’s favorite beverage, improving coffee-growing communities, and the environment, along the way.
by Claire Sykes
It begins with trees on a tropical plantation. Calloused fingers pluck the tiny red fruit, filling up baskets. The “cherries” are sorted by ripeness and color, then squeezed to remove their green seeds, the coffee beans. These are washed and dried before journeying to roasteries around the world, where they’re heated to a toasty brown, releasing their aromatic oils. Finally, coffee grinders pulverize the beans that will be brewed into the dark, steamy drink millions sip every day. But who’s thinking about all this while enjoying that first morning cup?
Bruce Mullins B.S. ’77, that’s who. The business administration alumnus has steeped himself in the world of coffee, from his first coffee-warehouse job at a small roastery in 1978 to his vice presidency today at one of the largest and most respected wholesale specialty coffee companies in the country.
For 28 years, Mullins has pursued his passion for coffee at Portland-based Coffee Bean International, where he is now vice president of coffee culture. What began in 1972 as a two-man storefront in Eugene has become one of the few traditional roasters to produce artisan coffee on a large scale, specializing in private-label brands. CBI is an industry leader not only because of its full-service in-house coffee programs for retailers, food service operations, and coffeehouses but also because of its environmentally sustainable practices—everything from its LEED silver-certified building to its certified organic and fair trade coffees to its improvement of coffee farmers’ lives. Together, Mullins and CBI are changing the world—one cup at a time.
What is it about coffee that captivates this man with the license plates that read “JAVA” and “COFFEE”? For starters, he’s always loved food. While growing up in Astoria, Mullins learned a lot about cooking from his mother. Then, after Mullins finished college, the owner of a church he was living in (in exchange for hammering it into condos) introduced him to David Kobos of The Kobos Company, a small coffee, tea, and kitchen equipment business in Portland.
Mullins nabbed a warehouse job at Kobos, where the sounds, smells, and tastes of coffees from around the world made a powerful impression. “What really captured me was the incredible beauty and complexity that coffee represents,” says Mullins. “It’s a natural product that humans have a hand in, with its creation, roasting, and brewing. The whole thing was very rich for me, from business, food, and creative points of view.”
While his classmates headed off to grad school, Mullins lugged 154-pound sacks of coffee around the warehouse. “But it was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I felt it was my calling, right from the beginning,” he says. “What really convinced me was that, on my own time, I was trying to find books on coffee and coffee roasting and teas when they were almost nonexistent.” He still has his hardbound copies of All About Coffee and All About Tea, rare classics from the 1930s. “The more I learned, the more I knew I was on the right path.”
At Kobos, Mullins had walked into an industry still in its infancy, one that has since put the Pacific Northwest on the coffee map. “I wanted to be successful but didn’t know if there’d be a financial future for me. I believed, though, that the coffee industry would grow and become a big business in the U.S.,” he says.
Mullins eventually left Kobos and joined Coffee Bean International in Portland. Today CBI, with 150 employees, still takes the traditional approach: smallbatch, gas-fired roasting that matches the size of the roaster to that of the order. The company’s 100 different in-house specialty coffees under its Panache brand —single-origins, blends, dark roasts, and organic, among others—fill cups at several thousand neighborhood cafés in 50 states. CBI also crafts private-label coffees for some of the nation’s leading retailers, including Nordstrom, Target, and Einstein Brothers Bagels.
Sales continue to rise at about 20 percent per year. “We’re seven or eight times the size we were back in 2002,” beams CBI President Patrick Criteser. “Having committed himself to this industry and to this company, Bruce has had a lot to do with CBI’s growth.”
In 1982, six years after CBI moved from Eugene to Portland, Mullins became the company’s first brand manager. “In those days, it was long hours. Oh my God, long hours. And a lot of travel and hard, physical work. But no money. At that time, you didn’t go into this industry for the money.”
However, a year into his job, he met the woman he ended up marrying. Lisa in the accounting department, then a single mother of two young daughters, caught Mullins’ eye. They now have a total of four children. “My wife and family have always been supportive of my dream of working with coffee. It’s involved a lot of financial sacrifices, though, while we watched our friends advance in their careers and get ahead.” While he has dedicated himself over the years to almost every aspect of the business, “family has always come first, and always will.”
Coffee Business Brilliance
Mullins soon moved up at CBI, running the customer service department, then serving as director of Café Tierra (the nation’s first specialty line of certified organic coffee), and eventually leading product development and training.
In his current role as VP of coffee culture (which he took up in 2009), he helps the sales group develop the inhouse coffee culture for CBI’s largest customers. According to Mullins, this means instilling a passion for high-quality coffee up and down the entire organizational chart and measuring success through strong sales growth, healthy profits, and satisfied consumers. He also develops training materials and programs for some of the nation’s leading retailers.
“Bruce has this soulful quality. He’s the kind of guy who likes to nurture his relationships, and that’s unique in today’s world of commerce,” says John Clem, vice president of Seattle-based Nordstrom. “He also likes to empower people with knowledge, and that gives them more power than they would have on their own.”
Sure, other industry experts know coffee, but Mullins offers a deeper, broader, more eclectic knowledge base than most because of his early start and ongoing hand in the industry. He also brings his unique educational experience from Lewis & Clark, with its “small, nurturing environment, where I was encouraged to follow my interests.”
Inspiring his creative side was his father, “a jack-of-all-trades who could fix almost anything,” says Mullins, who, as a teenager, made films and played the baritone in his high school jazz band. His mother, a nurse, stressed the importance of business as a way to earn a living. He combined their two influences at Lewis & Clark, with classes in art and business.
“Stewart Buettner [professor emeritus of art history] taught us how to think like an artist and look at things critically. I still use my creative side every day, writing marketing copy, especially about coffee flavors, and taking photographs.” (His recent photos shot in Nicaragua—as well as many others—can be found on CBI’s blog.) “Professor Kenneth Pierce, who headed the business department then, taught us how to think like a businessperson, which has helped with my understanding of finance, people, and how organizations work.” Mullins’ love of biology, fueled by Donald McKenzie, professor emeritus of biology, continues to serve him today at CBI, when it comes to the agriculture of growing specialty coffees.
If Mullins had gone to grad school (something that wasn’t as expected then and that he couldn’t afford anyway), he might never have chosen the coffee business. “It turned out to be a great move for Bruce, because he’s risen to the top at CBI and in the industry, and built a nice career for himself that he clearly enjoys. I respect that it took vision, but more than that, commitment and confidence on his part,” says Criteser. “He brings a real passion. It’s infectious.”
A Better Cup, A Better World
Mullins and CBI strive to carry their success into bettering coffee farmers’ lives, with sustainable coffee-buying and community-strengthening efforts. The company’s Project Direct, a direct-trade coffee program, builds trust and farm income through one-on-one relationships with farmers. And TransFair USA (Mullins serves on its Roaster Advisory Council) supports Fair Trade Certified coffee and its farmers.
Most coffee farmers are poor, yet 85 percent of the world’s coffee comes from their small farms. To stimulate their communities, over the past 10 years CBI has donated a total of more than $34,000 to Coffee Kids. “We’re a small organization, so that’s a lot,” says Carolyn Fairman, executive director of Coffee Kids. The international nonprofit, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, creates programs in education, health, microcredit, and food security in coffee-farming areas to help eliminate poverty. “Bruce understands that coffee isn’t just about trade and sourcing, but also people,” says Fairman. “Knowing we can count on CBI’s support year after year is important to us.”
Improving the lives of coffee farmers also means upgrading coffee flavor, which raises the retail price and puts more money in their pockets. The thing is, farmers generally don’t know what their coffee tastes like. So Mullins also serves as a trustee for the Coffee Quality Institute, a nonprofit organization of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). In that role he trains “cuppers” (“slurp-and-spit” taste testers) in the coffee-producing countries of South America and Africa and teaches them to use a standardized evaluation and recording system. He also publicizes the Coffee Quality Institute’s efforts, meeting overseas with prime coffee exporters, grower co-ops, and government officials. “Bruce has a lot of energy and desire to give back to the coffee community, and I find that admirable,” says Ric Rhinehart, SCAA’s executive director.
Adds Susie Spindler, executive director of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, “Bruce is always trying to understand the difficulties and challenges faced by smaller farms, looking for ways to make things better”—like being an international juror in the Alliance’s Cup of Excellence competitions, held annually in many of the world’s premier coffeegrowing countries. The winning beans from each competition are sold to the highest bidder in Internet auctions, with about 85 percent of the proceeds going directly to the producing farmer, “20 times what they’d normally get, which often changes their lives dramatically,” she says.
Thanks to Mullins, CBI is also at the forefront of the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture’s Global Coffee Quality Research program, which studies how to improve the taste of coffee. “Out of several hundred specialty coffee companies that we work with, only CBI has told us, ‘The work you’re doing is exactly the kind of thing the entire industry can benefit from, and you can count on us to support and expand that work,’ ” says Timothy Schilling, Ph.D., director of Borlaug’s enterprise development and partnerships.
In a city praised internationally for its green footprint, CBI’s LEED silvercertified building solidifies the company’s crusade for sustainability. Two miles from the Portland International Airport— near the Columbia Slough wetlands with their hawks, herons, and coyotes—CBI transformed a vacant warehouse into a 125,000-square-foot structure that stands as an emblem of environmental consciousness. CBI is the first roaster in the Pacific Northwest to meet LEED standards and only the second in the nation.
“If Bruce hadn’t pushed for LEED certification early on, there’s a good chance it wouldn’t have happened,” admits Criteser, who also credits him for CBI’s commitment to 100-percent renewable electrical energy, organic-waste composting, and other recycling. All of these efforts are driven by the company’s SEED (Social, Economic and Environmental Development) program, which also tackles sustainable issues in coffeesourced countries.
Designed by Group Mackenzie of Portland, the building-within-a-building reflects CBI’s brand, with exposed recycled wooden beams, translucent light fixtures with shades made of recycled vertical-grain Douglas fir, and office windows that look down onto the company’s Willy Wonka–like coffee “factory.” Here, in bean-protective temperatures moderated by the nearby Columbia River, the fresh-hay scent of green coffee beans gives way to a nutty aroma from CBI’s four various-sized, energy-efficient roasters.
Certainly, CBI’s specialty coffee matches Mullins’ first-rate contributions. “I’m most grateful for discovering my calling when and where I did,” he says. “A lot of people never do, and they’re never really happy with themselves or their lives. So I’m very thankful I found my passion soon after college, and that I had the courage, wisdom, and stubbornness to stay true to it and not give up.”
How could he give up, though? “I’m having too much fun—traveling to other countries, meeting and making friends with people from all over the world, and getting deeper into how coffees are grown and roasted,” says Mullins. “I see myself continuing to help CBI be the best roaster of specialty coffees that any such company could be.”
As he and CBI continue to prosper, they’re taking the industry and its coffee growers with them. And that morning breakfast brew only promises to taste better and better.
Claire Sykes is a freelance writer in Portland. Her articles on a variety of topics appear in dozens of national magazines. After writing this one, she’s seriously considering becoming addicted to coffee again.
Coffee harvesting photos courtesy of Coffee Bean International.