Jess Steffy

Coffee communities are often cobbled together with chosen family members from all over the world.

Jess Steffy was orphaned when she was three years old.

Her mother was a stranger to her growing up and remains a stranger in her adult life. Jess and her brother were raised by their father until he passed away when they were toddlers. With no parents, guardianship was passed on to their grandparents, who had just become empty nesters after their youngest graduated high school. They had plans to retire on the horizon when Jess and her brother became their children. It was no one’s ideal situation. Everyone in the family was yoked with a sudden burden of grief, which shaped Jess' relationship with her grandparents and with herself over time. In high school, she clocked extra hours of schoolwork so she could graduate early, which she did at age 17, and promptly left home, leaving behind the gift of a long-delayed empty nest-hood to her grandparents.

She started to travel the world with a missionary group, where she met her husband, Josh Steffy. Between the two of them, they travelled to 30 countries in just a few years of doing humanitarian work. Their travels put them in a lot of coffee-producing countries before they decided to dedicate their lives to the sourcing, roasting, brewing and sharing of coffee. At one point, Jess was in Papua New Guinea sitting on a tarp next to some women who were sorting through piles of what looked like pebbles. It hadn’t occurred to her that it was raw coffee that they were sorting, and it certainly hadn’t crossed her mind that in 20 years, she would be sourcing coffee from the same region of Papua New Guinea for a coffee company called Square One. 

Before Jess and Josh bought Square One in 2007, they had started a small coffee business called Cup-In-Hand Coffee that operated out of a stall in a farmer’s market. The farmer’s market served the large Amish and Mennonite community of Bird-In-Hand, Pennsylvania. Here, “large” is relative, considering the town has a population of just over 550 residents. Jess and Josh were frequently mistaken for Amish folk, despite their holey band tee shirts they wore while serving coffee. Eventually, they decided to take steps toward finding a spot to grow their budding coffee business, and the only available space that caught their eye was right next door to Square One, a local institution since 2000. Bumping elbows with the town’s only specialty café didn’t seem like the wisest move for their young business, so they turned down the only viable space available to them. At the same time, however, the owner of Square One was looking to sell his business. Jess and Josh weighed their options and decided to let go of Cup-In-Hand and take on Square One instead.

Part of their renaissance of the Square One brand was introducing sourcing methods that prioritised building relationships with producers over everything else.

Every meaningful connection Jess has fostered in the last 20 years has influenced the way she operates her business. In her mind, it’s more advantageous to be present and supportive through a relationship’s growth than it is to go seeking the best-scoring coffee far and wide. Square One strives for the “repeat buy,” when they source coffee from a farmer for the first time, meaning they’d ideally carry that coffee again the next year if it makes sense. Jess deeply wants to know the folks growing the coffee she’s interested in buying. And not just know their names or enough facts about the farm to flesh out a nice write up on the website. She wants to know who they are, to help in the most beneficial way possible. She is incredibly invested in the world of coffee––professionally, socially and emotionally. 

A few years ago, Jess’ mentor told her about a non-profit called Horizon that had ties to the coffee industry. Jess investigated it and discovered a community of people she immediately and deeply connected with. Horizon is an orphan-care programme that takes as sustainable and holistic an approach to childcare as possible. They strive for their programmes to be self-sufficient and able to function without a steady stream of donations, which can be both few and far between and disingenuous. Each micro community, as they call them, grows a lot of its own food and sells any excess it may have to pay for the various expenses that accompany raising dozens of children. The kids live in houses with host parents, usually about 20 kids to a pair of parents, who raise their own children alongside the orphans. Horizon originated in Kenya, but today they have orphan care communities in Honduras and Guatemala as well. Horizon most recently acquired an orphanage in Honduras that coexists with a coffee farm called La Providencia. In Horizon, Jess found belonging amongst a community who share a similar story to hers and the potential for a coffee relationship all in one. Fate doesn’t even begin to describe it. 

The first year Square One bought coffee from La Providencia, they bought the entire crop, about 1700 pounds. Once Jess connected with them, she wanted to make it clear that she was all in and ready to support them in any way she could. As a certified Q Grader and a palate just short of a superpower, Jess has always given her honest feedback of La Providencia’s coffees, so they have an idea of how to hone the quality of the next crop. Each year since Square One began their buying relationship with La Providencia, not only has the quality improved, but their yield has doubled. Even Square One’s customers have fallen in love with the coffee over the years, both the quintessential Honduran flavour profile and the story behind La Providencia. The repeat-buy method fosters a three-way relationship at the end of the day that closes a gap between coffee drinkers and coffee farmers with the roaster as the hinge between the two.

Square One adds a high premium to all the coffee they purchase from La Providencia that can be funnelled back into the community to meet whatever needs are most pressing.

The increase in coffee production is a direct result of Square One’s premium, which covered the costs of enough new coffee plants to double the size of the farm. The farm was also able to hire a full-time farm manager to oversee quality control and operations of the estate. 

Because Square One’s investments benefit La Providencia, they also benefit the micro-communities of orphans. Their partnership has erected a new residence that will house a new family in the future, the expansion of the local school, which is currently filled to the brim with children from Horizon and the surrounding community alike, and a 12,000 square foot medical clinic on site equipped with two O.R.s and a dental examination room. It has also funded the cultivation of a variety of vegetables and chickens, which the kids learn to grow and nurture for their future dinners. Jess’ involvement with La Providencia proved to be very beneficial for the kids and the coffee, but in turn, connecting with this community gave Jess a place to pour her heart into, one that understands her story without her having to speak a word of it. 

Coffee communities are often cobbled together with chosen family members from all over the world. The safety net may be patched together, made up from a handful of different materials, but it’s still a safety net and will catch the pieces when it all falls apart. This hits home for Jess specifically, who has built her adult life around chosen family and chooses to spend time contributing to and caring for the folks of La Providencia. It’s never been the bank or the insurance company that she leans upon in hard times. She and her husband have never been well-funded or -insured, but they’ve always had a group of friends and chosen family who have come through for them time after time. Community is an enormous piece of their puzzle. “Community” is a popular buzzword in the coffee world. It’s frequently sprinkled into mission statements and manifestos, all in the spirit of bringing people together with a common interest in mind. But for Jess, her community is a handpicked lineup of people who will support, love and show up for her time and time again, and she spends her days symbiotically returning the favour.

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Jess Steffy