2 min

Changing the marketplace

Reshaping the world through every cup of coffee

Credit: Shawn Scallen

On any given Saturday at Bank and Gilmour, or further west in Lesboro, the life of our community unfolds in a coffeehouse. Lesbian moms bring their kids and queer community centre activists recruit volunteers. Here in our caffeinated common spaces, we shape our world, hot beverages in hand.

But so too is the coffeehouse itself helping to reshape the world, in new and fairer ways. This coffee shop, at some of the pulse-points of our communities, is Bridgehead, where only coffee and tea grown in earth-friendly conditions is brewed – and the growers who produce it get a fair buck for their bean.

This mainstream fair-trade venture is headed by Ottawa lesbian and social justice-minded entrepreneur Tracey Clark, herself a robust special blend of small-business pragmatist and progressive economic idealist.

Clark is pioneering a way of doing business more fairly. She’s competing in our crowded coffee shop market while sharing the profits more equitably with coffee growers in countries in the southern hemisphere.

Amidst the smells and sounds of one of her small shops, she will tell you: “To my mind, why couldn’t this business be a win for farmers, a win for consumers, a win for employees – and a win for investors? Why can’t you tie in all of the needs of all of the stakeholders? Why does business have to be win/lose?”

In the late 1990s, Clark led a restructuring of the original – and struggling – Bridgehead brand started by Oxfam Canada. She took a mainly mail-order business selling a disparate array of fair-trade coffee and handicrafts and reinvented it.

Today, Bridgehead is focussed primarily on selling coffee by the cup. It’s at this end of the coffee market – where people buy their lattes prepared for them – that profits have been increasing, especially for companies like Starbucks..

But those profits have not generally made their way back to coffee growers in countries like Ethiopia, Guatemala and East Timor.

For Clark, whose interest in international development and trade justice issues extends back years (her Executive MBA focussed on micro-credit schemes in the rural developing world, making her “a bit of an oddity in my class”), this was an opportunity to prove fair trade could work.

“No one was really building awareness by serving coffee by the cup, so we felt that was the right way to do it.” The thinking at the time, she says, was, “Let’s take fair trade to the mainstream.”

Bridgehead now has four coffeehouses in Ottawa – the hometown of the chain – with two new locations planned for this year, including one at Elgin and MacLaren opening in June.

Clark says the plan is to expand in Ottawa first, then create clusters of Bridgehead Coffeehouses in other Canadian cities. The goal is to become a “demonstration business,” raising consciousness among consumers and influencing the behaviour of other coffee retailers in Canada, without necessarily matching their numbers store for store.

Bridgehead will then explore the next level of sharing “the profitability of the cup” with growers – pursuing possible minority ownership of the business for growers, or converting to a co-op including growers and consumers. With a steady twinkle in her eye, Clark says, “This is what’s really exciting.”

It’s a project in which her long-time partner Gina Becker, who uses her social marketing background to help develop the brand and build relationships with advertisers and investors, joins her. Becker is also the birth mother of the couple’s 10-month-old son.

Clark says that there are likely connections between her experiences coming out as a lesbian and her commitment to fair trade.

“I guess I got concerned with justice issues because of my orientation. I think that’s probably true for a lot of people,” she says. “You know you have a different worldview starting to develop. You see the systematic structures that are operating, and you feel outside of them at some level. That gets you thinking about what other structures are there and how they are operating. You start to see things differently.”