Maria Fiallos wants to give coffee drinkers a math lesson.
Start with a $5 tin of supermarket coffee, and work backwards. When you factor in the price of the tin, the marketing and the television commercial — how much would the coffee grower have been paid?
"All of those things and we think, 'Okay and this is only costing me four to five dollars?' There's something wrong there," said Fiallos, who co-owns both the Las Chicas del Cafe roastery and Streamliners Espresso Bar in St. Thomas.
It's impossible for Fiallos not to think about these kinds of questions, because the green coffee beans she imports, roasts and sells come directly from her family's farm in Nicaragua.
Fiallos spent her childhood in Nicaragua, but left with her family as a young teenager during the Nicaraguan Revolution. They first sought refuge in the Honduras, then moved to London, Ont.
As a college student, Fiallos went back to Nicaragua for a brief visit and wound up staying for six months.
"I just completely fell in love with it and it was really heartbreaking to see how much work goes into coffee, and then here in Canada people just didn't understand that," she said.
"Coffee growers were getting paid just ridiculously low prices, you could barely live or survive on the stuff."
Like any idealistic twenty-something, Fiallos decided she was going to change that. She brought some raw coffee beans back to Ontario, and started cold-calling different coffee companies to ask if they'd be willing to sell her family's beans.
"I literally called until they gave me a meeting, and I went in and kinda said 'This is my dad's coffee, would you be willing to buy it?'" she said.
Fiallos said that she was helped out by a burgeoning interest in fair trade products, but that it was an uphill climb to convince brands to buy Nicaraguan coffee, instead of the Brazilian or Colombian product they were more familiar with.
She started Las Chicas del Cafe with her sister, Valeria, when they realized that owning their own roastery would give them more control over the prices they could offer to growers.
"The most difficult part was figuring out how the roaster machine worked," she said.
'Continued struggle' for coffee growers
Although the idea of ethical consumerism has become more and more common since Fiallos has been in business, she said the industry still has a ways to go in turning ideas into action.
"It's really easy to put out these marketing campaigns and do all this talk about fair trade and equity and the coffee business, and our coffee growers continue to struggle with a market that is well below their cost of production," she said.
"[Consumers are] buying coffee at $20 a pound and that does not trickle down as much as it should to the growers."
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From a consumer standpoint, Fiallos said that it's understandably difficult to make responsible decisions, especially when fair trade products come at a significant markup.
As a consumer, the best thing you can do is your research, she said.
"I think if you're lucky enough to live in a city where you can ask questions, where you can have a little bit more knowledge of how that coffee got to you. You're probably as a consumer doing as much as you can."