Food & Drink » 3-Course Interview

Wade Rathke

Owner of Fair Grinds Coffeehouse

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In 1970, Wade Rathke founded ACORN, which grew into one of America's largest community organizing groups. He left the group in 2008, before its controversial disbanding in 2010. Today, he is still chief organizer for ACORN International, which remains active in 14 countries. Last fall, he bought Fair Grinds Coffeehouse (3133 Ponce de Leon St., 913-9072; www.fairgrinds.com). The shop serves only fair trade coffee and the business is now operated as a low-profit limited liability company (or L3C). As a "social enterprise venture" it directs a portion of its revenues to community organizing in coffee-producing countries.

Why is serving fair trade coffee important to you?

Rathke: Coffee is a hand-produced crop. There's no way to operate it in a mechanical fashion for the best beans. So you have a family planting coffee on five or six acres and then as part of a cooperative they try to get the best price. Fair trade guarantees (growers) that if they do it organically they'll get a better price for it. Then you're not at the point of exploiting a bunch of sharecroppers, and you can enjoy your coffee without worrying about that.

Is it hard to get fair trade coffee here?

R: We get it straight from the Port of New Orleans every week, roast it here in New Orleans and serve it to you the same week. If we get more shops and roasters interested, then we can bring in more. We just want to gently push back on the market system, get more of it shipping straight here and try to change things with the way we do our business.

Do you think the coffeehouse's role as a meeting place has changed in this age of social media and online petitions?

R: The rise of social media is about weak links, that seventh degree of separation. What a coffeehouse does now is take these weak links and give you a place to make them stronger. People organize online now, but then they get to the point where they want to meet and we make that space available. It took me a while to learn how the espresso machine here works, but I know about community organizing and we create a space for it here. — IAN MCNULTY

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