#26 The Exchange: Mike Ferguson Interviews Coffee Trader Todd Mackey

The Exchange Green Coffee Podcast Season 3 Episode 1
Posted in: Relationships
By Olam Specialty Coffee
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#26 The Exchange: Mike Ferguson Interviews Coffee Trader Todd Mackey

#26 The Exchange: Mike Ferguson Interviews Coffee Trader Todd Mackey

Welcome Back! In the two years between seasons 2 and 3 much has happened but we're back, rebooting The Exchange with a few changes. In this episode Mike Ferguson interviews Todd Mackey. Todd talks about his career in coffee, his job as a coffee trader, and the challenges of the last two years.

Mike: [00:00:19] Welcome to Season 3, Episode 1 of The Exchange, a coffee podcast where coffee people talk to coffee people about coffee and/or things coffee adjacent. I'm Mike Ferguson. And for this episode, I'll be your host as we speak and sip coffee with...


Todd: [00:00:32] Hi, my name is Todd Mackey and my first job in coffee was as a barista.


Mike: [00:00:41] Were you barista-ing?


Todd: [00:00:43] If such a thing exists, though I will say, I mean, my first barista job was, and all of my barista jobs, I should say, were in somewhat of a restaurant setting, not a full service fine dining type of thing, where we were doing 10 to 15 drinks per shift, but it was not a specialty coffee shop. Hey, everyone's coming in and ordering espressos and cappuccinos type of thing.


Mike: [00:01:18] But you were pulling shots?


Todd: [00:01:19] I was pulling shots.


Mike: [00:01:20] It was after dinner shots?


Todd: [00:01:22] No, these were brunch. Early morning. Daytime brunch. Lunch. After lunch. Pre dinner. On the way out of the office type of thing. And I was pulling shots on a La Marzocco Linea, an AV for those keeping track.


Mike: [00:01:41] Classic.


Todd: [00:01:41] Yep. Fully manual. And yeah, I mean that was my first coffee job.


Mike: [00:01:50] And where was that?


Todd: [00:01:52] That was at Olga's Cup and Saucer in Providence, Rhode Island.


Mike: [00:01:56] Just down the street.


Todd: [00:01:59] Down, yeah, down Point St.


Mike: [00:02:00] From where we are right now in beautiful downtown Providence.


Todd: [00:02:03] That's right. That's right. We could walk to the location that was Olga's Cup and saucer. Rest in peace. I would guess, though you might move faster than me, I would guess we'd be there in 13 to 15 minutes' time.


Mike: [00:02:19] That's about right.


Todd: [00:02:20] Okay.


Mike: [00:02:21] So that's pretty interesting. {laughter} All right. So we already sort of got into it, but wanting to talk about sort of your bio, your coffee bio.


Todd: [00:02:34] Sure.


Mike: [00:02:34] So your first job was as a barista.


Todd: [00:02:37] Yeah.


Mike: [00:02:37] But not in a coffeehouse. In a restaurant setting.


Todd: [00:02:40] Yeah, well, it was. I mean, it would be best described as a bakery. So Olga's Cup and Saucer started as a seasonal bakery where Olga Bravo and Becky Wagner, Olga's partner, both were makers and artists, and they would basically spend winters in this New England area making art and creating work. And then they had a seasonal spot out towards Tiverton. It was in Little Compton if you know where that is. And it was this little spot where they would buy fresh produce and make awesome baked goods and do stuff like that. Then they eventually opened the Cup and Saucer in Providence, as it was known. Did you ever get to go there?


Mike: [00:03:36] No. They closed during the pandemic.


Todd: [00:03:38] Yeah, yeah, yeah.


Todd: [00:03:39] It had changed hands. They sold. And then the owner that took over decided to close, though the location has since become a seven star bakery now.


Mike: [00:03:51] Yeah. Walked by it the other day. It was hopping.


Todd: [00:03:54] Yeah sure would. But yeah it was a scratch bakery. They did sourdough breads and all sorts of really nice handmade food. And then we had a full lunch menu. And so that was the context. There was a lot of coffee. We made and served a lot of coffee. But it was a bakery.


Mike: [00:04:18] So that was your first job in coffee. I want to circle back and talk about why we decided to have you as the first guest on Season 3 of The Exchange, the reboot.


Todd: [00:04:30] Yeah. Tell me. Why? Why would you do that?


Mike: [00:04:33] Well, because this used to be your show {laughter} along with Mark Inman.


Todd: [00:04:39] Wow.


Mike: [00:04:40] And we decided I thought it would be sort of a nice passing of the torch.


Todd: [00:04:45] {laughter}


Mike: [00:04:48] Or maybe getting your blessing or something, because you and Mark did two seasons of The Exchange. We decided to keep the name because we wanted to ride on your success or however you say that. Because we've got like over 30,000 listeners.


Todd: [00:05:09] That's incredible.


Mike: [00:05:09] Isn't bad. Someone the other day sent us a note saying that The Exchange, that those episodes, the first two seasons with you and Mark were the most valuable resource that they had while they were preparing to open up their roasting company. I thought that was pretty cool.


Todd: [00:05:25] Yeah, that's awesome.


Mike: [00:05:26] So wanting to leverage that and keep all the branding in place, this is the easiest way, but the format is different. It's just me, at least right now it's just me. And I wanted the first interview to be one of the former hosts of The Exchange.


Todd: [00:05:43] Okay. I see. Yeah. No, that's... Well, I appreciate you recognizing the lineage and history of the show. And yeah, certainly feel like there's a lot of potential to continue conversations that will add value to roasters of any size.


Mike: [00:06:03] It's different than it was. We were doing The Exchange before with you guys. Mark was in California, you were in Providence, and I was actually in Georgia for most of the two seasons. So we were in different locations and we weren't looking at each other.


Todd: [00:06:20] Yeah, I feel like I'm wanting to giggle a lot more now that we're sitting across from each other.


Mike: [00:06:25] I have to...


Todd: [00:06:27] Pull it together, Mike.


Mike: [00:06:28] Let's say that you have to look at me and we're actually in a studio with, like, stuff on the walls.


Todd: [00:06:34] Yeah, yeah. And you put a hell of a lot of work into getting things set up. And I mean, I have to say that the comfort quotient, if you will, of the recording situation here is well beyond. I mean, I have memories of recording episodes of the original Exchange, probably at almost midnight East Coast time in my attic.


Mike: [00:07:01] Right.


Todd: [00:07:01] Like mid-summer just like pouring sweat as I'm trying to chastise Mark Inman for his many seasons in the field. So tell me more. I mean, maybe this is not the direction you wanted to go out of the gate, but like, what is? You won't sit with every guest on the show in such a nice, sort of intimate way here. You might have folks in to record. You might be recording people in interviews at distances. What is that going to look like?


Mike: [00:07:35] Yeah, it won't always be in studio. I mean, I'll always be in studio, but we've got some equipment here that makes it possible for people to call in, and it makes it easier to make that all happen. And most of the time, though, I'll be here. Like you, I was sweating, except I was in my closet. We had a walk-in closet in Georgia. And so I was in among the clothing and listening to some of those episodes, one of the reasons I wanted to have the studio and asked if we could build it is because the sound quality, especially for my intros and outros, wasn't always great because my situation would change. And I still can't listen to some of those because the sound quality is not great. So I definitely wanted to do it right, or at least have the opportunity to do it right. Whether we'll do it right or not remains to be seen. But yeah, we can have people call in. We have people in, starting sort of with family. The first few guests will probably be with the Olam folks, like yourself, just because we've got so many resources in-house, people with lots of great experience that I think is relevant.


Todd: [00:08:48] Yeah. Awesome. So is it focused on or do you imagine it to be at this stage because it can and will change? Right. That's one thing we found doing The Exchange in the past. It was kind of going where the value was identified. Right?


Mike: [00:09:03] Right.


Todd: [00:09:04] But will it focus on people just sharing their direct experience and the ability for roasters of all shapes and sizes to access that through the podcast?


Mike: [00:09:14] Right. Yeah. I mean, before it was sort of our mission statement with The Exchange before was that it was information that roasters could use right now. So when you guys were talking, like the note we got from the roaster the other day saying the information was super practical and helpful, not sure that's what's going to happen this time. It's more you know, it could change. There's a lot more room to be a lot more fluid and have a lot, you know, we'll see what happens. I think the focus is more on the conversation and the individuals we have. And it won't always and doesn't always have to be me. I'll be the host most often. But our fearless leader, Rob Stevens, said that he wants to do a few, which is great.


Todd: [00:09:58] Cool.


Mike: [00:09:58] And you're more than welcome to sit in the chair.


Todd: [00:10:02] We'll see what happens.


Mike: [00:10:03] Any time. So we started talking sort of about your first job in coffee. Circle back to get in sort of the passing of the torch thing. But let's go back to your coffee biography. Following Olga's, what was next?


Todd: [00:10:20] So at Olga's I was preparing and serving coffee from a local roaster here in Providence or in the Providence area I should say, though at the time in the Providence area. But they've since moved into Providence proper. That's New Harvest Coffee Roasters. And I was lucky enough, you know, at a point where it made sense. I was managing front of house at Olga's for a number of years and then there was an opportunity to get involved with New Harvest. And my role, though, everyone at that time at least would start by slinging beans we called it, in production. Packing coffee, filling orders. Everybody kind of went through the same onboarding process there, which I think was invaluable and really taught me a lot, having never worked for a roaster to that point. But I came in through that pipeline to get into sales and training, and this was really in the dawning stages of training as the new equipment, we would say. And that's probably quotable from early episodes of The Exchange, right?


Mike: [00:11:32] Yeah. Yeah.


Todd: [00:11:33] So I went to work for a roaster to teach people who were using the coffee that we were roasting how to better brew it and training teams and staff.


Mike: [00:11:45] Sure. Yeah. I remember the first time I heard someone say "Training is the new equipment." I thought, "Man, that's so clever." I wish I'd made that up.


Todd: [00:11:53] Yeah, yeah. And I can't honestly say with clarity, I can't look back and recall where I first heard it, but I know it wasn't me. 100%.


Mike: [00:12:03] So slinging beans in the roastery. I'm thinking about new roasters, where they're doing everything, where you're the owner of the company, you're roasting, you're packing, you're the delivery person. And how that evolves over time. When you were at New Harvest, how many people were working in the roastery?


Todd: [00:12:27] I was at New Harvest for a number of years, and I would say that on average we probably had in the roastery 6 to 8 people.


Mike: [00:12:40] Yeah. So a good size.


Todd: [00:12:43] Yeah, good size crew. Multiple roasting machines running concurrently.


Mike: [00:12:49] Oh, wow.


Todd: [00:12:50] And then a number of production hands. Various people managing paperwork, incoming, outgoing, and physical deliveries.


Mike: [00:13:00] Right.


Todd: [00:13:02] And that also includes I mean, the reality was, even as a non-owner in a company that size, we were all doing a lot of things. So while training was a focus, I mean it was packing coffee, getting it out the door, setting up the training lab and expanding the training lab, creating content, going and supporting sales, and doing sales.


Mike: [00:13:24] It's not like there were a lot of people, but when the truck was backing up to the dock, there wasn't a receiving manager.


Todd: [00:13:30] Yeah, yeah.


Mike: [00:13:31] The person's job was...


Todd: [00:13:32] There wasn't. I mean, most of the roles were not at a size where a full-time, 40-hour week was doing one thing. And I mean, I think that that was also something really special about that season where everyone was kind of... It wasn't Committee for Everything but it was involvement and transparency in most things. So brewing standards, we would brew lots of coffee together and trade notes and a lot of those notes became the basis for things that I was teaching when I was in the field, in cafes, and working with people who were using our coffee. Similarly, we were all cupping together. So the decision may have fallen to this person at this time, that person that time, you know, so-and-so for this particular coffee need or what have you. But everyone was there or more or less everyone. And there was a lot of learning because of that.


Mike: [00:14:36] That's fun. Even my days at Batdorf & Bronson in Atlanta there were days where I was packing coffee, usually around the holidays. But if a truck was backing up and I was standing there, I would receive the coffee. And it's good if your attention span is not great.


Todd: [00:14:52] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I have the first few months I was at New Harvest. I mean, it was a combination of just how simple and satisfying the work was, the sensory experience of packing coffee and leaving the roastery smelling like roasted coffee. And I don't know when full immersion in something that you're really excited about is what you're going for... I mean, I was just too excited. It was ridiculous.


Mike: [00:15:23] Yeah.


Todd: [00:15:24] And yeah, was able to learn a lot there over the years and grew quite a lot.


Mike: [00:15:28] And then after that?


Todd: [00:15:29] So towards the tail end of my time at New. Harvest, I had started to I mean, I really fell in love with cupping, and quality control and wanted to get into green coffee. I had sort of identified that that was going to be a big part of what I wanted to be. So I made a shift in my own personal career vision and laid out some new goals to support that. And on the list was becoming a Q grader, which I did towards the tail end of my time at New Harvest. And I had crossed paths with our now managing director, Mr. Robert Stephen, and yeah, so there was an opportunity at the time to run a training business called Coffee Solutions, which had been bought by InterAmerican Coffee. He was going over and working for their trading desk, and I took over that business unit and started doing all of the QA business that was going on third-party auditing, the training business, and building curriculum. We were the North American training partner for Probat Burns, and I was getting in the pipeline with Coffee Quality Institute to become a Q instructor as well.


Mike: [00:16:52] So let's stop. First of all, earlier when I said Rob's name, did I say Stephens? Because I'm going to edit that out.


Todd: [00:17:00] No, I don't think so.


Mike: [00:17:00] Oh, ok good, good. And also, what's a Q grader?


Todd: [00:17:03] A Q grader? I mean, a Q grader is a vetted, calibrated cupper. It's a program. Coffee Quality Institute is an industry resource organization that does a lot of harmonized in-country work, building capacities, working with governments and NGOs to build value around quality for stakeholders in the supply chain. Part of that is this Q program, which is basically calibrating the industry on all sides around cupping standards.


Mike: [00:17:47] It's sort of somebody else says, "Yeah, you can cup coffee."


Todd: [00:17:50] Yeah. Or you can cup coffee similar to them. Right. Or them, that person...


Mike: [00:17:57] Somebody who's not sitting at your cupping table agrees that you know how to cup coffee.


Todd: [00:18:00] Standardizing language. And I'm probably because I sit so close to it or have at times I probably think about it in a different way where some would describe it as, "Yeah, it's the somme for coffee." I mean, I think that that is a relatable type of definition. The sommelier kind of program for wine. It might be somewhat relatable to this. I don't think the main objectives of the Q compare to the main objectives, it would seem for the somme. But I'm not a sommelier, so I can't really rightfully say. But the idea especially in our business is being able to dialogue around coffee quality internationally up and down the supply chain in a way that is relatable. And not only relatable for conversation's sake, but to actually use it as building blocks to business.


Mike: [00:19:00] Right. You know, we've talked about that before in the old Exchange. Around cupping scores. And it's nice if we're all using the same language and the same relative scores.


Todd: [00:19:13] Yeah.


Mike: [00:19:14] So after. So you're a Q grader, you're working for Coffee Solutions...


Todd: [00:19:20] Yeah, I'm doing a lot of roaster training. I started to like I said, we were the North American training partner for Probat Burns Roasters. So I did a lot of we had a lab with roasting equipment, taught a lot of roasters, learned a lot with a lot of new and existing roasters, did a lot of consultation and sort of specific special projects, and worked on massive roasting equipment and onsite training roasters that you take staircases to get to the triers. And you're basically working somewhat like Homer Simpson in a control tower. Yeah, it was a really wild learning time. And at the same time, I was doing quite a lot of volunteering both within the education programs for SCA, within CQI, and also volunteering on the board leadership for those organizations or I should say for the Specialty Coffee Association and the Trade Guilds within. And yeah, as my time came to a close there, I should also note that during that season is when I launched into a venture with a very good friend and business partner starting a roaster ourselves called Bolt Coffee here in Providence. Though at that time, I mean, roasting wasn't even a consideration. It was a multi-roaster cafe coffee bar that continued to expand. So there's a lot going on. And yeah, so during that time we did that, we created a sister business called Knead Donuts doing Delicious Treats. And at a point, I left Coffee Solutions and was hired by Olam Specialty Coffee.


Mike: [00:21:25] Right. So. And today you're a coffee trader?


Todd: [00:21:28] Yeah. Yeah, I was hired with two objectives. One was to build purchasing and sales relationships, and then the other was to calibrate our specialty coffee team of cuppers in countries of origin where we're active, to basically use the tenants of the Q more or less to agree on what we're trying to separate at the earliest stages when parchment is delivered to a bodega or when we're at like purchasing outposts in the field, basically being able to have folks there who totally agree with and understand and can identify coffees based on like what this market was looking for. So that was really cool.


Mike: [00:22:19] These days there are a lot more Q graders at Origin than there were?


Todd: [00:22:22] Yeah, I think even in the days that I'm referring to, I mean, it wasn't like, you know, the Q hadn't made it these places. I think that it's just the reality is that it's not like a one-time accolade. You don't win the race one time and then you can hang your hat on it. But that's the same with anything, I think. Anything that's more of a discipline. And then obviously, we ourselves physically, I mean, we change over time. And so our perceptions would. I think anyone who's really making a big dent in the hard work is continuing to do that. But yeah, we wanted to see more Q graders within our team. I was not certifying our own team. I mean, I could never do that for conflict of interest, but we were just getting together. And so, for example, myself and then our, our head of quality who is now in the trade as well, Josh Marsceau out in Healdsburg, he and I traveled to Kampala. We got all of our cuppers from all of East Africa together and we ran three days of calibration to basically say, "Hey, this in these countries for these reasons, this is what we're looking for."


Mike: [00:23:39] Right.


Todd: [00:23:40] And that's what represents value to customers who are trying to achieve ABC or XYZ.


Mike: [00:23:47] Yeah.


Todd: [00:23:48] So it was really cool.


Mike: [00:23:49] And but these days, your job is mostly trader.


Todd: [00:23:53] Yeah. Yeah, that's all I do.


Mike: [00:23:55] What's sort of the job description?


Todd: [00:23:59] I have always said it when offered the opportunity, though it's been a while in the pandemic context, when offered the opportunity to say, "What's the job like or how do you feel like you can be good at it?" for me, it's listening. And I just feel like I try to be curious, ask good questions and listen to what roasters or looking for, need, or value. And then the same. I try to have similarly curious and engaging relationships with producers, producer groups, exporters, and people up-chain. And my job is, is successful when I can pair people together and they want to keep working together every year.


Mike: [00:24:50] So what's a day in the life for a trader?


Todd: [00:24:54] A lot of spreadsheets. A lot of sort of macro-economic awareness. And a lot of, yeah, hobnobbing, just making phone calls and a lot of emails and back and forth texts just checking in with people, hearing how things are going, making sure that people are aware of what their options are for coffees based on quality. Quality versus price. Supply. Making sure a significant percentage, especially in the last couple of years, has been answering the question, "Where is my coffee? Why is my coffee not where I hope it to be?"


Mike: [00:25:39] Yeah, that sort of leads me to what's been the most challenging aspect of being a trader over the last two years.


Todd: [00:25:45] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, just the combination of the global logistics crisis and then also just how volatile all aspects of green coffee purchasing have been. The futures market, regardless of whether we're using it as an index for a direct index for our purchasing differentially based pricing or not, it's affecting things. And so even flat price coffees that "do not use the sea."


Mike: [00:26:26] Right.


Todd: [00:26:27] They're impacted more or less directly by those factors. You have volatility in currencies. You have conflict in Russia, Ukraine, and other key parts of the world. And all of these things as they affect trade and commodities and fuel and fertilizers and all these different things. I mean, it's all compounding as it relates to the job.


Mike: [00:26:57] In 2016, we surveyed our customers, and over and over again, the one thing that customers wanted that was most important to them was knowing when their coffee would be here.


Todd: [00:27:09] Yeah.


Mike: [00:27:10] And that was long ago before pandemics or logistic problems. So I imagine if that was top of mind for most of our customers in 2016, that the last two years have been super challenging.


Todd: [00:27:21] Yeah, I mean, I would imagine that to some it'd be relatable to say that the clenched grip on, "Hey, where's my coffee? When's it going to be here?" has probably been eased, but not willingly.


Mike: [00:27:37] Right.


Todd: [00:27:38] I think we collectively seem to hold that less tightly, but not by choice. It's just been ripped from our hands.


Mike: [00:27:47] Right. Yeah. We've been forced to adjust our expectations.


Todd: [00:27:49] For sure.


Mike: [00:27:51] So that's the most challenging thing for you as a trader over the last two years. For your customers as roasters, what's been most challenging? The same thing or?


Todd: [00:28:01] Yeah. I would imagine that those things have been really challenging. I also think roasters have had less predictability in their own markets where lots of bakeries, retailers, and shops of all kinds have been dramatically impacted in terms of their business, how COVID has changed the retail landscape, shifts in product makeup, and where roasters are selling successfully. Even if it's changed for the better, change is still very hard to sure to deal with. So I think, in a way, I've been very grateful to be in like a business-to-business type role day to day, where we're able to have as intelligent conversations as we can using what we do see. Granted, it's changing so fast that sometimes that feels like the wind's blowing in different directions all the time. But yeah, through the roaster lens and being a part of one though tangentially in like a day to day, I mean, there's just been a lot of change to what you can expect and then how you can base those decisions, whether purchasing or budgeting. And so growth in any way, whether staffing levels, purchasing levels, product mix, all that kind of stuff has been affected pretty dramatically.


Mike: [00:29:42] We've seen roasters becoming some of the most creative business people.


Todd: [00:29:48] Yeah, yeah. I think you'll... If people don't celebrate that fact now, then in five or ten years or whatever it takes to get to more or less a sort of boring stasis again, you'll have people that will probably miss this time for that creativity.


Mike: [00:30:10] Right.


Todd: [00:30:10] Even though it doesn't feel good now.


Mike: [00:30:12] Yeah. Winding things down. Wrapping things up. If you could go back in time and give some advice to Todd Mackey on his first day as a coffee person, as a barista, what would that advice be?


Todd: [00:30:28] Hmm. I think in our Mentors episode and Season 1 around Thanksgiving, I probably shared a few anecdotal things that had been shared with me that really have stuck.


Mike: [00:30:45] Feel free to repeat those now. Or are you going to force people to go back?


Todd: [00:30:48] I'm going to force people to go back and listen to the episode. No, I mean, you asked a different question. What would I tell myself? I think if anything and this probably is coffee, it could be related to coffee. It might also just be related to being an ambitious person and trying to fall in love with an industry and wanting to make a place and find what fits well for yourself. But I think if anything I would remind myself to just take the time to do things right. I feel like I have been fortunate where that was a value that was instilled both familiarly early in life, but also for key people that I was looking up to from a professional standpoint. But good things don't get built overnight, but they don't blow away in the wind. And I feel like that truth has been demonstrated over and over again. And certainly, as it relates to what I'm doing now, where the relationships are really key to what I get to do season after season there, they're galvanized through slow, steady investment.


Mike: [00:32:11] Great. Mr. Mackie, I want to thank you for being my first guest. Super helpful to me. As you know, I tend to get stage fright in front of the microphone, so it helped a lot to have a familiar face here for the first episode. Thank you so much.


Todd: [00:32:28] Yeah, I think you're going to do great. This was awesome.


Mike: [00:32:30] Cool. Well, I'll see you outside the studio in a few minutes. {laughter}


Todd: [00:32:33] Yeah, sounds good. Thanks, Mike.


Mike: [00:32:42] You've been listening to The Exchange, a coffee podcast coming to you from our coffee podcast studio in beautiful downtown Providence, Rhode Island. The Exchange is produced and edited by me, Mike Ferguson. Our opening theme was A Cup of Coffee and a Piece of Pie by the Ribeye Brothers. Our closing theme is Coffee Morning by Olga Scotland. All music is used under Creative Commons. Thanks again to our guests, Todd Mackey, and now a tradition here at The Exchange, your postscript.


Todd: [00:33:13] So what constitutes a job in coffee?


Mike: [00:33:16] Just you saying what constitutes my first job...


Todd: [00:33:22] What constitutes a job in coffee? I guess I'm overthinking saying, "Hi I'm Todd Mackey, and my first job in coffee was a barista," but that's not like, I have to say that differently. I'm not like, it was not barista-ing. That's not a thing. Was as a barista.


Mike: [00:33:42] Sure.


Todd: [00:33:43] Yeah.


Mike: [00:33:43] Yeah. That would do it. I just think it's so great that I have a recording of Todd Mackey overthinking.


Todd: [00:33:53] {laughter} Well, you're welcome.


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