In what could set the stage for specialty coffee's most dynamic arranged marriage to date, the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE) and the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) are moving towards a proposed merger of the two organizations. If enacted, the two largest coffee bureaucracies in the world would become a single functioning entity—a kind of Coffee United Nations, if you will—with nearly 10,000 members spread across the United States, Europe and Asia.
SCAE members complete their half of the voting process today, Tuesday the 17th of May. The monthlong open vote comes hot on the heels of an international tour circuit of member information meetings, as well as an aggressive social media campaign. Yannis Apostolopoulos, SCAE's deputy executive director, tells Sprudge that so far his organization is pleased with voter feedback—despite the predicted response rate of only between 5-10% of the membership base.
“Keeping in mind that this is a global effort, engagement within the speciality coffee community has been high, including attendance at some of our member meetings across Europe and Asia, as well as with our survey on unification we conducted last year,” said Apostolopoulos over email. “So we are keen to look at not just the turnout, but the margin of support, because that indicates a level of passion for possible unification around the world. We’ll have to wait and see what the result is but we’re hopeful that the speciality coffee community will have their say on the future of their association.”
What both groups propose is a hybrid organization, one that hopes to expand opportunities for education, professional development and leadership training, as well as an expanded calendar of events.
SCAE currently has local chapters in more than 30 European countries, as well as Singapore and Korea. Its 4,400 members would combine with SCAA's nearly 5,000 members, which includes business memberships, around 1,300 members of the Barista Guild of America, and approximately 700 members of the Roasters Guild. Combining the two companies would forge a strong, multinational presence that has potential far beyond the countries it currently serves, says Ric Rhinehart, executive director of the SCAA.
“One of the things that is interesting in this for me is that the SCAE has always had to confront [regionalism]. They're chapterized, not only in different geographies but different languages and different cultures. So the real opportunity for us is to take a page out of their book and understand how to work on the regional geographic level,” said Rhinehart during an interview at the SCAA's annual Event in Atlanta, Georgia, earlier this spring.
Both organizations, says Rhinehart, are “hyper-aware that we want to be a global institution,” but want to stay as locally accessible as possible. “Because the globe doesn't access you,” Rhinehart acknowledged. “The individual members access you.”
As for the individual members, they will ultimately decide the fate of both organizations' progress in moving forward. A five-year financial projection has been outlined, as well as an initial feasibility study. The co-funded study, conducted by Washington, D.C.-based Heart & Mind Strategies, included analysis by a legal team and association strategy group McKinley and Associates, and has informed the educate-and-inform initiatives undertaken by both organizations toward their member bases. Just as the SCAE has been busy meeting with members locally and informing their constituents about the proposal, the SCAA is working to get further enlightenment to their membership in coming months.
“Members ultimately can always say ‘we don't want to do this',” said Rhinehart. “We've gotten a lot of feedback, almost 90% of it has been yes, and in general, the younger coffee professionals say ‘could you stop talking and do this already?' and the older members…are more cautious and resistant to change…so there's a little more skepticism.”
So far, most skepticism seems rooted in members' lack of clarity on the real benefits to each organization and member. At an information session at Atlanta's SCAA Event, longtime member and frequently outspoken critic Marty Curtis argued that members have not been involved enough in the process to know what has transpired thus far, and lack the information needed to voice their support with confidence. “I'm a member of SCAA as well as SCAE,” Curtis told Sprudge by phone in a follow-up interview, “and I'm all for globalization, but it has to be done in a way that benefits all parties. I think this deal benefits teachers, and allied products companies, and green coffee sellers, but that's not everyone. Right now 80% of the SCAA is made of small roaster / retailers, and by joining with SCAE, what benefit does it have for them?”
Curtis, and other dissenters, have voiced questions about whether or not the inclusion of SCAE is of tangible benefit to American specialty coffee professionals who may already be satisfied with their organization's structure. And some, like past SCAA President Grady Saunders of Heritage Coffee, have wider concerns about how the vote will be carried out here in the United States. “The voting process of doing this is extremely limited,” Saunders tells Sprudge. “We have 5,000 members, but it'll just take a tiny fraction of those, only around 150 members, in order for this to pass. And those of us who have questioned the situation and want more information haven't been able to get anything beyond pretty slideshows.”
“I think a high percentage of us should be required to ratify this vote,” Saunders continued. “To think that a small group of people can push this through, without information beyond what they're supplying…it's a situation that needs addressing.”
Both organizations stress that finding a common language and unified set of industry standards will benefit specialty coffee worldwide. “I think it's a great move in terms of end user value to create common language, from both the educational and the events perspective,” argued World Coffee Events‘ Amy Ball in the Atlanta informational meeting. World Coffee Events is a co-shared organization created by both the SCAE and SCAA.
And as far as events go, Apostolopoulos stresses that a merger would create more, not fewer, local opportunities for members to grow and connect. “We will act as locally as possible, whether it’s major events like SCAA Expo and World of Coffee, local championships, Co:Lab, Re:Co Symposium or Re:Verb, we expect to deliver more of these events locally throughout the world,” he said.
As the SCAE voting period ends, expect results to be delivered at the group's Extraordinary General Meeting on May 23rd in London, which will be watched closely back in the United States. As per Communications Team Board Representative Andrew Hetzel, the SCAA will begin their own voting process this summer, following the annual Strategic Leadership Summit in early June.
No word has been reached yet on whether “i” will stay in the word Speciality or not, should the two groups combine.
This story is developing…
Liz Clayton is the associate editor at Sprudge.com. Read more Liz Clayton on Sprudge.