He may dress like a safari guide and occasionally sound like an aid worker, but Blake Mycoskie, CEO of Toms Shoes, is a businessman. Best known for giving away hundreds of thousands of shoes and glasses to impoverished children, Mycoskie still wants to make a profit. "I've always wanted to run a for-profit business because that's what works," he says. "And coffee made sense."
Mycoskie announced his latest venture at South by Southwest, where he pointed out his plans are driven by a geographic common sense that obviates the need for marketing-speak. The places the company has given away shoes – some 10 millions since 2006 – happen to grow high-quality coffee beans. If you're going to put something into an economy, Mycoskie figured, you should also try to help that economy grow. To that end, Toms Roasting Company, which will begin selling beans at Whole Foods this week and officially open cafes in Austin, New York, and Portland by the end of the summer, aims to connect main street to distant red dirt paths.
Mycoskie's beans will initially come from plantations in Tanzania, Honduras, Guatemala, and Peru – "You've got to have electricity," he says – but he hopes to continue expanding operations around East Africa and Central America as he finds more spots with the capacity to produce great coffee and the need for clean water. The basic math is this: for every cup customers buy, Toms will create enough clean water for one person for one day; for every bag, it will be a week. If that sounds small, consider that if Starbucks donated in the same way based only on cups sold, it could keep the nation of Hungary consistently hydrated.
The connection between coffee and water is far from arbitrary. Coffee plants thrive in warm, rainy climes where runoff spoils river water and creeps into wells. Creating clean fresh water in these areas is merely a matter of spending money on purification. Toms Roasting Company will be working with Water for People, a major international charity, to invest wisely.
"We like to work with experts and locals," says Mycoskie. "Water isn't a complicated thing. Everybody needs it."
At the same time, Toms expansion from the internet into the world of brick and mortar might be the most ambitious part of the project. Mycoskie describes cafes full of professionals and young friends hanging out amid pillows and designer touches flown in from the developing world. The company's existing cafe, a rustic-looking storefront on Abbot Kinney in Venice Beach, is draped in native patterns and fairy lights, reveling in expat chic (not unlike Mycoskie himself). The move is a bet on the strength of the Tom's brand, which will be competing with the likes of both Starbucks and Blue Bottle. In that context, the company's charitable giving is an important part of engendering good will among potential customers. But it is also the main point. Having fielded concerns that giving away shoes in places like Haiti might actually limit the growth of native business, Mycoskie vowed last year to build factories in that country. By 2015, Toms plans to produce a third of its products in the countries where they will ultimately given away.
"You have to listen to other people," says Mycoskie. "And we're actually in these countries. We know these areas."
He says this – and speaks at length about his love of East Africa – over a cup of Toms' Guatemalan Roast drip-brewed by Elan Lieber, the Los Angeles barista serving as a consigliere on the project. The coffee is rich and strong, with some spicy notes. It tastes like the sort of dark stuff served up in Central American cafes – not the sort of brew you often find on the mass market. Mycoskie, who lives in L.A., but spends a great deal of time on the road, knows this and is clearly proud of his product.
"I'm the first one at the Venice cafe every morning," he says. "It's not a 'checking in' thing. I just wake up early and really like it."
[Bags from $13; toms.com]