What does “local” mean? If you’re a surfer hiking to a new spot to surf and you come across a handmade sign that reads “Locals Only,” it means one thing. If you’re a chef looking at produce in the back of a pick-up truck outside your restaurant, it means another thing.

From food systems to manufacturing, from artists to independent retailers who live in the neighborhoods they serve, “local” can be assigned a variety of meanings and many different levels of importance by consumers and business to business buyers.

For U.S. coffee roasters outside of Hawaii or Puerto Rico, being part of a local farm-to-table food system is not really an option. A roaster located in Brownsville, Texas, could conceivably roast coffee grown near San Luis Potosi, Mexico, 600 miles away, but still too far for even a generous definition of locally grown.

Nevertheless, the concept of local, formally defined or informally cast about, has become too pervasive to ignore, especially for businesses that have even an indirect brand presence among consumers. Coffee roasters should be prepared to address the issue.

The idea and ideal of 100% local food systems is questioned by chefs and consumers (and economists) who reject the cost and the quality of crops forced to grow in unwelcoming climates. Imagine the cost of forcing coffee to grow in southern Texas near our imaginary roaster in Brownsville. Even if it were possible to artificially create a tropical climate and augment the soil, the cost to do so would result in coffee so expensive it would make record setting auction coffee look like a bargain. And the coffee would very likely exhibit a less than optimal flavor profile.

Still, we are so far from realizing even a fraction of the potential for economically viable and environmentally sustainable local food systems, there is clearly great inherent value in the continued pursuit if not the perfection of increasing use of local food.

Unlike food, the potential for consumers and businesses using locally produced goods is theoretically if not practically unlimited, as long as we don’t look too far and wide up the supply chain. That local artist you love could be using paint brushes manufactured in China.  Your local baker does a great job using local ingredients, but the sugar, equipment, aprons… not local. Your locally made beer, honey, barbecue sauce, organic soap, butter, jams, and cutting boards were all produced using stuff from other places.

So, what does “local” mean?

For food products, local could and should mean fresh. But with the ever increasing efficiencies of shipping, it’s possible to get fresh anything from almost anywhere almost any time. At the end of the day, if it means nothing else, any definition of local means the economic benefits of a business are primarily or substantially local. Employees are hired and spend their paychecks locally. The company pays taxes and business-related fees locally and, whenever possible, purchases local goods and services.

With few exceptions, even the most locally focused wholesale coffee roaster will face the prospect of acquiring accounts outside of their region, where they fail every definition of local mentioned so far. Some larger specialty coffee roasters invest in a brick and mortar presence in various locations as they grow: retail stores, training centers, even additional roasting facilities. What about smaller roasters who believe in community-based business but also want to grow their company?

In large metropolitan areas, there are coffee roasters who identify closely with not only the city, but the neighborhood where they are located. A rural roaster can identify closely with an entire county. A commitment to community, whatever the geography,  is common among coffee roasters and retailers, and growing beyond your local customers can feel like you’ve stopped dancing with the one who brought you. But densely populated areas are usually rich in both accounts and competition. Less populated regions have less competition, but fewer opportunities to sell coffee. At some point, every growing coffee roaster is an “outsider.”

An Outsider’s Guide for Wholesale Coffee Roasters

Remember your roots. In fact, don’t just remember the neighborhood where your company started, increase your commitment to your local community as you grow beyond it. One of the challenges of growing beyond your regional geography is the perception of those “left behind.” Not only can far flung prospects see you as not local,  an account just down the street can start seeing you as not local, or “too big now.”

Leave the word “local” at home. Even if you’re moving into a neighboring region where there are no other coffee roasters, don’t stretch the definition. At times, referring to regions geographically relevant to your roastery (county, portion of state, region of the county) is a good practice, but allow customers to define the value of proximity, whatever it might be. Most potential wholesale accounts know their options for coffee. If any geographic alliances or virtues exist, they should be applied by the customer.

Finally, and most important: local is as local does. Your goal is for people to be pleasantly surprised when they find out your company is “not from around here,” because of what you do, not what you say. Ideally, this includes a warm body, a sales person and/or trainer, living in the area or close enough to visit regularly when sales volume warrants. Whether or not a regular personal presence is an option, local is as local does means demonstrating you place value on the opportunity to do business in the community. Most coffee roasters receive regular, if not constant, requests for donations (sometimes called “promotional opportunities”) of every kind. It’s not always easy to know when to say yes and when to say no, but one simple dividing line is to work with groups that are part of communities where you do business. This doesn’t necessarily mean (and should probably rarely mean) cash donations or even donations of large amounts of coffee.  Simply giving one of your wholesale accounts coffee to brew for the local chamber or neighborhood association meeting can go a long way. Minor but consistent participation has a greater impact over time than occasional and inconsistent high visibility. And remember, there is more value to your product being in people’s hands than there is in your logo sharing space on a banner or a website.   

Being local is not part of the marketing mix for every coffee roaster, but every coffee roaster is confronted by the concept, and the golden rule in this case is to let your actions speak louder than your words.