Five years ago, the idea of owning a coffee shop hadn’t even percolated with Christie Hessler.
She was so busy grinding away at her textbooks, learning to become a dietician, that she barely had time to work at a shop, let alone own one.
But when Hessler was given the opportunity to buy Acre Coffee in 1998, she buzzed right over to the bank and took out a loan.
“I was excited that there was a place in town that sold organic coffee,” said Hessler, who moved to Hood River from Randall, Wash., in 1985 and worked at Acre for three months before taking over for Steve DeCosse.
“When Steve said he’d sell it to me for cheap, I figured I’d give it a try. At first I thought I’d be paying off my school loans by selling coffee, but things have gone so well that I chose to quit my classes last spring,” she said.
Although her career goals have changed somewhat, Hessler said she is constantly educating herself about the business as well as earth-friendly growing practices.
“My whole passion is for the organic industry and its connection with the earth,” she said. “For me, it’s not as much about a business as it is about supporting the growing of organic foods.”
Hessler is so adamant in her support of the organic industry that 90 percent of Acre’s food and beverage selections are wholly organic — including some products from Columbia Gorge Organic Farms and Mother’s Market.
“People are going so far in what they do to food these days,” she said. “You don’t know what’s in the food you eat, and manufacturers don’t want to tell you. But I try to know whatever I can, and feel that by buying and selling organic products, I can have a direct influence.”
Acre’s primary business partner is Café Mam (pronounced “mom”), an egalitarian co-op comprised of Mayan farmers who cultivate organic coffee beans on small, family-run farms in Chiapas, Mexico. Farm sizes vary between two and eight acres, and the value of the work-share increases as each farm becomes fully organic.
The co-op, called ISMAM (Indigenous peoples of the Sierra Madre of Motozintla), has grown from 259 members to over 1,600 in 13 years.
Farmers work in groups of 10 (no hired labor) and participate equally in all jobs, so the high standards are met on each of the 10 farms.
“The Acre name is synonymous with the people of the co-op,” Hessler said, “because most people own just one acre of land. It feels good to support the cause, and I decided that if I was going to sell a product, I wanted it to mean something.”
Just like the ISMAM co-op, Acre Coffee has continued to grow. Hessler is always looking for new ways to freshen up her lunch and breakfast menus, and plans to attend a six-month course at the School of Natural Cookery in Boulder, Colo., starting in March.
“Right now we’re trying out a new tofu pocket sandwich that has done really well,” she said. “I’ve also been introducing some new soups, salads and organic bagels. People really enjoy the variety and I think that’s one of the reasons we have so many dedicated customers.”
And, as Hessler will be the first to say, a group of dedicated employees, too.
“The fact that we support the organic industry is a big reason why I’ve been here so long,” said Amber Nelson, an employee of four years and one of Hessler’s two shift leaders. “I’ve really developed a passion for it.”
“Passionate” is how both Nelson and Hessler describe their connection to the organic coffee industry. Supporting such a noble cause like ISMAM makes both women feel like they’re giving something back.
Anyone involved with buying, selling or cultivating organic products would agree that it’s easy to come to work every day when you know you’re making a difference.
“Supporting organic food products is my value,” Hessler said. “And living my values is how I want to live.”
Acre Inc. is located at 1151 May Ave. in Hood River. For more info on ISMAM, visit www.cafemam.com