Higher Grounds Trading Company in Traverse City

Behind the counter at this Traverse City business stands a young woman with dark, tight-cropped hair, a nose ring and a smile. And behind her, on a wall of hooks, dangles a mishmash of ceramic mugs, fired in every color, imprinted with random logos. Here, at Higher Grounds Trading Co. in Traverse City, there are no Styrofoam or paper cups. Instead, you bring your own or borrow from the wall collection of mugs donated by customers or from Goodwill, each cup returned to this Northern Michigan business when drained and then washed and re-hung. One customer providing for the next.

This sense of intimate humanity in everything we, as people, do is what Traverse City’s Higher Grounds is about. Under Treter’s guidance, the spirit expands far enough to touch the ground where your coffee comes from and is as close as the mug your coffee comes in.

“It’s not just a cup of coffee, it’s a vehicle for change,” says Treter, owner of Michigan’s only 100 percent fair trade and organic coffee roasting company.

The simple bean combined with this simple motto form the basis of Treter’s Northern Michigan business model—a model that has built schools where children had none, dug wells in villages for people who once hiked an hour to fill a bucket, and sustained farmers who previously had sold their coffee harvest at prices that didn’t feed their families.

Treter’s approach to his Traverse City business is experimental, he admits, a dream, a gamble, a hope that business can be done based on more than the financial bottom-line.

“It’s a holistic approach to business where we consider the social and environmental impacts of what we do,” he says. “We want to prove what’s possible in business.”

Treter’s philosophy is to pay small-scale farmers what their product is worth, paying more than the minimum fair-trade price, paying as much as he can and still compete in the market.

“There’s a lot of money in coffee—it’s the second most-traded commodity in the world, after oil,” he says. “But most of the dollars sit in the hands of the retailer or cafe owner. The consuming country makes the money while the producing country makes nothing. It’s one of the most oppressive industries in the world.”

What makes a guy in Northern Michigan with soft hazel eyes and a baby face worry about farmers and families in Ethiopia, Peru and Mexico? He’s done something few have. He’s left his non-office (more on that later) and traveled to fields all over the world to walk with the farmers, to sleep, eat and work beside them and to work for them, in their communities.

Justin Grimm, chairman of On the Ground (a nonprofit formed by Treter) and pastor of Advent Lutheran Church in Lake Ann near Traverse City, has seen Treter’s mission unfold first hand.“Chris understands what it means to be in solidarity with all people, regardless of what they look like, how they speak, or where they are from,” Grimm says.

Treter admits that it’s difficult to visit farmers and see how they live, each trip a sharp reminder of his work here. “I live between two worlds,” he says. “I see how we can make changes, even small changes, in how we do business.”

Small changes? This from the Northern Michigan man who was the impetus for an ultramarathon in January that raised over $200,000 for building three elementary schools in Ethiopia and who helped bring clean water to families in 100 homes in the indigenous Mayan Highlands of Mexico.

But this is what’s so fetching about the soft-spoken Treter: He’s unassuming, indebted, even, to his work, never looking at what he’s done, only ahead to what he has yet to do.

“This guy is driven by his values,” says his his fellow Northern Michigan business owner, Timothy Young—a longtime friend and co-conspirator on many projects. “He’s been devoted since the day I met him 15 years ago. He works from an admirable place, with grace and humility, every time.”

Young contends it’s not just likeability that’s been the secret to Treter’s success. It’s Treter’s uncanny ability to come up with new, mad ideas and then, almost overnight, round up a crew of talented, equally mad people to make them happen.

Take, for example, the much-publicized and reported-upon Run Across Ethiopia (RAE) in which a team of six runners from Northern Michigan (and four others from across the United States), made a bid to run 250 miles in 10 days’ time. Each runner on the team had to raise $15,000 for the privilege to join in.

Young was on a trip with Treter to Cuba (where Treter was researching the possibility of a fair-trade travel tour—another niche of HG’s business) when the inevitable happened: “We were drinking a beer at a bar in Cuba, and Chris threw out the idea of the run,” says Young, who owns the specialty organic food company Food For Thought in Honor, near Traverse City. “It resonated with me, and we got started.”

Thirty days later, Treter and Young were on a plane to Ethiopia to check it out. Thirty days more and the nonprofit On the Ground was formed to facilitate the run and fundraising. Six months after that, they’d raised $208,000 to build schools in Ethiopia’s Yirgachefe region. “That,” Young says, “is what it’s like to work with Chris.”

Yirgachefe embodies the kind of disparity that Treter thinks fair trade business can help dispel. Though the area is home to some of the world’s most remarkable and sought-after coffees, little more than half the region’s children complete primary school, and the adult literacy rate is 36 percent.

The run became a real option after Treter watched the documentary Running the Sahara, which tells the story of three men who ran 4,300 miles in 111 days across the Sahara Desert in 2007. Treter sent a longshot email to one of those ultramarathoners, Ray Zahab. When Zahab emailed him back within hours, Treter suddenly had an advisor, a mentor for his longshot idea. “It went from impossible to possible,” Treter says.

The first big training run for RAE was during the summer solstice last year when Treter (already an avid runner and ultramarathoner) and a group of friends decided to run from Empire beach, leaving at sunset, to Suttons Bay, some 38 miles away. They put on their shoes and their headlamps and arrived in time for the sunrise.

Treter’s training involved running 110 miles a week and doing 3.5 more hours of cross-training each week. In the end, RAE turned out to be one of the most visible efforts Higher Grounds has done in awareness and education. The RAE logistics team of 38 members secured Internet access at points all along the route, connecting the runners live, complete with Facebook status updates and Tweets, as the feat unfolded across the sea.

The offshoots of Treter’s original business idea just keep coming. Higher Grounds started nearly a decade ago when Treter and then-wife, Jody, returned to the States after a college internship where they worked with coffee farmers in Chiapas, Mexico. They started with a $3,600 loan and a pallet of beans from Maya Vinic (meaning “Mayan Man”), the co-operative of farmers they’d just left.“We were just a couple of kids trying to save the world,” Treter says with a laugh.

As a child in Toledo, Treter contends his mother accused him of being “adventurous.” Add to that a father who was a corporate pilot, and Treter was raised among all kinds of cultures and ideas. But his favorite childhood memories were in Northern Michigan’s Lake Leelanau, visiting the cottage his grandparents have had since the 1950’s. It seems only right, then, that Treter would grow up to build a livelihood with a global reach, as well as local, cherished roots. “Coming here, coming back to Northern Michigan seemed like the right place to be,” he says. He and Jody eventually rented a log cabin in Lake Leelanau and gutted it, spending $600 to build a roastery there. When business outgrew the place three years ago, they moved to the current location, tucked back on the historic grounds of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons.

“We opened the coffee shop to bring a face to the company,” Treter says. “It’s been great exposure, and people are finding us. It’s become a destination location.”

Indeed, the TC presence has created a buzz about Higher Grounds in the bay-side burg. The hodgepodge of to-go coffee mugs brings a second look, but more important, a thoughtful pause. Traverse City locals and visitors spot Higher Grounds’ bike deliveries in downtown and Old Town, the bikes running year round, with studded tires in the winter. And of course, cafe customers have the pleasure of drinking a cup of coffee made fresh—the roasting operation seen through floor-to-ceiling windows, the beans ground and brewed to order, while you wait.

The non-office

Behind the scenes, there is the Traverse City non-office of Treter, where meetings are held in a deep purple room around a wide kitchen table covered in a striped tablecloth, or, sometimes, upon the green vintage chairs in the corner. On the wall is the War Map, a huge spreadsheet tracking fundraising efforts and mapping event locations in various parts of the world. People come and go, greeting, joshing, their voices carrying.

“Desks are an old way of doing things, before Wi-Fi and smartphones,” Treter says. “There are no defined territories or walls between us. It feels good to come in and see someone in ‘my’ chair.”

Chelsea Bay Wills, graphic designer for Higher Grounds and On the Ground board member, likes to work perched at one of the cafe tables. She co-owns The Change, a design firm committed to working with good-for-the-world companies. Ninety percent of her clients are fair-trade.

“Fair trade is something we can do to make a difference just by where we spend our money,” Wills says. “I love to spread the message, and others are excited about it once they get it too.”

The Higher Grounds Coffee Bar in Traverse City has become the face of that message. More than a coffee shop, it’s become a marketplace for global and local artisans; an offbeat, well-loved lounge with a stream of regulars and gotta-try-it newbies; and the backdrop for the sound and rhythm of local musicians. Best of all, it’s become a simple way to make a difference, big or small, with your cup of daily brew.

Why shade grown?

Higher Grounds uses only shade-grown beans. Why? Rich, fertile soil and a cool canopy of diversified shade trees are two of the most important ingredients in a fine cup of organic coffee.

Quality: When coffee cherries—the coffee trees’ fruit containing the coffee bean—are allowed to mature naturally in shade, the sugars in the coffee fruit that produce flavor are allowed to come to full maturation consistently. Conventional coffee is grown in a monoculture setting in full sun, causing the beans to mature rapidly, some ripening too much or too little, thereby compromising flavor.

Birds: The forests in the Mexican Highlands are second only to the Amazon in their range of biodiversity, providing habitat to nearly 180 different avian species. Forty percent of top-level canopy trees were clear-cut in the mid-1900’s to make way for monstrous, sun-exposed coffee plantations. But organic coffee grown under a canopy provides a biological paradise. Monkeys play in shade trees above coffee fields in Ethiopia. Migratory birds nestle among avocado and orange trees interspersed throughout coffee fields in Mexico. Children play in the dense forest of Nicaraguan coffee fields.

Soil: The roots of the shade trees prevent soil erosion, and when the leaves and branches fall, they decompose forming a naturally nutrient-rich soil. Organic growing techniques include composting, the creation of live plant barriers to prevent erosion, and the use of organic pesticides made from natural materials found in a coffee field. But much of the world’s coffee is grown in large, open plantations using pesticides, herbicides and insecticides. These harm the soil and groundwater, create an economic strain on the small-scale farmer, and have negative health impacts on coffee-growing communities.

The ultimate cup

A great cup of coffee starts with great beans, but it also depends on preparation methods. Chris’s tips for brewing the ultimate cup:

Ratio: Use two tablespoons of coffee grounds per 8 oz. of water.

Grind: The size of the ground coffee particles is crucial to the flavor extraction and body. Be sure to use the correct grind for your brew method. For example, French press coffee should be ground fairly coarse, while automatic drip coffee should be ground finer.

Water: Use filtered water if possible; sediment, chemicals and minerals in the water can alter flavor.Temp: The brewing temperature of the water should be between 185 and 200 degrees Fahrenheit—just short of the 212-degree boiling point.

Freshness: It’s better to make two small pots than one big pot that will sit for too long!

Extras: What you add into your cup of coffee affects taste just as much as the coffee itself. For example, Higher Ground’s Coffee Bar uses organic milk from local, grass-fed cattle and natural sweeteners like maple syrup, chocolate and honey (local when possible), as well as organic, fair-trade blue agave and raw cane sugar. The better the ingredients you use, the better the cup. 

For more info: highergroundstrading.com