Five questions for Todd Carmichael, globe-trotting Seattle coffee CEO turned reality TV star.
These days it’s not too hard to figure out where your cup of coffee came from.
Thanks to the “farm-to-table” and responsible consumption movements, major coffee chains and boutique shops alike typically list countries of origin on their websites and elegantly lettered chalkboards in their stores.
But while consumers might know whether their coffee comes from Rwanda or Brazil, the specifics — what the farms actually look like, details about the local culture etc. — remain a mystery.
Enter Northwest native Todd Carmichael, whose Travel Channel show “Dangerous Grounds” sheds light on the places where coffee beans come from.
Carmichael grew up on a farm in Spokane before making his way to Seattle to attend the UW. That’s where he met Jean Philippe Iberti, who would later become the co-founder at their coffee company La Colombe. Carmichael is the company’s CEO, but he also sources the coffee from farmers around the globe, often in politically unstable and conflict-ridden areas.
Those expeditions are the subject of “Dangerous Grounds”, which tracks Carmichael’s journeys to Africa, Asia and Latin America.
In the first season of the show, audience members watched the coffee importer tackle obstacles along the infamous Highlands Highway in Papua New Guinea and handle stringent government controls in Ethiopia.
For the first show of season two, which premieres Tuesday, January 28 on the Travel Channel, Carmichael finds himself navigating the territory of violent drug cartel Los Zetas in the coffee producing region of Guerrero, Mexico.
It’s all in a day’s work for Carmichael who combines the business travel with his extreme adventures experience; he was the first American to travel on foot with no assistance to the South Pole.
I caught up with Carmichael at the recent Chicago Travel and Adventure Show and asked him about the new season of the show, his Northwest upbringing, and just how far he’s willing to go for a cup of joe. You can also listen to the full interview here.
In “Dangerous Grounds,” you go to some very offbeat places. Do you think a lot about what you want viewers to get out of each episode and to what extent do you have a say in that?
I have 100% say in what countries we go to and what we’re looking for. All these coffees we’re looking for, I’m buying them and they’re for my company. I find that the best thing to do is not try to think of the story. I’m not an editor. I’m not a professional [filmmaker]. I’ve never been in the editing bay more than five minutes. If I’m trying to do that job and my job, it just seizes me up.
We shoot several hundred hours of stuff, and all I do is just go as fast as I can, as far as I can and try to experience as much as I can, and I let everyone else kind of worry about the story that is built after. The thing I am mostly worried about is finding the coffee. I don’t like to fail. And failing in front of — I don’t know how many millions of viewers — is just not fun. It happened once [in Cambodia] and it tends to get me a little nervous. That’s primarily what I am focused on, just making sure I don’t fail in front of America.
In addition to the coffee business you’re involved in a lot of humanitarian work. For example, you have a blend of coffee whose proceeds go to the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. When you started your career, did you plan to become a social entrepreneur?
When I first started, I was 18 years old in Seattle. I am a flaming liberal, so I will let you know in terms of trying to do something to better the planet around me, I was just broke, so it wasn’t feasible. As I began traveling deep into countries that interest me, I became attached to people in villages and places.
It’s not so much being a philanthropist, so much as being, my neighborhood is really big now. It includes lots of countries and lots of villages and lots of places that are very intimate to me, that are very familiar to me, like downtown Philadelphia. So I do what I can, because I’m in this special place — this bridge between the United States and developing countries. It’s just being a good neighbor and doing the right thing. That’s it.
Where does the interest in developing countries come from? Is it fueled by the coffee or was there a pre-existing interest in going to offbeat places?
It’s hard to separate. It’s probably a huge combination of even more things than that, they’re all kind of snowballed together. But ultimately I am a farm boy, a farm boy who lost his farm, and I went to Seattle. I thought I was going to be a tax attorney, but instead I just couldn’t leave the farms. These [coffee] farms aren’t in Spokane, Washington, they’re in different places. I identify with farmers. I’ve grown up with them, I understand them, they understand me. And if there is one thing I can tell you about farmers, it is that they help each other. So that is really the interest.
But I also love my adrenalin rush. I’ve done stupid things like walk across deserts and Antarctica and things like that because I like to challenge myself. I find the best life is the one when you’re just slightly nervous, the one when you’re just a little bit afraid. That’s when you’re the most alert. You know, not completely out of your mind, people are shooting me in the face. But if you keep yourself on that ledge, it’s like you have spidey senses. I like to keep myself there. I really enjoy it.
Do you ever feel like the risk might be too much for a cup of coffee?
Yeah! It’s totally way too much risk for a cup of coffee. But it’s not too much risk for all the people who are associated with me through huge tentacles. I am a lifeline to most of these farmers. I am that person who connects them to a greater world. I bring the market to them. I can change mountains in really profound ways, and I can provide for my four children and my wife. I can provide for my 350 employees now.
So for just a cup of coffee, nah, uh uh. I will go downstairs and brew myself one. But it’s not coffee. This is something way bigger than that and it’s even way bigger than me. Now the risk I take if it were just a greenhorn coming out, yeah dude, it’s bad. I mean this season [of the show], I got arrested five times. I’ve been handcuffed to my Jeep, I’ve been zip-tied. But I have been through these things for 32 years, so there are just ways of navigating around it — knowing what will kill you and what won’t. If you were just somebody who had an interest in it right now and you went into let’s say Gros Cheval, Haiti, yeah, you’re asking for it. But I can get in there and out and it’s not the same kind of risk.
You once wrote about the contrast between going from some of the places that serves the best coffee in the world to the places where you get the coffee. What is it like shifting between those two worlds? Do you feel like there are obligations that come along with that?
Particularly early on, when you’re in a dining environment, like in this city — Alinea — great restaurant, beautiful restaurant, great owners, I’ve been roasting their coffee for a long time — it is just so opulent and beautiful. Then four days later, you’re sleeping under a truck, there is no electricity within however many miles and life is hard, and you see both those things. I don’t struggle with it as much as I did when I was younger. I recognize it as an opportunity, and that is the best way to look at it.
I’ve been given the rare opportunity to navigate between the two. So what am I going to do about it? I’m going to bring the best agriculture to Alinea and to the Four Seasons, and at the same time I am going to deliver that opportunity back to [those farmers in the developing world].
I’m not putting myself in some glorious position like I’m Robin Hood. I’m not a superhero. I’m just a guy who has been put on this bridge, and so yeah, I’m going to run water over this side and I’m going to run something back that way. I guess that speaks to some of the reasons why I do it. I’m 50 years old, and I am going to continue doing this until they put a little blanket over me in a wheelchair because it’s more than just a business. It’s more than just coffee, it’s the universe, it’s the real world.