Coffee with a Conscience

By / Photography By E. S. Bruhmann | March 01, 2010
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Heine Brothers’ brews good intentions for community and planet

When an earthquake devastated Haiti in January, Heine Brothers’ Coffee responded as it does so often: The Louisville business created a special Help Haiti Blend and began sending donations to the American Red Cross Haiti Relief.

For every $10 bag of coffee sold, Heine Brothers’ gave $5 to the Red Cross. When customers bought a $15 bag of the special blend, Heine donated $10 toward the Red Cross’s efforts to provide food, water and medical supplies for the Haitians. In the first five days of selling the Help Haiti Blend, the company and its customers raised $1,400 for the Red Cross and have now surpassed $5,000.

The company’s prompt response was no surprise to Louisvillians who frequent Heine Brothers’ stores for a spot of espresso or a chilly iced latte. Since opening its first store in 1994 on Longest Avenue in the Highlands, Heine Brothers’ has made changing the world for the better, locally and globally, part of its business philosophy.

“We try to be a good community citizen,” said co-owner Mike Mays, who finds selling coffee more fun and stimulating than his former profession: lawyer. “We can give back, take care of and do well,” he said.

In small ways and more visionary ventures, Mays and business partner Gary Heine are making a noticeable difference here and abroad. Through a coffee cooperative it helped found, Heine Brothers’ buys organically grown coffee directly from farmers in developing countries. By paying a fair, consistent price to the growers, Heine Brothers’ helps improve the lives and communities of families in impoverished regions.

The cooperative buys from countries in Africa, Central America, South America and Indonesia. With farmers in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Peru and elsewhere, Heine Brothers’ is cultivating business partnerships with some of the poorest people on earth.

“It’s interesting that our small company, operating in a five-square-mile area of Louisville, can impact people all over the world,” said Mays.

The cooperative’s reliable purchasing gives coffee farmers a foundation on which to base their agriculture business. “They are no longer at the mercy of the international commodities market,” Mays said.

The farmers tell the coffee cooperative that its commitment to buy from them is as important as the higher price it usually pays, because the longterm relationship brings stability to the family,” said Bill Harris, who heads Cooperative Coffees, based in Americus, Georgia. The farmers also can leverage the contracted price they have with the cooperative to get a better deal from other buyers, he said.

Buying through the cooperative has led to meaningful relationships between the retailer and some of the people who grow and harvest the coffee beans.

“We’ve been able to meet them and share meals and meet their families,” said Mays, who has traveled to some of the coffee-producing countries and seen for himself an improved quality of life for the farmers. Partner Gary Heine was on a trip to see farmers in Peru at the time this story was written.

In addition to helping Haiti and farmers in developing countries, the company makes a point of contributing to local charities and worthy causes. It’s a soft touch when it comes to fundraisers. Last year, the company gave away gift cards worth more than $10,000.

Through its popular Ronda’s Blend, named after a former co-worker, the coffee company raises hundreds of dollars annually for the Center for Women and Families in Louisville, which works to end domestic violence while providing refuge for victims.

According to the center, Heine Brothers’ has contributed $21,500 in cash and more than $6,000 in other gifts to the organization, said CWF President Denise Vazquez Troutman. It means a lot that Louisville’s hometown coffee business spotlights the problem of domestic violence and has an unwavering commitment to the center, said Troutman, who noted that the first homicide in Louisville this year was a domestic violence case.

A portion of Heine Brothers’s proceeds from sales of its Mountain Dream Blend benefits Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a group fighting to protect Kentucky’s ancient mountains, forests and waterways. Last year alone, sales of the blend resulted in more than $600 to the group.

Heine Brothers’ isn’t content to be environmentally conscious by simply recycling every scrap of plastic, paper and cardboard. The company is turning its 70 tons a year of coffee ground waste into compost for use in a West End community food project directed by Breaking New Grounds, an organization started by Mays and Heine. The grounds are mixed with wood chips and spent distillery grains and digested by worms to create an enriched compost. Small bags of worm compost are for sale at the Heine stores.

In 1994, Heine’s original store generated $500,000 in sales. Now, 15 years later, the company operates seven stores, employs more than 100 and reports annual sales of nearly $4 million.

The challenges posed by competitors large and small, as well as a wobbly economy that has produced record-breaking job losses, have been felt. Some customers have cut back on the number of cups and visits, said Mays. Even so, Heine Brothers’ served a million drinks last year to a loyal clientele who come in to see friends and savor coffee grown on a steep mountain slope in a country far away.

Heine Brothers’ strength and future lie in its gratitude for its customers and the mutual desire of retailer and customer to make Louisville and the world better.

“We have been walking the talk for 15 years and people trust us,” he said. “You can do well by doing right,” said Mays.

Coffee Mug


Seven stores in the Highlands, Crescent Hill and St. Matthews.
Owners and business partners: Gary Heine, 57, who favors yerba mate tea with honey, and Mike Mays, 46, who drinks the Mountain Dream Blend of Sumatran and Nicaraguan coffee, black, no sugar.
Official coffee of the Louisville Orchestra.
Other products: Free-trade teas and chocolate, organic beeswax lip balm, worm compost, Gary Heine Honey


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