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The name of the game is specialty for Gabriel Boscana. The East Coast native has a personal history of 15 years and counting in the specialty coffee industry. Name a company that’s been around that long, longer or even half that time and its likely, from the East to the West he’s worked for them. Starting at Gimme! Coffee, to Ritual, Sightglass and Intelligentsia, many of which are major independents Boscana has held a role as a barista, roaster and or green buyer. Having moved back East with his wife, child and far from pretty tiles dominating coffee shops in major coastal cities, Boscana and his wife hope to be among the humans behind the machines that are creating another way to taste coffee, from a veteran who understands the value of an experience, especially one that comes in the mail.
In conversation with Gabriel Boscana of Maquina Coffee Roasters.
g.: I studied sociology. I wanted to understand why people do certain things. I saw the immediate connections to coffee. It’s mostly brown people like myself. I started at Gimme! Coffee and progressed to a manager. But I wanted to start a life outside of a college town. The driving force to go west was self-discovery. I was in my early twenties and I was done with upstate New York. I wanted an adventure. When I eventually I had a kid; the intention was to make a life in California in a super diverse environment. And, reality hit, it’s so expensive, especially there. Also environmentally speaking, the drought was intense. I work in coffee and water is life.
c.: Without water there’s nothing. So, how did the move West shape up for you?
I started at Ritual in San Francisco; I was their first employee. And then I started working for Intelligentsia as a roaster. Roasting gets me closer to the farmer; that’s where my heart is. I used to work at Ecco after intelligentsia purchased it. I left Intelligentsia to be a green buyer at Sightglass. This second phase of my career was more about being at the farm level and seeing the culture. How do you negotiate on the consuming end and then witnessing both the extremes, like 99 percent of farmers are poor, they just want to feed their families.
c.: Talk about reality and an alarming one percent!
g.: I started to feel very disconnected from who we were as people. It was a struggle to go out and see a real tree, to have a conversation, to drink water. Restaurants weren’t serving water, which is the right thing to do when you’re in a drought. But there had to be another way to put something into the world beyond ‘I have to sell coffee to pay the rent.’
When you have a kid, it’s kind of like what kind of life do you want. My wife had her brother outside of Philly. We thought, well we can’t be totally away from a city. We knew we wanted good schools, rent and cost of living – oh my god! that was a huge factor for me. I spent fifteen years in the Bay area. In starting a company, I didn’t want to start in an area that was so saturated. I didn’t want another coffee shop on the corner with fly set ups and tile. I wanted something a bit more rooted and in nature.
c.: How did you begin to reconcile your next move, which would lead you back East?
g.: I love cities. I needed to pull back and focus on important stuff: children, family and people that are here. People in Pennsylvania don’t move. We moved out here to have the freedom to do what we want to do. I wanted to be able to work a life creatively and support that life. There should be a way for something to bring you monetary value to feed yourself, to enjoy it and then touch the lives of other people. There should still be a way for you to contribute to someone’s every day. Coffee is the only thing most people drink everyday besides water.
c.: Talk to me about the creative part. It oozes from the feeling of your brand – the art, the bags, the display – it’s all around.
g.: The creative part is awesome. You can be a weirdo and no one cares. You don’t have to wear a uniform. But access to a skillset, that is important. It’s a weird skill because its working class and almost the same time it’s a specialized skill so you have to build your taste. You have to know what you’re doing. It’s a weird combination of a lot of stuff that makes coffee. And it’s a weird mechanical thing you need to know, but speak in chef language.
I chuckle. He chuckles.
g.:. We love coffee. The question is how can we positively impact farmers’ lives so that we can keep enjoying coffee. Maquina is teeny tiny, we’re not buying direct yet. I want to be able to buy from people that I trust and respect. I want to know that every coffee we purchase is putting something back.
c.: I noticed your give back initiative. It’s coffee with a cause, that’s important but it’s also on trend. Can you share with me why the Trees Foundation resonated with you as something you wanted to attach your company to?
g: I was talking to a friend of mine. I’m struggling with the idea that I’m a capitalist and this isn’t a non-profit. Then, there’s the struggle of most of the people of color doing things to produce goods that we can consume. I didn’t want to do a non-profit, but I wanted to contribute to something right now, not just to people but also, to nature. We’re taking from nature, how do we give back? A friend told me about three organizations on trees. I started looking at local foundations, ones that give back to the environment and highly impact people. We’re taking the coffee fruit but not giving the producers anything education wise or supplementing their income.
With Trees for the Future Foundation, which is two hours from my house, it’s the idea that you want to plant a forest garden. Coffee grows best in forest gardens, not in monocultures. The whole thing is they collect seeds and give to farmers – for fruit trees, vegetable trees and shade trees so that they start learning how to garden in the forest. They’ve planted over half a billion trees so far.
Literally ten cents is one seed, one tree. You donate 50 bucks a year, that’s 500 trees, that’s huge. From Ethiopia, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda, they can partner with you, it’s however I want to do it.
c.: That is huge. And, I’d say that’s small making a big impact. The power of one seed, imagine that! See that. It’s obvious that Maquina is interested in impacting humanity positively. Can you share more about how that trickles down into the operations of the business?
g.: It’s about using business for good. I’ve been to origin and it’s not a marketing ploy. Most of the times farmers are living by simple means, just to sustain their families, the more I can drive Maquina on humanity and coffee the better.
c.: Let’s talk about your packaging. Packaging is everything. I’m a Gemini, and I’m conflicted. I love packaging. I love graphic design. I’m a normal looking dude and I don’t buy fancy clothes. I believe in my heart its what’s in the package that matters. I understand as a 15+-year veteran that packaging is everything. If I was going to do something small and subscription based I needed something beautiful that spoke to my aesthetics and pulled me in. I contracted a young local designer via Dribble. I found someone in graphic design. His name is Caleb Heisey. He also wanted to work on something in coffee. He was very aware and he’s from Philly.
c.: There’s some great line work in the design and the scenic illustrations really drew me in. Well done.
g.: I wanted something that evokes mystique and intrigue. What she’s doing with hand you see it in baroque art, its spiritual. You’re supposed to turn your wrist upward as if opening up spiritually. I wanted thing some quirky, weird and elegant. Maquina is machine; I’m a roaster and I love roasting coffee. We need a machine, tools, equipment, its all manual here, not automated. I wanted it to evoke that it takes people to do this and at the end of the day it’s about people – how many hands has this coffee gone through.
You have Maquina that’s a hard word and a feminine hand – it’s the marriage of those to ideas. The bags are all screen printed by hand by Atmosphere printing in Philadelphia. The bags aren’t totally perfect and I like that because someone touched this bag with their hands. The printing is done out of New Jersey – Camden Prints Work – a company that’s providing jobs in a rough community.
c.: At every point you’re being local, creative and giving back in some way, that’s inspiring. But you know, it feels like everyone is doing a subscription these days. Why did you choose a subscription model for your business model?
g.: I love making coffee at home. I wanted people to feel safe and excited to get a box of coffee at home for friends.
You don’t have to have a physical space. I still also believe there is a lack of true understanding of the specialty coffee consumer. Not the barista or the person who kind of works in coffee. There’s something that is missing that’s like ‘here’s really great coffee.’ Coffee isn’t that complicated, but it can be and sometimes is. We want to reach people who don’t have time or want to do deal with the café. There are a lot of people like that. I love ordering something and the anticipation of getting it. There’s also something about bringing something new to smaller places versus big cities. When you don’t have competition you can focus on the craft. You can focus on what you want that voice to be. Ripples creates wave sand waves create movement.
To taste the voice of Maquina as evidence in its coffee, visit the roaster here.
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