From doctorates to dark roast

Widener University’s foray into the multi-billion-dollar coffee industry

I live in a world of lectures, faculty meetings and final exams. For my environmental science students and me at Widener University in Chester, Pa., however, it’s also a world of hands-on research on a butterfly farm in Costa Rica, or experiential learning in the rainforests of Peru.

This world didn’t include university food service contracts, price points, or product launches until my chance meeting with an alumnus who shared a passion for environmental sustainability. That meeting led to a simple, delicious cup of coffee.

Since then, I have worked closely with John Sacharok, a 1980 Widener grad and founder of Golden Valley Farms Coffee Roasters in West Chester, Pa., to launch WU Brew, our own brand of shade-grown, environmentally sustainable coffee. The development of WU Brew is an initiative that addresses coffee from “cultivation to cup.”

Students travel with me to the coffee farm in Las Lajas, Costa Rica to participate in the harvest and learn about sustainable farming methods. The coffee is then imported by Golden Valley Farms, where it is sold by the Widener community. Students named the coffee, and the University Relations Department designed the packaging and marketing.

Growing industry

Just how big is the coffee industry?

Coffee is the world’s most widely traded agricultural commodity with annual revenues high into the billions. According to the International Coffee Organization, more than 600 billion cups of coffee are consumed annually. Among natural commodities, only oil has more value.

The worldwide demand for coffee over the last 30 to 40 years has changed the way coffee is farmed. Although coffee evolved by growing under a canopy of shade trees, often in rain forests, most coffee farmers now cut down forests to produce sun-grown coffee. For that reason, much of Costa Rica now looks like Iowa for the mass production of crops, with dire long-term effects on the environment and wildlife.

Before we could launch our shade-grown organic brew outside of the university community, however, we first had to make it available on our own campus. It seemed easy enough: serve WU Brew in the Widener cafeteria and at catered events and sell it in the university’s bookstore. However, as is common practice at colleges and universities, neither the food service provider nor the bookstore is an entity of the university.

As it turned out, Widener’s food service provider already had a preferred coffee supplier. Their contract prohibited the sale of food products—including coffee—in the university’s bookstore. In short, we created a product that we were contractually prohibited from selling on our own campus to our primary customer base—a classic Catch 22.

Undeterred, we scheduled meetings with the university’s chief financial officer and with executives for the university’s food service and bookstore. Backing us was an excellent product and a great story. Not only is the coffee sustainable—which was appealing to all parties involved—it also supported an alumni-run business and student learning, with partial proceeds from the sale of the coffee supporting student research on the coffee farm in Costa Rica.

In the end, the coffee trumped the contracts. Students can now get a cup of WU Brew with breakfast in the cafeteria, or buy a bag—ground or whole bean, medium or dark roast—in the university bookstore for $13.99.

Prospective students and families visiting the Office of Admissions at Widener can treat themselves to a cup of WU Brew at the branded coffee machine that can also serve it as a latte or cappuccino. The coffee can be purchased at various coffee kiosks on campus and is available for purchase online at

It hasn’t even been a year since we officially launched WU at Widener on Earth Day in April, and we are still in the process of integrating it throughout the university. From the beginning, WU Brew has been a learning experience for all involved. There have been challenges, sometimes frustrating, but not insurmountable.

Because of publicity generated by WU Brew, we have received numerous inquiries from other colleges and universities interested in undertaking their own sustainable coffee brand, and at least one upscale supermarket chain is interested in carrying the product.

The more interest we can generate in shade grown, environmentally sustainable coffee, the more sales it will generate, and the more the multi-billion-dollar coffee industry will see the financial benefit of changing its coffee farming methods. WU Brew is about a passion for the environment. It’s not coffee, it’s a crusade.

Stephen Madigosky is a professor of environmental science at Widener University in Chester, Pa.

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