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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Difference Makers: Spokane roaster shows an alternative path to good coffee

Deborah Di Bernardo, of Roast House Coffee, has dedicated herself for more than a decade to sustainable coffee, equitable trade practices and quality production. She stopped by First Avenue Coffee, of which she is also the founder, for a photo Friday.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

For more than a decade, Deborah Di Bernardo has been a java evangelist, proselytizing to anyone within earshot about sustainable agriculture, equitable commerce and “damn good coffee.”

The founder of Spokane’s Roast House and First Avenue Coffee is quick to point out that industrial coffee production is both driving ecological collapse and is itself particularly vulnerable to extinction.

Intentionally in contrast, Di Bernardo can be unbending with her business practices.

The Roast House buys only organic, fair trade coffee beans, grown under the shade of a natural canopy instead of clear-cut groves, sorted by hand to ensure quality. She pays an additional premium for coffee grown by women, and provides funding for World Coffee Research, an organization that works to preserve coffee for future generations.

The result of this atypical dedication is significantly pricier coffee with a lower profit margin – she estimates her green beans cost double the standard rate – but also livable wages for growers and more sustainable cups of joe.

Those cups win awards, too. As much as Di Bernardo focuses on the morality of her product, she is equally obsessed with its quality. She can talk for hours about the flavor profiles of different regions, of exploring for the next good bean, the way weather conditions affect the taste and about the importance of the roasting process.

While many roasters will select special blends just for competitions, Roast House prides itself for serving judges the same coffee they serve customers. And though Di Bernardo dismisses awards as insignificant, she is deeply proud of her beans and what they represent, and is happy for a chance to learn what can be improved after every competition.

Faced with an uncertain future and her own mortality after a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2020, Di Bernardo does not try to change how things are done because she’s optimistic she will succeed. Rather, Di Bernardo is compelled by a sense of obligation, even if she won’t see how this story ends.

“I’m almost glad I won’t be around to know,” she told The Spokesman-Review. “The history of mankind. … It’s not going to change.”

Yet, even if she believes she might be fighting a losing battle, she’s not ready to lay down her sword.

The daughter of a Sicilian immigrant, Di Bernardo lived in Queens, New York, until she was a teen, where her family ran an Italian restaurant. For reasons now lost to family lore, they eventually left the Empire State, moving first to California, then to Bend, Oregon, when it was still a small lumber town, then to Alaska.

Di Bernardo’s last stop was in Spokane, where she arrived in her early 20s, though her parents moved again to Southern California, which reminded her father of Sicily.

“I just didn’t want to go,” she said. “I like Spokane. I like the weather. I’m an unusual Italian, because they like warm weather, but I like cold weather.”

Not long after arriving in the Inland Northwest, she married her first husband, a young attorney. With her business degree and his law degree, they started law offices across the state, pioneers of using new-fangled word processors in the ’80s to expedite bankruptcy and divorce paperwork.

“We did more divorces every year then almost all the firms (in Washington) combined,” she said.

Di Bernardo was living large, she said, noting the expensive suits and long fingernails she wore, the nice house she lived in. But the work drained her, and she began to think that she was profiting off the suffering of others.

“I quit, because I found it too painful to work with these people at the worst point in their lives.”

So Di Bernardo opened a deli, though she lost it when she and her then-husband divorced.

Wanting to stay in the food industry, she went to work for a local coffee roaster, where she learned about the industry from bean to brew. She was horrified by what she found.

“The most cost-effective, profit-driven coffees are the ones grown in a clear-cut environment with lots of chemicals,” she said. “It’s one of the most toxic crops.”

Unable to convince her employer to change their business practices, she set out to open her own roastery.

It’s been an evolution. Going all-organic and fair trade was part of the original mission, but the premium for women workers on the supply side came later, as did the funding for coffee sustainability research.

“Vanilla beans, coffee, chocolate: Our foods are really threatened,” she said. “So I’m not doing that because I am looking for a way to showcase my company.

“I’m doing this because – I’m gonna say one more time, I am terrified. And I won’t be around to see it happen.”

The first iteration was a false start, but in 2010 Di Bernardo opened the doors to Roast House in a small warehouse space on Cleveland Avenue in north Spokane. On Wednesday, the roastery will celebrate its 13th year in business.

It’s been a long, often difficult journey. Convincing cafes and retail customers to pay more for their daily brew has been challenging, even among those that generally agree that sustainability is a concern.

For years, Di Bernardo spent every weekend in a grocery store pouring free coffee, trying to attract customers through word of mouth. She figures she gave away thousands of cups each year.

It was also difficult to get restaurants and cafes to start private labels with the Roast House, in part because many had longstanding business relationships with their suppliers, and also because of the perception that her coffee was unaffordable.

Though some of the coffee she sells is indeed expensive, particularly those rare and specialty beans she serves to her Fancy Pants Coffee Club, much of the coffee is comparable in price to other local roasters, she stressed.

Di Bernardo started attending competitions to draw attention to the work she and her team were doing, winning dozens of awards, including from the prestigious Golden Bean and Good Food Awards.

It was on the way home from the Good Food Awards ceremony in 2014 that Di Bernardo learned she had breast cancer, though she was able to beat it.

In 2018, she opened First Avenue Coffee. She had sworn she would never open a retail location, only to eventually decide that what was needed was a direct outlet to more consumers.

She outfitted the first floor of the old Music City Building, built in 1912, with a 40-foot wraparound coffee bar with sleek brewing systems. She calls the setup “pure drama,” just another chance to catch the eye of a passerby and draw them into the door.

The pandemic hit hard in 2020, and, like many retail locations, First Avenue Coffee hemorrhaged employees. For a time, Di Bernardo tried to do much of the work by herself but realized by the summer that she was in too much pain.

After visiting a hospital, she was told that the breast cancer, which never really went away, had made its way into her bones.

She jokes that everyone in the chemo ward gets frustrated that she still has a full head of hair. A woman used to taking the sledgehammer to drywall herself when it was time for a remodel, Di Bernardo says she sometimes forgets she can’t still do it all.

These days, she says she tries to live big, even if she lives simply. She packs her friends into her 800-square-foot home for parties, tries to eat good food and drink good drinks, and is looking forward to a trip to Italy for a visit to the land of her father.

“I think it was pretty easy to go back to that standard of living,” she said. “It’s more like what I had experienced as a young immigrant family in New York. That was just lots of joy.”

Even though she’s not certain whether humanity can turn itself around, she still believes that it is meaningful to educate customers and others in the industry about the threats coffee and the world face, and also to show that an alternative is possible.

And she doesn’t want her example to fizzle out anytime soon. She has been considering making the café employee-owned, as long as it continues using exclusively Roast House coffee. She has her eyes on a couple she hopes will take over the roastery, so long as there is always a rocking chair for her there.

Di Bernardo is also still tirelessly promoting her coffee and café, and to bring the wider community into the conversation she has tried to spark.

She’ll get another chance to do that Wednesday, when Roast House will celebrate its 13th anniversary with coffee and donuts in the morning, and, Di Bernardo adds playfully, some stiffer libations after noon.