Red Thread Coffee: Philanthropy For The Proletariat

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Lynda Sylvester, a self-described purveyor of everything “dreamy,” has a dream herself.“I want to bring philanthropy to the proletariat—you have the right to be philanthropic, too,” said Ms. Sylvester, the creator of Red Thread Good Coffee, a Sag Harbor-based business that donates two cents of every cup of coffee it sells to local charities.

“The premise is that everybody is now empowered to do good,” she continued. “It’s not just for the upper crust. In fact, it’s not crusty at all. Philanthropy should be for the everyday Joe.”

Ms. Sylvester described Red Thread Good Coffee, known locally for its original Dreamy blend, as an idea that was spurred by a paradox of both necessity and comfort. Twenty-five years ago, Ms. Sylvester opened Sylvester and Co., a high-end furniture store turned contemporary general store on Main Street in Sag Harbor. After two years in business, Ms. Sylvester decided she needed to spur foot traffic in her store.

Her first thought? Coffee—specifically, a cold-brewing process of a proprietary blend of beans she derived years earlier.

“It was really about making our store a destination, so that customers would visit us more frequently,” said Ms. Sylvester, who lives in Sag Harbor. “Grab a coffee, buy a gift, get a sofa, whatever. You don’t shop for furniture that often, but you get coffee every day.

“I wanted to be on the Saturday list—grocery store, fish store, Sylvester and Co,” she added.

After two decades of selling the coffee to patrons in the know, Ms. Sylvester started to expand her artisanal brewing business. In addition to selling her coffee by the cup, she offers customers a special concentrate—imagine a liquid that closely resembles syrup—that they can take home in bottles and, after combining with an equal mix of water, enjoy.

Today, her Sag Harbor store sports a coffee microbrewery replete with kegs full of concentrate that flow to wall-hanging taps featuring their four flavors— Dreamy, Dreamy Decaf, Coconut Blend and Purist Single Origin—that some could understandably mistake for a bar. Customers can take home 32-ounce bottles of concentrate for $18, or purchase traditional beans in three-quarter-pound bags for between $13.99 and $17.98.

Ms. Sylvester estimates that in the summer, she sells about 40 gallons of concentrate a day, or about 400 cups. “Not bad for a furniture store,” she joked.

Describing what makes her coffee unique, Ms. Sylvester said: “We only use very high-quality coffee beans. It’s organic, it’s fair-trade, it’s all of those politically correct things.”

But what makes it special, she said, is the cold-brewing process that produces a concentrate, not a typical cup. With the concentrate, one can refrigerate the coffee and keep it on hand for as long as they’d like. When the time comes and they’d like coffee, a simple mixture of half concentrate and half water, iced or hot, does the trick. “The concentrate makes a delicious product, and it’s less acidic—it doesn’t upset your tummy,” she said.

Now with two Main Street storefronts, the other being Sylvester and Co. At Home in Amagansett, Ms. Sylvester said her comfort in life allowed her to begin bottling the concentrate and permitting her to build a legacy of good.

“I said to my friend Vivian, ‘Let’s give money away—it’s the right time in our lives to do that. But not the way people give money away in the Hamptons. Not a big benefit, not a fancy party—let’s make every man a philanthropist. After 50, you get legacy conscious,’” she joked.

Vivian Polak, a lawyer from East Hampton and Ms. Sylvester’s longtime friend and business partner in Red Thread, said she worked hard on the red-tape aspect of creating the coffee distributing company, which included more than a year of trademark paperwork, laboratory testing, getting organic labeling certification and striking a deal with a bottling company. But more importantly, Ms. Polak brought with her the business model that meshed perfectly with Ms. Sylvester’s vision.

“Many companies utilize the triple-bottom-line accounting method,” Ms. Polak said. “This method looks at profits, people—the community of people your company affects—and planet. Are you ecologically sound as a business?

“What I wanted to bring to the table was a quadruple-bottom-line model,” she continued, “that takes into account perspective. Our fourth line is how effective we are at changing people’s thinking about philanthropy.”

Ms. Polak said she believes business owners have an obligation to give back to the communities supporting them, but pushed the onus one step further. “As a consumer, you should make deliberate consuming choices to buy from companies that are responsible,” she said. “If every day you can get in the mindset of giving, even just by buying a coffee, then, hopefully, we can change the global mindset. Every purchase is priming the pump of the mind to get in the giving mode.”

For every bottle of concentrate sold, even wholesale, Red Thread donates 16 cents to local charities, and 48 cents for every bag of beans sold.

“Coffee’s something people drink every day, some people three or four times a day,” Ms. Sylvester said. “Just imagine our country, and then imagine two cents for 180 million cups of coffee a day. These contributions become amazing, fast.”

Their main beneficiary for 2013 is God’s Love We Deliver, a New York City-based food delivery charity founded in 1986 with a mission to end hunger and malnutrition among victims of AIDS, cancer or any other serious diseases. More local organizations are being considered as well, added Ms. Polak, who volunteers for God’s Love We Deliver.

Samples of the bottled concentrates and beans, as well as wholesale price lists, are being shipped around the country next week. In fact, Red Thread has already scored a major retailer, Dylan’s Candy Bar in New York and Miami, to sell their products. And looking forward, the pair have their dreams set high, seeking to add Dreamy Ice Cream and Dreamy merchandise lines.

“There are all kinds of legend about red threads,” said Ms. Sylvester as she made a cup of Dreamy. “Ten minutes ago, outside the store, a woman helped a man jump his car. It was spontaneous—they had some fun with it, but she helped him. Now they are connected, now they have a red thread.”

Ms. Sylvester continued: “If you help someone, you are connected forever. We are trying to connect communities, the world, through a single red thread—through coffee.”

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