Growing More Than Coffee Beans

By Zeke Willcox '18
Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Article Photo

In the spring of 1990, Alfonso Mendez was unsure of his next steps. He had just graduated from JBU with a degree in business and a minor in economics.

As a student in one of the first classes of the Walton International Scholarship Program (WISP), Mendez played soccer, participated in the Student Government Association and was elected as J. Alvin president, a role in which he created events and activities for the residents of the dorm. In the classroom, Mendez worked diligently, grateful for the opportunity to study and learn.

But upon return to his home in Costa Rica, a condition of participation in the WISP, he struggled to find work and purpose. He found only dead ends, as most companies had never heard of JBU or the Walton program.

When at last Mendez stumbled across a position with a green coffee roaster called Interamericana de Exportaciones and reluctantly started work, he didn’t realize he’d begun a lifelong journey to success.

“When I got back from JBU, it was kind of an accident, because the only job I could find was at a coffee roaster here in Costa Rica,” Mendez said, before he quickly changed his mind. “I wouldn’t say it was an accident, because I believe God had a path for me. But if you would have asked me if I was going to be working in the coffee industry, I would have probably said no.”

Interamericana de Exportaciones was owned by the Freytags, a German family who owned several coffee roasters and mills in San Jose, Costa Rica.

Mendez began work as an assistant in the export department, shipping coffee to various clients. The Freytags encouraged Mendez to pursue his work with enthusiasm, so he worked persistently and steadily climbed his way up the ranks of the company.

“I didn’t know anything about coffee, so they really pushed me to learn about the coffee industry,” Mendez said.

By his third year at Interamericana de Exportaciones, he had moved from the export department to a marketing manager position to the role of marketing director and then finally to general manager of the roaster.

In 2000, the Freytags moved back to Germany and wanted to sell their coffee businesses. They offered Mendez a deal to manage part of the company. 

“Part of the negotiation with them was to keep the company, Interamericana de Exportaciones, and keep supplying their customer base with green coffee from Costa Rica,” Mendez said. “We negotiated a deal, and that’s how I started working with Interamericana as an owner, not an employee.”

Interamericana exports commercialized green coffee out of Costa Rica to coffee markets in the U.S., Europe and Japan and also sells several of its coffee brands to 90-100 clients, including Walmart and several prominent Japanese and European companies.

Mendez is also now the owner of Interam Coffee Inc. in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which provides roasted coffee for clients in the U.S. and in Asia.

“The coffee industry impacts a lot of communities, a lot of people,” Mendez said. “The economic impact of a coffee bean, of a cup of coffee, is huge for most cities, towns and small communities.”

Mendez, a member of the JBU Board of Trustees since 2014, believes his

four years at JBU prepared him for all the challenges and successes he faces today as a business owner. Whether through strenuous training on the soccer field or diligent work in the classroom, Mendez said JBU equipped him in every way possible: physically, mentally, academically and spiritually.

“I’m forever thankful to JBU for that,” he said gratefully. “I really think God prepared me for what was coming - working through faith, learning about grace and love with other people.”

For Mendez, faith in God and his work in the coffee industry are similar as both involve challenges, dependability, hard work and love.

“It’s everything. You cannot separate faith from vocation,” Mendez said. “There is a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things. And the right way is based on the words God says, what the Bible says.”

Most of all, Mendez matured spiritually and became reliant upon God for provision. 

“The older I get, my business and money become less and less important in my life,” Mendez said. “For a while, the business was my world, and I learned to understand that it’s not my world. There are other things that are more important like health, family, friends and faith.”

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