A big cup of co-op: After 30 years, Dean’s Beans in Orange to become worker-owned

By DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer

Published: 05-15-2023 10:24 AM

ORANGE — Change is brewing at Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Co., which is set to become a worker-owned cooperative on July 1.

Dean Cycon founded the business in 1993 and, having recently turned 70, is ready to hand the reins to his 16 employees.

“Who better to carry on the mission than the folks who’ve been doing it all these years?” he said this week. “Some of the employees have been here 20 years.”

Cycon started Dean’s Beans as an experiment after years of working as an environmental and Indigenous rights lawyer, and he set out to prove that through ethical business practices, a for-profit company could improve the lives of workers and consumers. He said that as he approached his 70th birthday he considered selling to an entity that would carry on his company’s progressive legacy and business model.

“And I got several people approaching me for it,” Cycon said over a cup of coffee. “But the funny thing is, the more I dug into what their interests were, it was ultimately about how to make more money (for) the company and not, primarily, the welfare of either the employees or the farmers.”

The $6.5 million company’s coffees are 100% organic and fair trade. Cycon, who lives in Leverett with his wife, Annette, is known for paying living wages to coffee farmers and for giving his employees benefits that include health insurance that covers premiums, co-pays and deductibles.

Chief operating office Beth Spong will become the company’s chief executive officer when the fiscal year ends on June 30. Cycon said Spong was helping him create a job description when she mentioned she was interested in the position.

“And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, you’re perfect,’” Cycon recounted. “And so that was the missing piece of the puzzle and from there I felt really comfortable really considering worker ownership.”

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Spong said she started with Dean’s Beans as a consultant 3½ years ago and Cycon asked her in March 2022 to work on his transition to retirement.

“People were concerned, knowing that Dean was heading in the direction of retirement. Like, ‘What’s going to happen with us?’” she recalled. “So when we moved in the direction of going co-op and having employees purchase it, it was a big relief to people.”

Spong explained a worker-owner share costs $5,000. She said there will be one share, and one vote, per employee. A board of directors will be formed after the transition and Cycon is expected to serve on it for one to three years. Spong said the company has been working weekly with a co-op development consultant for more than a year.

Spong said she met Cycon when he was executive director of MotherWoman, now known as the Women of Color Health Equity Collective, a trauma-responsive support group founded by Annette Cycon.

Employee Don Cortwright, who has worked with the company for about 16 years, said he and his co-workers feel good about the impending change.

“No worries,” he said while closing bags of Uprising! Breakfast Blend. “We all pretty much know what we’re doing at all times.”

Office manager Charlsie Gorski, who has been with Dean’s Beans for 20 years, agreed with Cortright’s sentiments.

“It’s a big change, but everybody’s excited,” she said.

Working retirement

Cycon is handing over his coffee company but he’s not done working yet, as he is entering the world of historical fiction writing. His novel, “Finding Home (Hungary, 1945),” is available online through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound, and is expected to be in local bookstores starting June 13. The story centers on 18-year-old Eva Fleiss, who finds new struggles upon returning to her hometown of Laszlo, Hungary, after surviving nine months in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

“Being Jewish, there’s a big personal tie to anything that has to do with the Holocaust,” Cycon said.

He said he was conducting research on European history and he came across a story about concentration camp survivors who returned to their hometowns after the war, only to find their neighbors living in their homes.

“And the neighbors didn’t want to give up the houses, and the neighbors murdered them,” he said. “So I thought, ‘How can I be as old as I am, as experienced and traveled as a I am, and not know these stories?’ So, I started to dig. And I found that it wasn’t a one-off incident, that all over Eastern Europe between 1945 — the end of the war – and ’47, roughly, these incidents were happening and pogroms were happening all over Eastern Europe.

“And so thousands and thousands of Jews fled from that and the word got out and many others just simply didn’t even bother to try to return, because they knew what awaited them,” he said.

Cycon’s heritage plays a large role in his commitment to giving back. His grandmother, Sarah Golembi, was a 6-year-old in 1906, when her family fled the massacre of Jews in the pogroms (violent riots) of what is now Belarus, and made it to Ellis Island. Cycon married a fellow refugee descendant, as Annette’s mother, Wanda Kokurewicz, participated in the famed Warsaw Uprising to try to save their city in the summer of 1944 during World War II. The Cycons went to Poland for two weeks in March 2022 to help Ukrainians fleeing the Russian military invasion.

Reach Domenic Poli at dpoli@recorder.com or 413-930-4120.

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