Why Forward Booking is a Powerful Tool

Forward booking, also called forward contracting, is a powerful tool—especially when you do it with Red Fox. It allows everyone, from individual smallholder farmers to producer association leaders to Red Fox to roaster partners, to plan ahead and project revenue streams in advance, strengthening the entire supply chain. 

At the roaster end, you get access to the best possible prices and first pick of top lots. At the producer end, farmers get an early-season guarantee of top prices that they’ll receive for their coffees. In between the two, there’s us, able to foster that connection and mutual benefit because of the forward bookings we receive during harvest. 

How? When we know exactly what you’re looking for and in what quantity, it gives us the ability to make larger, more accurate commitments to our producer partners (primarily indigenous smallholders) at high prices compared to the alternate supply lines they would resort to without secure patronage. When you forward book, we know the coffee is going to you in what timeframe, so we can offer it at lower prices because we don’t have to account for the same range of unexpected cost factors. Beyond that, those who forward book get right of first selection once coffees arrive—you booked first so you get the first choice of the lots you like best. 

Those are the broad-stroke benefits, but what exactly is it and how does it work? Read on for a deep dive. 

A bag of samples packed up: forward booking

What is forward booking?

At Red Fox, when you forward book, you enter into a pre- or mid-season contract stating what kinds of coffee you’re looking for and at what price. We then go through the acquisitions process with your contract in mind and make sure your needs are met. 

On an operational level, we set up forward booking tiers in advance that act almost like product SKUs for us to slot coffees into as we cup them and compose lots. We blind-cup every lot from every producer offered over the course of the season. Many lots represent as little as 1-5 bags, and a lot of extra work and money goes into making sure everyone’s coffee is cupped and scored individually. 

Forward bookings provide a roadmap for how we should compose lots and where we should ship them. Mid-season, we look at all our forward bookings and make a plan for each coffee. Smaller lots carry additional costs for milling and holding cargo space at the warehouse stateside. We may taste a ton of lots that are worth separating quality-wise, but separation only works when we have forward commitments to fulfill or if the quality is so stunning we know that extra work and cost won’t go to waste. 

From the roaster side, the process looks like assessing current and past sales and making projections about your needs for the next 3-6 months, then making those projections a reality with a contract to guarantee you get exactly that.

During the season, we keep in close weekly+ contact with the groups we’re working with, cup offers, filter through them, define lots, then work to get the coffees milled and shipped as quickly as possible to avoid lag. Meanwhile, we’re sending preship samples for roasters with forward bookings to approve or tailor. In cases where the logistics are more delicate, we communicate even more and sometimes it makes sense to wait until the coffees arrive to finalize what goes to whom. 

Depending on contract structure, either all the coffee gets delivered at once or we carry a position that roasters draw down as they can. After that cycle, we start looking toward what’s next and restart the process. 

Bags of coffee composed of lots determined during forward booking

Planning for the season & beyond

When it comes to forward booking, the conversations we have with you during the season can be just as important as the bookings themselves. Calibration in forecasting is just as important as calibration in cup quality

It’s helpful to strike a balance of being conservative in your future estimates and planning ahead to make sure you’re taken care of—that you have what you know you’ll need as a base for your menu with some slack for unexpected changes and special offerings that come your way. We don’t want our clients carrying more volume than they’re able to move through in terms of seasonality and freshness, and we’ll help guide you in booking the right amount if you aren’t sure. 

We want to do everything we can to make sure both roaster partners and producer partners are as protected from volatility as possible. Early-season conversations give you the security of knowing what’s coming and when, and feed that security directly back to coops and farmers who are making plans for their harvest. Forward booking lets every member of the supply chain be proactive rather than reactive within the production cycle.

VIP lot access

We allocate coffees against forward contracts before we release them to the rest of our clientele and the general public. That means that before anyone else, you get to choose which lots best meet your predefined needs. Many of our top lots sell out before they arrive. 

That early selection happens not just with the best single origins but also with blends that offer an ideal balance of quality and price. Great blender lots often get booked earliest and fully allocated before arrival—larger community lots that are highly vetted for cup quality and physical specs like water activity and moisture often represent a larger share of your menu and can be even more valuable than rare gem single origins.

The best coffees come from the security of forward booking

A role in our menu construction

While forward booking gives you a deeper role in your own menu planning, it can also let you play a part in our menu construction for the season. 

If there’s something you’re looking for that we haven’t had in the past, you get to let us know to keep an eye out and if we see it, we will buy it. Maybe it’s a price point, maybe it’s a process, but if we know in advance we can source it if possible. If we don’t know in advance, we might pass it over when we see it, or sell out of it before it lands. 

Giving producers the security to produce quality

Most of the producers we work with rely on coffee income to live. Forward booking gives them a sense of certainty around their income for the year instead of the equivalent of living paycheck to paycheck. 

We buy coffees at a strong premium over local markets to create incentives for farmers to not only work with us but also maximize quality production, even when it costs more. The more we know we need, the more we can buy at Red Fox prices and sell in the highly differentiated market in which we work. The earlier producers know what our demand looks like for the season, the earlier they can take the needed steps to guarantee quality and receive those higher prices: careful tending, picking, and processing. 

The strongest supply chains and businesses come from forward booking

Building the circle 

The best coffee comes from a place of security, as do the best logistics, the best customer care, the best menu planning, the best roasting, the best brewing. Forward booking offers exactly that to every link in the supply chain, allowing everyone from producers to roasters to do their best work. 

It’s an opportunity to put some extra skin in the game, to be an active consumer in building durable supply chains.

Interested in sourcing coffee with us? Reach out at info@redfoxcoffeemerchants.comTo learn more about our work, check out our journal and follow us on Instagram @redfoxcoffeemerchants, Twitter @redfoxcoffeeSpotify, and YouTube.

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