CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It started as the Presbyterian Coffee Project, but has expanded over the past decade so now Linda Elliott orders and stocks tea, chocolate bars, breakfast bars, nuts and cocoa.
"We sold about $5,000 the first year," Elliott said. "Last year, we sold $18,000."
In fact, she sold so much tea -- 133 cases -- from October through December last year that she won a free trip to India in March to visit two sites where the organic tea is grown and produced under the auspices of Equal Exchange.
Those sales were the highest of any church that sells Equal Exchange products in the United States. And nearly all those sales were done on the honor system.
Elliott explained that her customers do their shopping by coming to the First Presbyterian office on Leon Sullivan Way and asking for the key to unlock the cabinets full of items. They pick out what they want, then pay and drop off the key at the church office on their way out.
"It's unique in all America," she said. "The honor system works beautifully."
Elliott, 72, has attended First Presbyterian for the 41 years she has lived in Charleston. She had been retired from teaching early childhood education in Kanawha County for a couple of years, when she initiated the Coffee Project 10 years ago. It seemed like a good way to give back to the community.
Since then she has twice had expenses-paid trips to coffee farms in Central America to observe the growing conditions there. "That's what really puts the fire in your belly," she said.
Equal Exchange is a fair-trade company, meaning that it supports small farms producing chemical-free crops. "With fair trade, you essentially cut out the middleman," said Elliott.
She especially approves of the Equal Exchange practice of paying the farmers up front for their harvest. That keeps small farmers from having to borrow at exorbitant interest rates, which "just sets them up for failure," she said.
In India, both the Potong Tea Garden and the Mineral Springs Tea Plantation are co-ops that supply Equal Exchange. Potong is in Kureseong, a region in the foothills of the Himalayas. Mineral Springs is in Darjeeling in West Bengal. Elliott explained Darjeeling tea is grown at high altitudes and is considered the "Champagne" of all teas because of its quality.
Showing her sales skills, Elliott said what she learned on her trip "is like getting a foot in the door. If I can tell someone about a product, they will nearly always buy. I've sold tea for years not having a story to tell."