Running Hugh Jackman's Coffee Company

What makes a famous actor get into the coffee business? To do good–a lot of good.
June 29, 2012

Hugh Jackman is an actor, a dancer and an awards host. (Heck, he’s even Wolverine!) So why did he help start Laughing Man, a small coffee and tea company in the crowded, caffeinated land of New York City? The answer lies in Jackman’s humanitarian work, Paul Newman’s legacy and his longtime friendship with Barry Steingard, a former coffee wholesaler and café owner.

In 2009 Jackman traveled to Ethiopia as part of his work with the relief nonprofit World Vision. There he met with farmers, including a man named Dukale, who was trying to diversify his crops and join the global Fair Trade coffee market.

Back in New York, Jackman met up with longtime friend Barry Steingard, who mentioned that he and his son, David Steingard, were getting back into the coffee business. Jackman saw an opportunity, and asked if they wanted a partner.

A Do-Good Company Is Born

David Steingard and Jackman were both inspired by Shameless Exploitation in Pursuit of the Common Good, a book that describes how Paul Newman and A.E. Hotchner created Newman’s Own and distributed all of the company’s profits to charity. They decided to create a company that would incubate businesses and donate money to charity.

Laughing Man Worldwide was born, a company that aims to support entrepreneurs and donate 100 percent of its profits to charity. Its first and thus far only project is a company that sells coffee, tea and chocolate. Laughing Man Market launched in the Manhattan neighborhood of Tribeca last October, half of it owned by Jackman. Through May the Market has seen revenue growth of 500 percent, says David Steingard, the company’s CEO.

The actor lends his name, public relations resources and support, but gets no money in return. “I love it!’’ Steingard says. “I get better PR. I love this model of giving back so other companies can come up.’’

All the products sold by Laughing Man are organic and fairly traded, Steingard says. That’s not an easy task. The specialty coffee world strives to conduct direct trade with farmers, using no middle man, getting the farmers the best payment possible, Steingard says. But he adds that the reality of working with farmers in the developing world is quite harsh.

Respect Everyone

Most coffee farmers own two or three acres and work in a cooperative to sell their goods. It’s hard to get access to those small cooperatives because foreign governments impose tariffs or trade restrictions that make importing difficult. “It’s never as simple as finding the farm and buying the beans. There’s legwork involved, and whatever political situation exists,’’ Steingard says.

“Our philosophy is, respect the farmer. All our stuff is respectfully traded. If it’s certified, great,’’ Steingard says, but many farmers can’t afford the thousands of dollars it costs to win such a designation. At the café, “the coffee has to be of a premium quality. It has to be a good product.’’

Dukale the farmer, who Jackman met on his trip, benefits from being part of World Vision’s community development program. It has helped him earn more money for his crop, diversify them and buy land, giving him access to bigger markets. "He’s a muse for us and a good friend,’’ Steingard says. As a tribute, the company named a coffee for him, called Dukale’s Dream.

“Everybody wants a shot to have a livelihood, create their own destiny, based on putting out the work and getting paid for it,’’ Steingard says.

What types of things does your company do to do good?

Image via Rogers and Cowan