As our story goes, on January 1st of 1984, Mel, Rose, Charlie and Bill Fishbein, limping out of a financial disaster, opened Coffee Exchange in 375 square feet in the Fox Point neighborhood of Providence, RI. “Unassuming” would have been a compliment for the tiny retail coffee shop that was financed with a $4,000 interest-free loan from Ray Tremblay, a close friend who offered what he could because he could. Coffee Exchange sold coffee beans, coffee and tea paraphernalia, filters, mugs, and coffee makers. No brewed coffee was served until several years later when an old Eterna Espresso Machine was rescued from the junkyard and given a new life.

Why coffee? We loved coffee. And, specialty coffee had been a major part of our lives since 1978. The coffee boom in the US and the rest of the world would not take place until the late 80s and early 90s. But, we weren’t interested in making a killing in the coffee market. We wanted to earn a living doing what we loved to do; offer (and drink) the best quality coffee available in a relaxed atmosphere away from the hustle, bustle energy of the city, listening to music that spanned generations - and making friends… lots of them.  

We built Coffee Exchange around a single guiding principle: The Customers Experience. As Mel would often say, “The customer is not always right. But, The Customer is Always The Customer. In honoring that principle, our customers were treated so much like friends, they became friends.  

Over the next thirty some odd years, our employees, customers and owners established Coffee Exchange as one of the premier coffee houses in the country. Nestled in Providence, a city saturated with colleges like Brown University, and Rhode Island School of Design, Johnson and Wales University, RI College, Providence College and others came to know Coffee Exchange for the taste of our coffee as well as the eclectic nature of our digs. After graduating, these loyal patrons stayed with us even after moving out of town, and the Coffee Exchange experience and “taste” were exported to nearly every state around the country and with it our reputation for excellence and community.

Our commitment to excellence was enhanced in 1991, when we moved across the street to a place 20 times the size of the original location, and purchased our first small-batch 12k Diedrich coffee roaster. 

While the community of coffee lovers expanded around the cafe, we gained our first window into an often-overlooked part of our community, the coffee growers. In 1988, the reality of the relentless poverty that characterized the lives of coffee farmers, upon whose backs our business was dependent, hit us hard when Bill took his first trip to Guatemala and, visiting coffee farms, first witnessed the relationship between coffee and poverty.

On his return, we became determined “not to sell another pound of coffee until we had done something to help the people upon whose shoulders we stood to earn our living”. So Bill and friends David Abedon and Dean Cycon founded Coffee Kids, the first non-profit organization specifically dedicated to help improve the lives of coffee farmers. Bill became the executive director of Coffee Kids spending time in Mexico and Central America while Charlie ran the cafe. Coffee Kids worked with tens of thousands of coffee farming families, mostly women (95%), helping them to find alternatives to coffee as their sole source of income, because coffee alone was simply not enough to sustain a family. 

Bill was awarded the Lifetime Achievement award by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, its highest honor. 20 years later, in 2008, he left Coffee Kids and founded The Coffee Trust, with a broader focus of support and a narrowed geographical focus. For over 10 years, The Coffee Trust has worked in the Ixil region of Guatemala--one of the poorest coffee growing communities in the world (after experiencing more than 30 years of war) and home to the town of San Gaspar Chajul, from whence Coffee Exchange was already purchasing most of its Guatemalan green coffee.

Of course, “who we are” is much more than our support for coffee producers, it’s much more the fresh roasted coffee we roast and serve daily; and it’s more than our commitment to providing the best customer experience possible. Who we are is the sense of community that’s been driven by our 37 years of serving coffee and our 32 years of supporting coffee farmers. It is the fact that on most days there might be upwards of a thousand people coming to the shop, 80% of whom came in the day before. It’s that everyone here knows everyone else. Who we are is also our annual New Year’s Day fundraisers (1st Cup) for The Coffee Trust to benefit the coffee producers in San Gaspar Chajul; it’s that a few years ago our community (you) purchased - through a Coffee Exchange mid-year fundraiser - a coffee roaster for the coffee farmers of San Gaspar Chajul so they could roast their own coffee and sell it locally adding to their income and stature within the community.  

Who we are is the small tables crammed together in the shop, the smell of roasting coffee as you walk down Wickenden Street, and the to-go window installed on the deck when we could no longer allow our patrons and friends into the cafe. Who we are is all of this, and these feelings don’t disappear, even in a pandemic. So while we’re operating solely out of the to-go window today, most of our customers and employees are looking forward to the day when we’ll once again provide the atmospherics and music, and grace and charm that have defined Coffee Exchange for going on 40 years.So, who we are is the story of Coffee Exchange, a story that began with the history of the Fishbein family, a history that runs through us all. Our history is joined by the many histories of our staff, the history of our producers, and the myriad histories of every customer and friend who walks in the door. And, everyone who walks in the door at Coffee Exchange feeds each other with their histories into the collective experience, which is “Coffee Exchange”. 

Who We Are is Who You Are.