The Value of a Vanilla Bean Co-Op
Is There Value in Joining a Vanilla Bean Co-op?
If you are a baker, chef, culinary wizard, home cook, or even a slightly-interested novice in the kitchen and you spend any time on Facebook, chances are you have come across a Facebook group or two calling themselves Vanilla Bean Co-ops. These mass vanilla bean ordering groups seem to be popping up everywhere and if you have any interest in utilizing whole vanilla beans, joining probably seems pretty enticing, with promises of unbelievably low prices on a prized ingredient that often comes with a bit of sticker shock. After all, vanilla only comes in second to saffron as the world’s most expensive spices.
As purveyors of ethically-sourced vanilla beans (that’s right, there are some very unethical practices involved in the ways many vanilla beans are sourced—we take no part in it), we wanted to investigate to see if vanilla bean co-ops are really as valuable as they say they are to their members. So we did some research to discover if the promises of savings are too good to be true and what the real value of vanilla bean co-ops truly is. Read on to learn what we discovered.
Do vanilla bean co-ops ethically source their beans?
When we think of cheap vanilla bean prices, two things come to mind—poor quality or an unethically sourced product. Vanilla beans are finicky, to say the least, and a lot of things factor into the way they are priced—from growing time to pollination techniques and from the recent weather to curing methods and more. All that aside, it is still the world’s most popular flavoring agent and because people are willing to pay such a steep price for this fragrant delight, immoral obtainment and selling of these beans frequently occurs around the world. Family farms are quite often raided at gunpoint—stripping farmers of their livelihood. The stolen beans are then sold on streets or as part of underground supply chains but this theft has also prompted farming practices that lessen the quality of the end-product. Farmers who aren’t able to afford security have had to come up with other means of ensuring their crops aren’t depleted by robbers, so they go against best practices, stripping beans from plants prior to optimal ripeness, meaning quality suffers.
Because of this, we had to make sure this isn’t the true reason behind the claimed low prices found on Facebook mass buying groups. You’ll be happy to know, of the top Vanilla Bean Co-ops we found online, we didn’t discover anything to make us believe they are purchasing their beans from non-reputable vendors.
What we did find is that these co-ops are not actually cooperatives at all, as they claim to be. Co-ops are actual legal entities defined as member-based organizations in which members unite with a common economic, social, or cultural need. They are also jointly-owned by all of the members, not an individual or company. Vanilla bean “co-ops” are actually just marketing ploys—controlled facebook groups sponsored by vanilla bean purveyors, most with the sole objective of selling their products via false messaging. While we were incredibly happy to find that the beans are not being unethically sourced, we were dismayed to discover unethical selling practices.
That said, there are various different businesses posing their Facebook Groups as co-ops and practices are not the same across the board. In some instances, though they are definitely not true co-ops because they are still profiting where members are not, companies actually do use member funds to make large buys as suggested by their messaging. In other instances, companies posing as co-ops don’t even pool member money to make group buys from distributors at all. Instead, they are hosting pre-announced flash sales of a specific variety of bean they already have large quantities of.
What about the quality of vanilla beans sold by "co-ops"?
If you are considering joining a vanilla bean co-op despite the ethics of their marketing, your greatest concern may be in the quality of the beans. The biggest red flag for us is the savings obtained by the way these beans are repackaged. In most instances, the companies managing these Facebook groups are upfront about the fact that when the beans come in, they are simply packaged in ordinary zip-sealed bags, not vacuum-sealed for freshness. This shouldn’t be a huge concern if you are planning on using them immediately, but the moisture levels will be depleted very quickly if you don’t properly preserve or use them right away.
How much do you save through vanilla bean co-ops?
Now, the answer to the question you’ve all been waiting for—do vanilla bean co-ops really provide big discounts? There is no short answer to this question, as different “co-ops” have different prices for their beans and their shipping practices vary (where some charge for shipping and/or packaging materials and others do not). Ultimately, though, what we discovered is this:
For the most part, the “discounts” provided by these “co-ops” are no different from typical pricing models provided by other, more principled and honest, vanilla bean providers. In fact, oftentimes one can even find lower prices simply by ordering in bulk or purchasing during sales.
When we compared our prices against some of the most popular so called “co-op” prices, we discovered that consumers are actually spending less money per ounce on many of our varieties of vanilla beans even when they aren’t on sale or purchased in bulk! As an example, one of these falsely-named “co-ops”, set co-op pricing for their Madagascar Grade A vanilla beans at the members' price of $9/ounce. Year-round, we offer similar deals. Currently, we are running a special on a pound of vanilla beans that brings the purchase price of Grade A Madagascar beans to $9 an ounce when you use code MADAGASCAR. Or you can save even more with our Grade A Ugandan beans (which are also of the Planifolia variety), bringing the per ounce price down to $8.43 when you buy a pound and use code SAVEBIG.
Some other difference are: you will never have to wait for long periods of time to receive your shipments with us, there is no minimum ordering amounts, and shipping is absolutely free for all US orders no matter how much you choose to order.
So what is the real value of joining a vanilla bean co-op?
The true value in a vanilla bean co-op isn’t in the perceived discounts or the quality, because, as we have pointed out in this post, the savings and quality are not much different than those of other companies on a day-to-day basis—companies taking part in more ethical marketing practices—and in fact, the quality/savings pieces of the value may actually be inferior on the co-op side. So what is the actual value of these vanilla bean co-ops?
They are primarily born out of facebook groups. These groups are filled with like-minded individuals who are able to network and share their love for everything vanilla. They are able to learn from one another, discuss processes, and share their favorite recipes. Knowledge is the best road to growth—whether that be culinary or otherwise. The real value behind these facebook groups is just that, the beautiful combination of community and growth.
While we can’t get behind unethical marketing practices, we are absolutely onboard with culinary communities and expansion of knowledge.
That’s why we have created our own Facebook group, where you’ll always find recipes, sharing of ideas, and maybe even discounts on high-quality, ethically sourced vanilla beans, but you’ll NEVER be subject to false advertising.