May 20, 2020
3 minute read
Co-founder and CFO/COO
Twenty years ago this week we started an incredible journey.
In 2000 we set up our first office located at 133 Regent Street, in the heart of London. Despite the location, our office was far from being fancy. We shared a very small space (roughly 10 sq meters) with a friend that had just started a renewable energy company.
At first, we worked to connect Latin American products with European markets. We initially worked with fresh produce, purchasing from different suppliers across Latin America and selling to distributors in the New Covent Garden market. We worked long hours and managed to ship products every week. Yet, in 2001 we discovered the one product that was going to change our company and our lives: high quality, specialty coffee.
We began importing coffee, working with well-known Colombian exporters and selling to established UK roasters. But our big break happened in April of 2002 at the SCAA conference and exhibition in Anaheim, California. Both Alejandro and I attended this exhibition, and over a long weekend we met our first farmer suppliers along with our first container-level customer in North America.
That summer we established an export company in Colombia (based out of Alejandro’s apartment), obtained an export license, and completed our first export in November 2002. This was the official start of our coffee learning. Back then, the ‘C’ market was at 66 cents/lb. The coffee world was in crisis, the specialty market was an its infancy, and no one had an iPhone. You had to do actual phone calls to talk to people.
When we started in May of 2000, we didn’t intend to establish a specialty coffee company. We did not have a set business plan, financing, or large capital, but we were eager to learn, willing to innovate, to travel, to explore and to work hard, always striving to generate value for all parties.
During our first decade, our focus was on becoming the premier exporter of high-quality Colombian coffees; doing this meant disrupting an industry that relied on antiquated and obscure practices. We developed a model with transparency and traceability at its core, and worked directly with farmers and associations, rewarding them for the quality of their coffee while putting them front and center. We created our own quality standards and innovated continuously, never willing to compromise on quality. In hindsight, we were in the right place at the right time - just as coffee’s third wave was starting to flourish – and have been fortunate to work with most of the early renegade roasters. We grew fast in that first decade.
In 2009 the Colombian coffee industry was ravaged by coffee leaf rust (a.k.a., roya). The country’s production decreased by 30% in a single year and this left many exporters (including us) facing huge losses. For a while we lost money on every single pound of coffee that we sold.
After a decade of rapid growth, we found ourselves with sales halved in just one year and perilously close to going out of business.
Reinvention and Diversification
Thankfully, we found a way to reinvent ourselves, to see the opportunity behind the crisis. We were lucky to find an investor that was willing to bet on the business model and its impact. Key partners were flexible, and we managed to turn it around. We changed our focus from strictly exporting, to delivering our coffees from origin directly to roasters, from farmgate to liftgate. And to diversify our offerings, broadening from a Colombian operation into a Latin American one.
In the past decade we expanded our reach to other six Latin American countries, establishing import and distribution offices across four continents. We built a multicultural team of 200+ deeply committed professionals. We learned a lot. We learned how different coffee is in neighboring countries. We learned that there are incredible dedicated coffee farmers throughout the region. We learned that there are passionate coffee professionals across the globe who share our vision for quality and for coffee. The decade went by in a flash.
As we reach our 20th Anniversary, the world and our industry face an unforeseen crisis. It is still too early to have a complete understanding of how the world will change after 2020, but we remain hopeful that there will be opportunities to reinvent ourselves. I am sure that specialty coffee is not going to go away but will continue to blossom.
So far, our journey has been incredibly fun, exhilarating, exciting, and demanding. At times it has also proved heartbreaking. But we are still traveling forward. We keep learning every day. We keep on dreaming new ways to add value to our partners. Thankfully, our journey is just getting started.