MENA Entrepreneur Profiles: Kim Thompson’s Raw Coffee
I hadn’t had breakfast yet but was already well into my 10 AM interview with Kim Thompson in the Dubai Garden Centre when a caffè latte was placed in front of me.
I cannot lie about the fact that I had been thinking about my inevitable coffee drink all week long, even as I am notoriously unappreciative of the bean once I get going with my work, or this busy interview with Kim which involved all kinds of technical dimensions to the story as there are ethical and philosophical and business ones.
To properly describe this disruptive cup of coffee, though, I would probably need to take you on a journey to Colombia or East Timor, through some of the places where these fair trade coffee beans are hand-picked. I would probably also need to discuss proper roasting temperatures and preparation techniques, but to be honest the whole interview and tour soon went over my head, requiring effort to simply give the appearance of attentiveness and understanding in the face of Kim’s details-friendly roastery tour (passionate entrepreneurs: can you really blame them?).
All I know is that once I took that first sip, it hit me like a ton of bricks how every cup of coffee or espresso I’ve had in Dubai so far has been too acidic, acrid even– in retrospect leaving my mouth needlessly desiccated and needing some type of carb to balance it out. Don’t believe me? Stop into Raw Coffee and discover the crux of the story yourself. You will ask yourself why you may have never heard of them yet.
It had an inviting body, which ushered me through complex layers of flavor as a wine or a gourmet cake would. I’m no sommelier but I distinctly remember rich and creamy caramel overtones that were produced naturally, without the need for syrups which either mask or mock the bean.
The drink haunted me throughout the rest of the day, mitigating my appetite for lunch and releasing undulating waves of mellow caffeine throughout the day as if on time release.
Had I even used the sugar packets? I don’t remember. In either case the matter of breakfast was resolved in one swoop. Satisfying hummos was also bean-based wasn’t it?
The Entrepreneur’s Learning Curve
Back in 2006, New Zealand-native Kim Thompson was an ex-registered nurse and wife of an Emirates Airlines pilot who thought she found the pain point that most Dubaians didn’t even know they had: most coffee imported to Dubai is practically a botched job.
To remedy this problem she made the foundation of her business model 100% specialty Arabica beans that would be roasted on the premises, producing just enough as is needed for the day. Fair trade organic coffee beans, whose price has risen 60% in recent times, might seem to be a good bet in a land of abundant luxury. The business model itself seems relatively simple: bring a niche product to an affluent market, something which is rare as gold in Dubai, and get every restaurant, cafe and hotel to clamor for it.
Turns out, however, that her path would neither be so simple or straightforward. “I’m sort of glad that I was completely naive coming into this business,” Thompson confided to me. “Had I known everything that would be involved in getting this business to be what it is today, I would have probably would have not made the jump.”
It isn’t as simple as importing a fantastic product and educating consumers on what they want to be desiring, although they do plenty of that now.
The majority of food and beverage offerings in Dubai, as with many other places, are dominated by multinational corporations that sell a visual product where quality is usually concentrated around the packaging and branding. After all, the high quality green beans are not cheap.
To top it off, all the distributors offer the large hotels and restaurants unbeatable sign-on bonuses of espresso machines valued at $6-7,000 USD (the suppliers makeup the loss over time by gradually increasing prices on an inferior product).
Kim first encountered these market entry obstacles when failing to close deals with key Food and Beverage Managers in Dubai who already pledged allegiance to the big distributors. At the retail level, Kim had relied entirely on a couple of print advertisements to kick off her marketing campaign. She thought word of mouth would do the rest given her confidence in the product.
Identifying entrepreneurial success
As I listened to Kim recount her story and the various chapters that followed the launch of Raw Coffee, I couldn’t help but wonder if it would be possible to identify a specific variable or causal factor that she could prop up to say “this is how I made it.” Kim, like many entrepreneurs, had no authoritative “aha” moment to speak of. She wouldn’t be the only entrepreneur, however, to be mystified by her own eventual success, likely the cause of dogged persistence on multiple fronts.
There were a couple of milestones though. For example, it wasn’t until she attended the Taste of Dubai Festival, six months into the launch of her business, that she was able to have a chance encounter with Verre by Gordon Ramsey’s Italian sommelier, who soon became her first commercial client. It has since led to a slew other deals supplying coffee to some of Dubai’s most reputable cafes and restaurants.
Having never had a marketing budget to work with, Kim contemplated for a minute whether her two print ads during the launch phase had any impact on the launch of Raw Coffee in getting the word of mouth machine started. Unfortunately it is difficult to measure the impact of many kinds of print advertisements.
A different perspective reveals that Raw Coffee’s growth has moved in parallel with Dubai’s diversifying consumer-scape: a scene which has noticeably shifted to appreciate higher quality products and also the more “organic” or rustic themes, as it were — which, like the Social House in Dubai Mall, offers an aesthetic alternative to that overstock on the modernist glitz and glam that Dubai is known for.
Towards the end of the interview, I came away with the feeling that Raw Coffee is more of an interesting social experiment whose ultimate formula is is still very much open to all kinds of possibilities despite the fact that they now service 5x the customers since last year — a new type of luxurious problem to have (on coordinating cash flows to handle corporate clients who often take 3 months to pay).
Most recently, Kim has brought on board Sarah Jane as Retail Manager who will undoubtedly oversee the launch of lots of Raw Coffee branded goodies to placate their cult following and other outcroppings of a vibrant and open and sunlit social space that is perfect for anything from bringing the kids to hosting a weekly book club.
There is a lot of confidence at Raw Coffee that maybe wasn’t always there during the big uphill climb. As this article goes to print Kim and her senior barista, Raja, will be heading to Colombia to represent the UAE in a world barista championship where one of the perks is getting flown in a private plane to have an experience in the remotest coffee plantations on earth.
With all the great press attention, it will be interesting to see the next step in Raw Coffee’s evolution. There are still more than plenty of customers who have never heard of them, and at the same time you can just see that Kim isn’t trying to become the next Starbucks. As an entrepreneur, Kim is lucky to be steering her boat in whichever way she chooses.