Lessons learned from buying and selling coffee

It was a warm tropical afternoon when my friends and I stood behind our makeshift booth for the first time and sold coffee. We were in the middle of a local fair, and gaiety rang in the air. Colourful ribbons hung from wires and gently swayed when an occasional breeze blew past.

In the middle of all this, inside our little booth, we were panicking. It was our first time to launch our little shop, and we didn’t know how the people would receive it. We were selling Cold Brew coffee for the first time in the city’s history. We were also serving freshly brewed flavoured green iced tea — so fresh, it came straight out of the kettle and melted all the ice.

We weren’t planners, so obviously, we left a lot of things behind and somebody had to rush back and forth the grocery store to get whatever it was we needed. It was nice that our coffee was well-received and we sold out on our first day.

First menu with a map to our physical store that was still under construction at that time

We also managed to open our physical store a month later. It was a tiny kiosk in a Food Park that had a lovely garden and shared seating space with other kiosks. It was a start.

Fast forward to today, three or so years after that golden afternoon when we made our debut. We had grown our fledgling coffee shop from it’s infancy into a blossoming teenager with one company-owned store — 20 times bigger than our first kiosk, and 6 franchises. We have met with countless people, and we cherish the relationships we built with the farmers. We are proud to say that our coffee shop is home-grown and we source our beans exclusively from the Province of Iloilo, in the Island of Panay from 16 municipalities.

Starting the coffee shop taught me not to fear being different

In conservative countries like the Philippines, standing out or being different means making yourself vulnerable to criticism. And like the proverbial herd, you must go where the rest go. Our coffee shop did not have the traditional espresso-based beverages. Mainly because we couldn’t afford to buy an espresso machine. We wanted a coffee shop badly though, so we opted to find different, non-traditional ways of brewing. We heard about cold brew coffee and how it was taking the US by storm. We tried it. We loved it. We made it our flagship product. The best processes are the simplest ones. We just added water — literally.

Cold Brew Coffee with Milk

In the excitement of concocting cold brew recipes, we forgot that some traditional coffee lovers wanted their brew hot. And since the espresso machine was still way beyond our budget, we went with drip brewing with a V60 filter. It was fast, easy and very sustainable. It saved us a ton on electric bills too.

Freshly brewed coffee using V60 filter

Starting the coffee shop taught me to engage people

As we got deeper into operations, we were determined to showcase coffee from Iloilo Province. Also, making cold brew our main product meant that we needed a lot of beans. So we had to reach out to people from different towns and convince them to sell their coffee to us instead of the usual giants. There was a lady I spoke with for the first time, and she was very skeptical to sell to us for fear of being cheated because she’d never heard of us before. I begged her to meet us first before totally writing us off as scammers, I told her we could even use her own weighing scale so she could guarantee it’s accuracy. I’m glad she gave us a chance. We’ve been buying the coffee her family produces for the past 2 years now, and she won’t sell to anybody else anymore. We have also built a community around our brand, and we find joy in watching the various artists and creatives we partnered with thrive.

Segment of a mural done by local artists in cooperation with Artivism

Starting the coffee shop taught me to be a more kick ass (and careful) driver

Coffee grows in areas of high altitudes. This is one of its best and worst features. I love going out of the city and seeing the countryside, but sometimes, the places we need to be in don’t have roads or bridges. The drive is not for the faint-hearted. We had to drive through rivers, narrow roads with a sheer-drop on either side, and up mountains so steep you felt like you were lying down on your seat. Mindfulness is a necessity when driving a truck made even heavier by more than half-ton of coffee beans. Most of the times, the roads aren’t paved, and there are hairpin curves while making the ascent. There was alsways the danger of skidding down the gravelly mountain roads to our deaths. And while it might seem dangerous (and it is), we were rewarded with the breathtaking views of Iloilo province. You could say they were to die for.

Crossing rivers without bridges

Starting the coffee shop taught me that profit isn’t the only end game

Small family owned farms are often bypassed by coffee buyers because they don’t have enough yield, or the families don’t have the means to bring their crops to the buying stations. By bringing the market to them, ergo us personally driving to their farms, we ensured that their crops got bought at fair prices and we saved them the hassle and cost of a trip to the city. So the profits were entirely theirs. The best gift I probably received was during Christmas in the first year of our operations, approximately 8 months since we first opened. We’d been sourcing beans from Arlyn. She is a petite mother of 5, and she had to carry her coffee for a total of 20 kilometers over rough and uneven terrain to be processed. She called to tell us to come pick up the coffee we were buying a week earlier than we agreed. When we arrived at her house, she asked us to go to the back. We were holding back tears when she told us she had managed to buy a mill from the money we had given her for her coffee. She didn’t have to walk the 20 kilometers anymore. She could even do the milling and processing for her neighbours which would bolster her family’s income. Knowing that we had helped somebody was something, but knowing that we had helped somebody secure a means to better their family’s life was priceless.

Arlyn standing showing us her mill

We learned that coffee harvesting and processing is back breaking, and we totally understand why parents wouldn’t wish this kind of future on their children. It’s a dying industry but we’re doing our part to make the effort worth it for our farmers. We don’t want to wake up one morning to a world without coffee. That’s a scary thought. And we more than learned to appreciate the beautiful red cherries that our farmers lovingly picked from the trees with their sun-browned hands and processed with meticulous care into the beans we love and enjoy.

Green Coffee Beans

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