Where next for the Middle East's independent coffee scene?

How cafe culture is changing throughout the region amid Covid-19
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Dona Murad of Grind Coffee in Bahrain
Dona Murad of Grind Coffee in Bahrain

Café culture is ubiquitous in the Middle East. Whether it’s a group of men sitting on the pavement enjoying a shisha, or ladies having a catch-up over a coffee, it is an ever present part of life.

But it’s always been an ever-changing one, with customers transitioning from old-fashioned Arabic coffees to the Starbucks generation, before landing on the current trend for single-origin, traceable coffee.

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It hasn’t always been an easy ride, says Dona Murad of Grind Coffee in Bahrain.

“When we first opened, people were hesitant to embrace third wave coffee. Coffee tastes were mostly influenced by global chains, scorching hot, filled with sugar, and over-roasted. Specialty coffee is delicate and complex, so you can actually taste the flavour unique to every bean. Over time, our customers started to appreciate the work we put in, four years later we built loyal base of ‘coffee snobs.'”

t’s these coffee snobs that have helped push the scene forward, encouraging more and more quality cafes to open with a wider range of options. Mokha 1450 CEO Garfield Kerr believes that the region compares favourably with the rest of the world.

He says: “I travel frequently, and when I do, I always leave time on my agenda to stake out to the best specialty coffee locations in a particular country to evaluate their coffee, barista skills, and coffee culture with an eye for comparison to Mokha 1450 and the UAE coffee scene. After a number of years, I would say the UAE is quite unique in comparison to that of other well-known coffee capitals around the world.  By way of example, when Mokha 1450 started we tried to do something different that was never done before by offering every brewing method available in addition to the standard espresso-based coffee drinks.  While this is tough to pull off, it soon became standard fare here in the UAE and spread throughout the region.  As a result, the experience and coffee culture here is quite unique and I would say surpasses that of most other coffee destinations by some experiential measures.”

Despite the high praise for the region and its level of expertise, Jacqueline Godinho, managing director of Stomping Grounds, a family-owned, Australian-style café in Dubai, says spreading the word is what continues to push them on – even if it creates competition

“Educating consumers on coffee is still pretty much what motivates us even now”, she says. “It is very gratifying to see so many of our regular customers go on to set up their own cafes and yet continue to come to Stomping Grounds every so often. We realize that ‘Coffee Education and Awareness’ is critical to the growth of coffee sales within the retail space. The process of making coffee, using the right protocols and tools and educating consumers, is an on-going responsibility of all café operators and it should be.”

In light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, priorities have shifted, however, and with cafes only able operate while socially distanced, severely reducing the capacity, Kerr says operators will need to move online quicker than before.

He says: “Well, before Covid-19 forced a re-think of going out for a coffee, the trend was towards e-commerce for roasted coffee beans and specialty coffee brewing gadgets. Now all specialty coffee brands must adapt and have a robust e-commerce platform not only for roasted coffee, but brewed coffee as well.”

Dubai’s speciality coffee shop Nightjar saw a 2,000% increase in online orders from February to April, with 88% of all its business going digital.

Managing director Leon Surynt says his team “suddenly went from coffee roasters to working in IT, design, logistics” to keep up with demand.

With the full-lockdown over, Surynt says business is beginning to balance out again, but behavioural patterns have changed. Now Nightjar is the home for many remote office workers who may not have the facilities they need to work at home. With a minimum spend in place so that customers can’t hog valuable tablespace unnecessarily, Surynt feels the new normal is working well so far.

“People are spending a little less, but they are also treating themselves with an everyday luxury and spending a little more on a coffee bag they can have at home rather than buying two to three coffees throughout the day.”

At Coffee Planet, managing director Robert Jones is hoping to use the time given to them by Covid-19 to look to the future.

He says: “It has given us a period to pause and refocus our strategy, developing new product ranges to add to our online platform. We have recently signed a new trading partnership with M.H Enterprises, who are rich in experience of retail distribution channels.”

Aiming at the millennial crowd with its nitro cold brew range, Coffee Planet thinks the ready-to-drink market will continue to see a big push in the coming months, while it is also expanding its online offering for those wishing to brew their own coffee at home.

Despite the obvious trend towards online ordering, Murad hopes that Grind can continue to give customers “a sense of normalcy in uncertain times”. She adds: “Community coffee shops survive if customers trust their baristas with quality and safety. I see the future of our business moving towards more home brew kits, but honestly nothing replaces the relationship you have with your local neighbourhood coffee shop.”

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