In 13 years of operation, Raw Coffee Company has seen the Middle East’s coffee industry rise and rise. From pushing samples of single-origin into hesitant hands at school fairs to supplying 360 solutions to those wishing to roast their own beans at home, Raw has been there, done that, and got the coffee-stained t-shirt.
Kim Thompson, owner and managing director, explains that although the UAE has had a long history with coffee, which has been a part of Arab culture and hospitality for hundreds of years, it’s only in the last five to six years that customers have begun to look for sustainable, ethical, single roast coffees.
“We’ve been told there’s now 54 specialty roasters in the UAE,” Thompson says. It’s a far cry from when Raw started out as one of the first, but, she says, speciality coffee has eventually grown its audience and now “captured a generation”.
The globalisation of specialty coffee has happened so quickly, says Matt Toogood, owner and CEO of Raw, that despite being about eight years behind, “Dubai has pretty much caught up with the rest of the world”, holding its own with coffee capitals such as Melbourne.
And the boom continues. With people forced to stay at home throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Raw is predicting a rise in customers looking for higher quality coffee.
“We used to say there are three main reasons why people drink coffee,” says Toogood. “One, you get up in the morning and you want that caffeine hit. Or you want to go to a café and have a cup of coffee to socialise. And there’s also the taste of it. So people have been at home for three months. They haven’t been able to socialise, the caffeine has probably been negated because we might be able to sleep in a bit longer and don’t really need the caffeine shot to get going in the morning, so the taste of the coffee has become really important. People have had the time to evaluate and get better at making it.”
Toogood is convinced that customers won’t want to return to a lower grade coffee, saying “it’s like drinking a bottle of spumante then drinking champagne, all of a sudden your whole palate changes”.
With customers now being able to purchase high-end coffee making equipment such as an aeropress or V60 from their local stores, there’s no reason for them to sacrifice on quality when they are at home.
Raw has been taking advantage of that by not just selling them the equipment, but by providing them with training. “Knowledge seeking” has become the biggest trend in coffee, says Toogood, with home consumers enlisting Raw to help them become well-versed in the coffee world.
With Covid-19 halting in-house training for a while, Raw quickly turned to virtual barista education via Zoom, says Thompson. “We sell a lot of espresso equipment at the moment as there’s a lot more people investing in home equipment. So we are able to come and install that and provide training.”
Toogood adds that customers have been visibly impressed with the level of expertise Raw provides. He says: “It was quite amusing the first couple of times we did virtual training as we said to the customer: If you taste this coffee it will taste like this, and they’d look at you in shock because how can I work out over the computer what the coffee was going to taste like in their hand, but when you’ve worked with it so much it’s actually quite an easy thing to do.”
With Toogood and Thompson leading from the front at Raw, it has been able to adapt quickly to the challenges thrown up by Covid-19. With a huge increase in online ordering and more people drinking at home, Thompson says they are making a conscious effort to get to know their new customers and understand what they are looking for.
And with people tightening their belts in the current economic climate, Toogood says Raw is positioned to adapt to an environment which involves fewer trips to the café.
He says: “You don’t have to be a mathematician to understand the maths behind coffee. If we sell a premium bag of coffee for AED200 a kilo and you can make 50 coffees at home out of that, all of a sudden you go: That’s AED4 a cup. What’s between AED4 and AED20? So many people are going to ask how they can make it as good as they can get it at a café, and that’s where the training comes in.”
For the Middle East’s independent coffee scene to thrive, quick changes like this will need to be made.