Perfect blend

The UAE is the fastest-growing coffee market in the world. talks to the owner of Dubai’s award-winning Raw Coffee, whose passion for excellence, switched-on marketing approach and ethical practices have earned the business a reputation as the nation’s finest coffee purveyor

Coffee has been important in Arab culture for centuries – both as a social activity and as a way of welcoming guests; even the word ‘coffee’ comes from Arabic (‘qahwa’). In the UAE, an ever-expanding population teamed with the introduction of Western styles of coffee have helped make it the fastest-growing coffee market in the world by volume, with sales predicted to rise by 80 per cent between now and 2014, according to a recent study by market research company Euromonitor International.

Capitalising on this trend is the Middle East Coffee & Tea convention, which is held each November in Dubai and is the venue for the UAE Barista Championships. Raja Muthusamy is the official 2010 UAE champion and works for Dubai-based boutique roastery, the Raw Coffee Company. In 2010, this Dubai institution was voted as serving the ‘Best Coffee in the UAE’ in a Time Out Dubai survey.

Global trends in food and drink for 2012 reveal that ‘food channel’ knowledge is in. Retailers need to understand and be able to answer questions on food miles, sustainability, ingredients and organic status of their products. A firm tick, then, for Raw, whose ethos is built on walking customers through the entire coffee process, from cultivation through to the preparation of a perfect cup.

Raw Coffee’s business model was never a conscious attempt to be ahead of the curve, according to Kim Thompson, its New Zealand-born founder and Managing Director. Having lived and worked in Dubai for 13 years, it was more about a desire to recreate the coffee experience she knew from back home, where owner-operated cafes and a highly personalised service are the norm.

“We have a really loyal following,” says Thompson. “On the weekends we do hundreds of coffees, sometimes 500 a day. The staff know our regulars' names; they know our staff. We know if someone’s going to have a ‘soya flat white’ and the guys are standing ready to make it before they come. People like to feel they’re being looked after personally.”

Thompson draws parallels between the coffee business and the world of wine. “Our product changes each season because, like with grapes, the micro-climate affects the characteristics, and the flavours we achieve from the coffee. If there’s been more rain, if there’s been more sunshine, that changes the taste of the coffee every year.

“We are also careful to select the coffees we want to work with. We pay a premium price to have the organically certified and Fair Trade certified coffee,” she adds.

Indeed the roastery has pursued a strictly ethical trading stance since it was founded. Coffee is one of the world’s most important export commodities, yet it is produced by some of its poorest farmers, with over 90 per cent harvested in developing countries. Conversely, its mass consumption belongs firmly in industrialised economies.

When we speak, Thompson is preparing for a trip to Ethiopia with her coffee importer. “We’re going to meet the cooperative where the farmers bring in the Yirgacheffe coffee that we really love at the moment.  We roast to quite a light level, which is a trend you’re seeing now in more specialty coffee roasters. It really brings out the flavours.”

The company is also working with an international organisation to try and import coffee grown in Yemen by a women’s farming collective. The country has the distinction of being the oldest known coffee cultivating region in the world, producing famously distinct beans. The current political unrest is hampering the supply chain but Thompson remains hopeful of introducing it to customers. “We’re hoping we can make it happen. The local population here would love to have an option of supporting coffee in the Middle East.”

With hindsight, having put her family’s finances on the line, endured a steep learning curve and weathered the global economic meltdown, is starting a boutique business something she could recommend?

“With the economic situation the way it is, there is more opportunity for small and medium enterprise businesses starting up. If you’re prepared to take it slowly and you’re realistic, Dubai is an exciting place to start a business. It’s enormously exciting.”