Wake up and smell the coffee in the Gulf

The founders of Cru Kafe take their coffee differently to most.

The London-based startup has brewed up an environmentally-friendly coffee pod, amid growing backlash against the disposable capsules made famous by the likes of the George Clooney-fronted Nespresso, writes Ben Flanagan.

It’s no ordinary cup of Joe. Cru Kafe’s pods use fair trade, speciality grade, organic coffee. They are biodegradable, unlike the billions of plastic and aluminium pods sent to landfill each year, and Cru is working on making a fully compostable capsule, as rival Lavazza has already done.

Colin Pyle (left) and John Quilter (right) are two of the founders of Cru Kafe. Photo: Ben Flanagan
Colin Pyle (left) and John Quilter (right) are two of the founders of Cru Kafe. Photo: Ben Flanagan

The company was launched in 2013 by the UK’s emerging celebrity chef John Quilter, Norwegian businesswoman and model Bodil Blain, and Canadian entrepreneur Colin Pyle.

It sells Nespresso-compatible capsules for around 29 pence (45 cents) each in the UK. Cru Kafe also has a limited-edition variety made with coffee from the Galapagos which – at £25 ($39) for a bag of 24 – is believed to be the world’s most expensive pod coffee.

Having launched its coffee capsules for sale online in the UK and parts of Europe, Cru Kafe is currently in the process of bringing the product to the UAE and Kuwait.

Speaking to Benchmark on the banks of the Thames in London, Colin Pyle and John Quilter explained the brand’s mission to percolate the Gulf’s retail market.

 Q& A

Why are you looking to launch your brand in the Gulf market?

Colin: I think the opportunity in the Middle East is enormous. It’s quite a big market for Nespresso, and a lot of people have the machines. And I think people in the Middle East really like their coffee and have a good taste for it. [Our product is stocked in London department store] Harrods and we get a lot of interest from the Gulf region. We get emails saying, ‘I got your coffee at Harrods, I’m now back home, I can’t live without it, we need it in this part of the world.’

And how are your Gulf plans going?

Colin: We have partnerships with a distributor in the UAE and another in Kuwait. It’s very early days for them. The Middle East is a very different market to the UK. The UK has the highest per-capita spend on ecommerce in the world. In the Middle East it’s very much a retail environment – coffee shops and shopping malls. So we’re going to test it out and try to sell a little bit via ecommerce in the UAE. We’re working on an Arabic-language website at the moment.

We’re already in talks with a host of five-star hotels in the Gulf region. Most five-star hotels have Nespresso machines in their rooms or suites. And so why not have a better-tasting, more ethical, organic and eco-friendly product? Right now our distributors are working with hotels and then they’re talking with some retail chains. But those are longer conversations. There’s quite a bit of red tape to get the product onto the store shelf. Because we’re organic and fair trade, it has to be processed properly with all the documentation and paperwork.

Coffee pods get quite a bad press given their environmental impact. Has that had a negative impact on your business, even though yours are eco-friendly?

John: There are a lot of people we talk to who are very frustrated, and haven’t bought Nespresso machines because of that. But we’re had such a positive response – relief would be the right word to use, when people find out that there’s an alternative to Nespresso. And that’s been probably one of the most rewarding and encouraging things for us, to feel that sense of, not only did we get this right, but that we’re doing something good. Because people don’t like a monopoly. And millions of these aluminium pods go into landfill every day.

Tell us more about your biodegradable pods.

Colin: The capsule is biodegradable, but we can do better, and we are continuing to do better. What we really want is a compostable capsule, one that you can throw into your compost. That at the end of the day is our goal. This current version biodegrades in several years. It’s good, but we could do better. We want to have 100 percent compostable everything, and we won’t stop until we get there.

How ‘fair’ is your fair-trade coffee?

John: Everything we buy is well over the fair-trade price. Because speciality coffee demands a much higher price. So by default, by buying the best quality speciality, it means that we are rewarding those farmers that are being responsible. Because organic farmers can’t put nasty chemicals and terrible pesticides into the ground. So we’re rewarding people that care about their environment, care about their community, and care about the product.

 You’ve also launched in Norway, where your other cofounder – model Bodil Blain – hails from. Why there?

Colin: Norway has been a hot market for us since we launched here in the UK. Because Bodil is from Norway we had just a tonne of opportunities. We found an amazing entrepreneur in Norway who’s going to help us out. There’s only four million Norwegians, but they drink a lot of coffee.

How can you protect your business against emerging competition?

John: Nothing that we’re doing is revolutionary. But it’s the fact that we’re bringing all those elements together in one place. We’d be happy for more people to come into the market and do what we do. It’s the second-biggest traded resource on the planet. There’s enough coffee to go around for everybody, there really is.

After your limited-edition coffee from the Galapagos, what about the coffee made from civet cat poo? Is that something you’re going to dump on the market?

Colin: It’s actually got a lot of bad press recently, because people are starting to inhumanely use the cats to digest the coffee beans, and then use the excrement. We’d like to launch another limited-edition coffee, probably in September if we can, definitely before the end of the year. We’ve got some pretty cool ideas but we want to keep it under wraps for now.

John: Yes… We don’t want to let the cat out of the bag…