Lockdown Economy Nederland in a Coffee Retail Business with Heidi Ehlers

The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Vasundhra Srivastava

Lockdown Economy: Interviews by think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the COVID19 global pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.

In this interview hosted by Rosie Allison, Heidi Ehlers the owner of Koffie Piraat, a coffee retailer in The Netherlands. Heidi discussed the difficulties she faced as her suppliers began to feel the effects of the pandemic during the lockdown, limiting the products she was able to sell. In order to deal with this, Heidi maintained strong links of communication with suppliers, so that she was able to continue providing coffee to her customers. Koffiee Piraat has continued to grow in this period by not stepping back during the pandemic and continuing to serve its customer base and provide jobs for their employees.

Watch the video version of the interview.

Could you tell us a little more about Koffie Piraat, and how long you have been doing it?

Heidi Ehlers: The business turned nine in May, so we are approaching our 10-year birthday. What we do is, we provide consumers and businesses with coffee. I believe that people are sort of on an adventure with coffee, so wherever you are in your adventure with coffee, we want to be able to provide you with coffee quality products at every price point without judgement. So, if you prefer to drink a certain type of coffee, we want to provide that to you regardless of personal opinion or if it is in style or whatever. Just, make it available for you. Of course, we do our best to introduce people to new things or let them know about smaller local businesses, but it is not our intention to change your behaviour or influence it. We just want to make things available for people, should they want to try something different.

So you are quite consumer-led in that way?

Heidi Ehlers: Yes, of course, that is what it is about, the client.

Where did this idea come from? Is coffee a passion of yours? How did this business start?

Heidi Ehlers: This business started during the recession 10 years ago. It was very difficult to find work and so out of that came Koffie Piraat. I could not find something that suited me so I made my own job, which is amazing because now it has grown into something where I can offer other people the ability to work and provide for their families. It is fantastic.

I wanted to ask you how many employees do you have currently.

Heidi Ehlers: There are five employees now.

Are you growing at the moment, or is this kind of the size that you’re staying at?

Heidi Ehlers: No, every year we get a little bit busier. Every year there is growth.

I understand that you are a retailer but you don’t have a physical shop, so you’re completely online which is obviously good considering the current situation. But, how did you have to change your business when the lockdown hit in March and there was less demand for your products?

Heidi Ehlers: Well that is the really strange thing, that there wasn’t less demand, there was at the end of March a sort of peak, and I really relate this to panic buying. People were uncertain and afraid that they would not be able to get the things that they normally enjoy. So, March was actually very busy for us. And of course being responsible for being able to supply to people these products it was also very strange for me, because we didn’t know if we would have any supply chain issues and where they would come from, and honestly where I expected to have the supply issues they never appeared, but they did come from other places that actually I did not expect. But, we were able to continue supply people with amazing coffee, just we did have some gaps with supply on certain items. March was sort of where people went into panic buying. What we did notice in April was smaller orders and less big orders from offices or restaurants. I believe this was a direct result of people not working at the office and staying home and then needing to get coffee for themselves at home rather than going to the office and getting it there

You mentioned that you had some difficulty with the supply chain. Did you put any measures in place to try to overcome this? Did you have to search for new suppliers? How did you deal with this challenge?

Heidi Ehlers: Of course, we are always looking for options to cover these periods but when the manufacturers cannot manufacture the products, at a certain point they are just not available anywhere. So somethings we were just temporality sold out of, of course, we did scramble to get everybody what they need.

So you experience, like you said, a slight change in the demand of your coffee from bigger orders to smaller orders. Has that changed your business plan in any way? Are you now marketing more to individual consumers rather than businesses?

Heidi Ehlers: No. The thing is, even the people that own businesses are consumers themselves at the end of the day and we just want to be here to support everybody regardless. We have not really focused tremendously on the individual consumers. Of course, we always have and will continue to do that, but we are still here for all the businesses as well and although there are a lot of people working from home these days, there are a lot of people that aren’t. We are here; I am at work right now.

You’ve always been there?

Heidi Ehlers: Yes, exactly.

What about in the current climate, how is your business going now?

Heidi Ehlers: We are coming into our peak period of the year, so it is really hard to say what will happen. Even the summers are typically our slowest period of the year so it was really interesting to see what was going to happen with that but with much fewer people going on vacation, or choosing to go on vacation for shorter amounts of time there were many more people here in the country. So, we will see what happens. We have several holidays coming up — Sinterklaas, Black Friday, Christmas, New Years — and there are a lot of companies now that are also searching for nice things that they can send to their teams while they’re working from home, just to sort of keep the contact or let them know we are still thinking about you and you’re important. So, a lot of people are sending small gifts or different things to their teams. Because this is a very weird time and when you are working completely remotely, I believe that some people can start to feel unimportant or redundant. I know that a lot of companies are trying to extra reach out because you don’t have that personal contact at the office.

Do you know anything about how your customers or your competitions are doing? What is the state of the market that you are working in right now?

Heidi Ehlers: We have spoken about doing some surveys or trying to reach out to people, we have asked questions on social media. But because we are such a small team we haven’t really had a lot of resources to dedicate to this type of interaction or questioning. That is definitely something I would like to work on, but we are in the midst of all this, in the middle of a new webshop built, we just updated our logo and or colour scheme. So, there is really a lot going on here in addition to all of this.

It is a busy period. What is your outlook for the coming months? You mentioned you are building a new website, what do you see coming for the Koffie Piraat in the next few months?

Heidi Ehlers: We have started working with some new roasters, we are expanding our assortment I’ve spent a lot of time this year working with local companies. I really want to grow with other small businesses and give other small businesses access to our clients. So, we’ve been putting a lot of energy into that. We have added this year several different products from companies out of the Netherlands, so that’s been really great and we’ve spent a lot of time getting to know these people. When you are working with a small business, it is totally different than a big multinational, which is amazing. But, we are also working with similarly small businesses in Italy to get their products here for the Dutch market and again, I’ve really stayed in contact with all of our suppliers checking in with them through all of this. It’s been really amazing because even when Italy was in a total lockdown we could order their products and they said ‘thank you so much for ordering from us because now we have work to do, and it makes us feel like still important and we’re still contributing’. So that’s amazing, I get the same kind of feeling from working with small local business as well, at the end of the day, though Italy isn’t local but they are still people. It has been really great. So in the future, there will be more selection and hopefully more happy clients.

Great! So, you mentioned how you managed to keep communications open with the suppliers even throughout this period as you said in Italy where there was a total lockdown. For any small business owner that may be watching right now, who is having trouble with reaching out to people in this period do you have any advice on how to keep these close connections even in this difficult times?

Heidi Ehlers: I believe if you are doing something, or if you can do something, the best thing you can do is let people know. Whether it is what you have always done or if you have pivoted your business and you are doing something different, tell people. Put it on social media, make flyers and put in the mailbox, whatever it is you’re doing, if you don’t tell people, people won’t know.

My other tip would be that do not be afraid to reach out to other people because I really believe that together we are so much stronger. So if you have always considered may be collaborating with a particular company or a person or speaker, just reach out to them and say ‘hey, I have this idea’, or ‘what do you think about this?’ I think that everybody has been really caught off guard by this, people are thinking in new ways and if you don’t ask or if you don’t try, you’ll never know. Just go for it.

I think that is valuable advice, to have the confidence to just reach out to people. That is very valuable. Thank you. So, you’ve mentioned a few tips that small businesses could try to stimulate their business in this period but as always there are things that small business need help with. Could you name maybe three things in the current climate you think you and Koffie Piraat need help with?

Heidi Ehlers: That is a hard one. For me, what was really the most challenging was trying to make decisions for my team that could potentially influence their health or wellbeing. Maybe this is a big one to ask, but more clear instructions from the government or like the heath institute about what exactly they want us to do because they come with restrictions but then there is no action plan for the restrictions. I told my team early on in all of this, if you guys have feedback or ideas please share them with me because I can’t find the book on how to keep a healthy, thriving business during a global pandemic. I think that the things that I would need help with are just standard growing pain issues from running a growing business. It is like you have a skill set but then your business grows and now you need to learn more skills, and then it grows again and the old skills aren’t sufficient anymore, so now you need to add. But, I really loved that. This pandemic has shown me that my boundaries are so much further than I thought they were. So, that’s been great.

Certainly, that’s something that many small business owners and entrepreneurs will be able to relate with, these growing pains that are natural in a small business and then on top of that, you’ve got all these problems of the pandemic. It is not easy.

Thank you very much, Heidi, for sharing your views with us today and your insights. Do you have any closing remarks?

Heidi Ehlers: Just thank you for having me, I think what you guys are doing is really amazing and as I said earlier together we are much stronger. It is so fantastic to have a resource like this with knowledge, viewpoints and perspectives from all different types of people because at the end of the day were all going through this together. Thank you for having me, and thank you for doing this. This is just amazing.

About the Guest

Heidi Ehlers is the owner of Koffie Piraat, an online coffee retailer based near Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Koffie Piraat provides coffee directly to consumers and businesses, offering a large range of European coffee and other products from big name Italian roasters to lesser-known brands. Heidi and Koffie Piraat believe that no one should have to drink bad coffee!



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