Lockdown in an Organic Coffee Webshop with Juan Ramón Rangel Silva
The interview was transcribed and adapted into an article by Audrey Coggins
In this interview, we meet Juan Ramón Rangel Silva, the Managing Founder of REE, the company of single-origin coffee brands based in Belgium importing from sustainable coffee cooperatives of Mexico. He shares how the sales went down immediately as the restaurants and bars that used to order the coffee closed for the lockdown. But the coffee did not stop growing and the farmers did not stop harvesting. So the business had to continue. That pushed Juan Ramon to move from selling coffee as a commodity to a finished product and to improve the webshop which connects original producers to the individual consumers.
Coffee is a very intensive process and we want to honour that, and be the storytellers of their journey.
Can you tell us more about the concept of single-origin coffee and how you came about the idea for the business?
Juan Ramon: Originally, I studied technology innovation management and then worked in a local property office in Mexico. I am from Mexico. I have lived in the US, in Australia and now currently in Europe, in Antwerp, Belgium. Antwerp is the port that imports the most coffee around the world: a 40% share of all coffee imported into the EU.
Living abroad all this time, being Mexican, I found it difficult to find good Mexican coffee — any Mexican coffee — around the world. It really struck me because Mexico is within the top ten coffee producing countries in the world. In fact, Mexico is fighting for the first place, or at least in the top three, of organically produced coffee in the world. So I asked myself, as I was sitting in a fancy coffee bar in Australia or in Amsterdam, how come there was no good quality coffee from Mexico?
My family comes from Veracruz in Mexico. It is actually one of the first regions in Mexico where coffee was introduced. I saw the opportunity there. The first thing I needed to do was to create a distribution channel for Mexican coffee, initially in Europe.
So you are bringing in Mexican coffee into the European market through a web platform?
Juan Ramon: Yes. Of course, there are many existing platforms and technologies for selling coffee. Our difference was our deviation from big traders who regulate coffee. We wanted to define and support comparatives that fit into a specific profile. Our parameters focused on producers who want to be socially responsible or groups of ‘associates’ who are part of a community of small landholders. These associates perhaps have five acres of land where they might grow coffee along with other agricultural products.
So you have found a way to connect these small producers themselves directly with a web platform, with you/the web platform being the mediator and avoid dealing with the big traders and food markets?
Juan Ramon: Of course. We were looking for opportunities not only for the producers but also for the roasters. The roasters are now wanting to become more sustainable on their own and now want to identify a wider versatility of coffee profiles. But this doesn’t stop there. The market and needs from the producers have actually pushed us to target the best coffees with the best stories within Mexico that are able to fulfil the criteria of being able to produce and harvest coffee organically. Producers that are able to impact the society or municipalities where they belong as well as knowing that they have a good quality (even amazing) cup and taste profile.
Can you tell more about registration from the United Nations for Sustainable Development Goals?
Juan Ramon: Well, we are focusing on two coffees from Mexico. One, from Chiapas. The coffee there is grown in a protected area. The other coffee is from a very special area within Oaxaca. These two regions have a very special, very exclusive label for being protected areas, the Reserva El Triunfo. These types of coffee are grown by small cooperatives which protect the smallholders. These producers harvest organically and have the best practices.
Can you tell us what happened to your business when the countries announced the lockdown?
Juan Ramon: Well, as you can imagine, we were immediately affected. No coffee bars or cafes were opened. People were not going out to enjoy their cup of coffee. Restaurants closed. Sales went down. This pushed me to think of new strategies to not only distribute the product as a commodity but beyond that, as a finished product. It also pushed us to improve our coffee selection process. We want to work with the cooperatives and producers to create better strategies and better distribution channels for them during the lockdown.
This was the challenging bit because the coffee producers have to go about their business of producing coffee — growing and harvesting — even in the lockdown. For them, it was not possible to stay at home during the lockdown.
Did the individual consumers continue shopping or did something change there too?
Juan Ramon: We are now focused on boosting sales of the finished product that the individual consumers can enjoy. Normally we offer the roasted beans but we’re looking at moving away from only offering coffee in bean-form. Coffee sold as bean form is the best way to preserve their freshness. We are looking to move to the next step in a sustainable way.
There is so much effort that producers are doing at the origin, not just in Mexico. We want to honour that. The process of creating a good cup of coffee is a very heavy and intense process. So this requires a lot of thinking, which is where we are right now with our remote team. Thanks to the lockdown, the team is growing. More people have put their hands up and want to do something about it.
Do you deliver across the world? What markets do you reach?
Juan Ramon: For the time being, it’s mainly in the EU region. Right now, we have different levels of customers. For example, we have ‘hard’ customers, e.g., Russia, Austria, Ireland, Switzerland. We are building a good team that is working remotely in other parts of the world and they actually want to bring it in because they love the coffees and are coffee geeks. They are passionate about taste and sustainability.
Do you know how your competitors have been dealing with the lockdown?
Juan Ramon: Some of them are also affected. The nice part is that we all belong to a coffee community. So sometimes our competitors trade products with us. Coffee creates passion and it’s really nice because everybody learns from each other.
What about the customers/clients? How have they been handling the lockdown? Have you checked on them?
Juan Ramon: In my case, I have different types of customers. The B2B, where I distribute to most, really appreciate that we keep working to bring in coffee to the EU. From the B2C perspective, they have been appreciative of the work we are doing to develop a better webshop. We keep making better deals for logistics and distribution. My product can now go from the producer to the end consumer and that is the beauty of it all.
Can you tell me shortly what the outlook is for the next few months? You mention you have the team but maybe in more detail, what are you planning for the future?
Juan Ramon: For the future, we are expanding the different coffee profiles we have so that people can be aware about the diversity of Mexican coffee. We are also working on developments that can help us internally to create more transparency and awareness about the processes. We see that people are really interested in exploring this kind of intensive and disruptive industry that is, at the end of the day, a daily ritual for every person.
Who doesn’t enjoy at the start of the day an amazing, fruity cup of coffee?
So you’re betting on consumers who are not only passionate about the coffee but passionate about the journey that the coffee made before arriving at their tables, right?
Juan Ramon: Yes. Consumers are not only passionate about the product, but they understand what makes a product special. This is very important for us as well, that they like the stories behind it as well. The producers are amazing at what they do and we say that we are the storytellers of their journey. And at the end of the day, this is for the people.
The Lockdown Economy initiative is run by the think tank AlterContacts.org with real entrepreneurs sharing insights, challenges and successes during the pandemic to inspire, motivate and encourage other entrepreneurs around the world.