Star sign: Aries
Currently reading: Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard
Hopes his last meal will be: Streetfood! Amazing tacos or Pad Thai
Mark Jordaan is one of the founders of Giraffe Coffee Roasters. This coffee roaster in Rotterdam tries to make insanely fun and tasty coffee.
When did you first know that this was your calling?
That it was coffee came quite early. When I attended hotel school, I was looking for something I could lose myself in, something I could delve into. At first I thought it was going to be wine, but after many tastings it suddenly occurred to me: if I’m going to do something with wine, I will be drinking all day. It sounded nice, but I didn’t think it would be good for me. So, when I did an internship in the UK, I happened to come across coffee. I found myself in a rabbit hole where every question answered raised about five new questions. That’s how I tumbled in. This took place pretty early on – me figuring out my calling would be coffee. I was around the age of 18 or 19 – I am almost 32 now.
I didn’t expect it to be a roasting company until about six months before we started our roasting company. I worked as a barista for a lot of companies beforehand and I really enjoyed that. I always thought that I would open a coffee bar someday, but I kept going from one job to another. Eventually, I entered competitions and I started working as a trainer for coffee roasters. This is how I learned the whole story behind coffee roasting and entered a new phase; a new enlightening. I always thought that as a barista behind a coffee machine I had everything in hand, but there turned out to be a level above it. This level is where a large part of the taste is controlled and I found that incredibly interesting. The plan therefore switched from a coffee bar to a roasting company. I had some people in my network who thought the same and that’s how we started.
How did you get your business off the ground?
At the last job I had, I was fortunate enough to be allowed a lot of freedom to experiment. In the beginning, we even used the beans I bought for the roasting house I taught at. We bought these beans from my former employer and we only roasted when we sold something. This caused many problems, because the coffee would be too fresh which doesn’t work.
During the first six months, we experienced a lot of obstacles. We had no customers – quite a problem – so I went to a coffee bar around the corner with a pit in my stomach. I told them that I had started a roasting company and asked if they wanted to taste it. And suddenly we had a customer, but no coffee yet! He immediately ordered 6 kg, which we had to roast quickly and deliver the next day. Crackling fresh, it was impossible to make coffee with it. We had handwritten bags and sealed them at the kitchen table with a hair straightener. We really had to reinvent the wheel ourselves.
The biggest lesson in this has been that everything takes twice as long and costs three times as much money as you’d think. Perhaps it would have been better to plan something before we plunged into it. It was difficult to get started, but it all turned out well in the end: we now have a team of 12 people and we supply about 250 to 300 regular customers. Mostly to the hospitality industry, but also quite a few offices.
I don’t believe you should ask people what they want and then make it. You have to make what you think is the bomb.
What makes your company unique?
I think a few things, but especially the quality of the coffee we buy. That may sound cliché because I think every roaster says they have the best beans, but we try to buy very distinct, traceable coffee that tastes amazingly good. We also have a team that does an amazing job tasting and selecting. After every bean we buy, we search longer and taste more varieties. I think that’s what sets us apart in the selection process.
As a small roasting house, we put a lot of time and energy into quality control. In addition, we always try to make everything better, both internally (the aforementioned quality) and with customers. We feel a real connection with our customers and put a lot of energy into our relationship with them. We try to help and support these entrepreneurs as much as possible. We ensure that the staff can make excellent coffee and that they can contact us with all their questions. If they need new equipment, we can advise them what to get and when they have a street fair at their doorstep, we have equipment available to make it extra awesome. It’s important for us to build a partnership and not just throw a box of coffee at them. That may sound logical, but certainly – compared to larger parties – this is really a unique thing.
So in summary, two important things: the taste of the coffee and the level of our service. And I also think we keep everything simple. Just like with wine, you can completely lose yourself in coffee and be elitist about it. I think we want to tell the story very openly and honestly.
What is the biggest challenge for you as an entrepreneur?
That actually has everything to do with what I just said about having such a personal relationship with our customers. I think monitoring this as we grow is one of the trickiest things. Luckily, it helps that we are very aware and that this issue is very much on our radar. We are already working on inventing systems so that we can keep a better eye on this so it does not happen. You do need to ensure that you remain unique and monitor your USPs. If you say ‘I just want to grow and grow’, you are going to make coffee that ‘the people’ like. There is only one roasting company in the Netherlands that knows best what the Dutch people want – they have been doing this for hundreds of years. They have asked most Dutchies what they like about coffee. If you want to sell as much as possible, you will make Douwe Egberts. So I think keeping our core values - dealing incredibly well with customers and making coffee that we want to drink ourselves – is the biggest challenge. I don’t believe you should ask people what they want and then make it. You have to make what you think is the bomb.
What inspires you to continue?
People, I guess. The collaborations are great fun and I really like that. Plus building things together is very cool. Everyone has their own story and perspective and that really inspires me. Also, coffee continues to fascinate me. Every year I have one or two new discoveries – there is so much to learn! Not to mention, on my path, I seem to constantly stumble onto fun, new and different things.
What is your life motto / what mantra do you live?
Everything will be fine. Very appropriate during these times too, I think. Overall, I am generally very optimistic and that often has advantages along with some disadvantages. If a problem arises, I generally do not know how we will solve it, but I do know we will solve it and it will work out.
How do you ensure a good work-life balance?
I think it is important to realize that you are always going through a phase where – especially in the beginning – you have to let your mind go blank and just go. Sooner or later you run into a wall and over the years you realize that bit by bit the wall has grown. We’ve been doing this for seven years now, so you can imagine what we’ve been faced with.
I can really shut myself off from things and get away from my work. Not that I’ll stop thinking about work for a whole weekend, but I am certainly not on 24/7. Often when you are busy, you cannot come up with solutions to problems. No matter how much time and energy you put into them. If you take a moment to rest, for example, on your balcony in the sun, you often come up with new ideas or solutions to problems.
How has the Corona virus affected your work?
80% of our business is with the hospitality industry and of course they are all closed now – except for a few brave takeaway heroes. 10% consists of offices and almost all of them are empty. So we actually have very little to do with very little turnover. Still the costs continue. What I find funny is normally about 10% of our earnings is from the private market. But now we are working on that much more. For example, we are busy with our webshop, we are more active on social media and we give online barista courses – where we can teach people stuck at home about coffee. We are also trying to transform the personal contact we usually have into digital contact. In addition, the office has never looked so tidy! Plus we are busy behind the scenes o making business operations tighter, better and more beautiful. We cannot yet fully understand how much money this will cost every entrepreneur. It will really be a disaster.
What can people do to support you and others in your field?
I think the best way to support us is by drinking our delicious coffee at home. That is pretty much the only way. I think that this is very important and it certainly does not only apply to just us. There are many suppliers of the catering industry in the same boat – some of which also participate in ‘Support Your Local Box’. By purchasing these, you can support us a bit, as you normally do.
What are your plans for the future?
Let’s survive this! I think that will be the thing of 2020. We are also working on a few things, such as making our activities more sustainable. We have always been involved in this, but often only when we ran into something. For example, if we have to buy a new bus, we wonder whether it’s possible electrically. Likewise, our previous packaging was not recyclable – it had a better barrier, making the coffee last longer – but when we changed our identity last year, the technology was changed and we discovered the barrier of the recyclable packaging was just as good. So it was a no-brainer to update it.
I think that next year we will review everything and see how it can all be improved. I noticed that we were already unconsciously working on this, but now it’s really our top priority. We are also looking into organic beans and have already made sustainability efforts throughout our distribution. One day I would still like to have a physical location outside the roasting house: a bar or training center. But, we do have room for this now. Currently we are located in the north of Rotterdam, but we hope eventually we can have a location in more accessible place – perhaps in the center of the city. This was already in the works for the future, but because of the whole corona story it is unlikely that this will happen as quickly as we would have liked.
Do you have tips for people who want to start a business (in this field)?
I have two tips.
1) Be yourself and be unique. Don’t think ‘Pietje sells frankfurters, so I will do that too’. You have to do something you think is cool. And you have to position yourself very traditionally in the market – in a place where you can create added value.
2) Make sure it is financially possible. If you want to pay yourself a salary, need a car to drive around and also have some overhead costs (for an office for example), then you will most likely have costs of €50.000 per year. Think carefully about how much product you have to sell to get that amount. It is also important to create something that can still exist in 10 years because it keeps itself alive. You cannot work for tea and biscuits for the next 40 years and keep yourself alive. So, ask yourself, ‘What do I have to do to make at least €50.000?’