The Coffee Company
Amsterdam, Holland, The Netherlands
By Joel Starr & Timothy J. Castle
With its unique business model, vision, hard work and enthusiasm, The Coffee Company, has helped evolve the endeavors of the coffee business for the past 25 years.
The Dutch have both a long history with coffee
and the advancement of its production and commercialization. For example, in “The Book of Coffee” by Francesco and Riccardo Illy, the Dutch are credited with the invention of the first washed coffee processing method as early as 1740. And, it was a Dutchman that, in large part, reintroduced specialty coffee to the U.S. through the opening in 1966 of Peet’s Coffee & Tea in Berkeley, California (which, in turn, inspired the founders of Starbucks to open stores in Seattle). As this article is being written, the coffee industry is mourning the recent loss of one of its greatest protagonists and visionaries, Alfred Peet.
Today, however, The Netherlands coffee market is ready for advancement from outside forces. The Dutch are a very social people and prefer to drink their coffee outside the home at Bruin cafes (“Brown” cafes that are known for wooden decor and for serving draft beer, espresso drinks and toasted sandwiches) and at Koffieshops where they can have a chat with the bartender or barista or whoever else might be sitting at the bar. Coffee prepared at home is usually made by a stovetop espresso maker, if it’s made at all, as tea is the drink of choice at home. The concept of “Take-Away,” or “To-Go,” as it’s called in the U.S., is a foreign one. Amsterdammer Zeger Ernsting told us, “If you don’t have time to drink a cup of coffee, then you don’t have time to go to the Koffieshop.” The Dutch take pride in working to live, not living to work, and often express sentiments like this.
All that said, however, Starbucks Coffee Company wishes to change the way the Dutch drink coffee. They recently opened their first café in Holland at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam, catering to on-the-go travelers. Well before this beachhead was established, two Dutchmen beat them to the “take-away” punch a decade ago when they introduced Holland to the concept by opening the first “to-go” espresso bar. Dick De Kock and Rick Bekkema opened their first shop, “The Coffee Company” in 1996 and the two have been opening more shops ever since. Slowly but surely, “take-away,” has been finding a slot in the daily schedules of increasing numbers of Amsterdammers.
We spoke with De Kock to learn more about his long history in coffee, his innovative coffee shop project, and finally, to get his thoughts on the impending invasion of the Green Mermaid.
“In 1982 I was working for Douwe-Egberts [The largest institutional coffee roaster in the Netherlands. DE is also a large tobacco company] in the marketing department and doing direct exports to Scandinavia and Australia. At that time, I was also working on the infamous Maccona brand of freeze-dried, instant coffee for the Australian market. Sadly, that was the best coffee you could get in Australia in those days… so we’ve come a long way!” De Kock reminisced. “In 1988, I started working for Alessie, a small, green coffee importer in Holland, importing coffee from Brazil, Central America and Colombia. I was in Brazil learning the cupping business and found many coffees that we couldn’t sell in Europe in those days. This was at the very beginning of ‘Specialty Coffee.’ It was then that I met people like Tim Castle and George Howell.” De Kock recalled. “We had to go to the U.S. market to sell these coffees which was then leading the way in quality, and still is. My main activity was supplying the U.S. specialty market through Erna Knutsen of Knutsen Coffee. The quality market in Europe had been deteriorating for 30 years - coffee was stale, multi-nationals controlled everything and the coffee business was more a marketing operation than a coffee operation.”
“In the U.S.,” De Kock continued, “the growth of Starbucks and the Coffee Connection was a breath of fresh air. This change was very inspiring to me. In the early ‘90s I was still a coffee trader and I thought to myself that if Starbucks and others can bring specialty to the U.S., that I could do it here, in Holland.”
De Kock and Bekkema started their first small store on the Leidsestratt, a very busy pedestrian street and tramline in the heart of Amsterdam. The first Coffee Company store was a hot topic of conversation among the residents of Amsterdam. Many suspected that this was Douwe-Egberts’s attempt to capitalize on the absence of Starbucks in the home market. This, however, was not the case. The Coffee Company is privately owned and has only two franchises. “We will have 22 stores with seven outside Amsterdam by early 2008.” De Kock said with justifiable pride.
A Modified Approach
The design of the Coffee Company’s espresso bar is felt to be warm and beautiful by its customers and in 1996, ahead of its time. A customized La Marzocco espresso machine sits central on the bar and is the first thing you see when entering. “We add foot pedals for the steamers,” De Kock informed, “a feature that we have asked Kess Vanderwesten to add since we began in 1996.” Behind the espresso altar are clear tubes, back-lit with bright, colored lights, each tube containing a different blend of beans and a graphic design with a description of what the blend is and what its flavor characteristics are.
No Starbucks knock-off, The Coffee Company’s café design and branding are far from that of the invading Seattleites. The cafes are distinctive with bright splashes of colored lights behind the bar. In the larger shops there is plenty of room to relax and enough light to comfortably read…so “Take-Away,” while encouraged, is not the only option; versatility and variety are the operation’s bywords.
De Kock explained the unique design approach in his cafes, “Coffee is one of the most versatile beverages you can think of. You can drink it cold or hot, with or without milk or sweeteners or any number of other possible additive ingredients. There are easily more than a hundred ways in which to drink coffee and the culture around coffee is so rich as well. In Holland, the market was homogeneous, so we said, ‘Coffee is not just RED’ [De Kock also mentioned that 70% of the Dutch coffee market is a ground coffee, roasted by Douwe-Egberts called ‘Aroma Red’] we wanted to emphasis the versatility of coffee and show all the different colors of the rainbow to represent its possibilities.”
Take Me Away
“Take-Away,” a decade down the line, is not yet ubiquitous in Holland, so the Coffee Company still offers ceramic cups at their stores in addition to the paper option. The Dutch, like most Europeans, drink their coffee primarily in espresso-based milk beverages and are not particularly fond of drip coffee. The Coffee Company caters to native tastes, “We only do espresso drinks and we market our coffees as blends because blends work best for our brewing method. Sometimes we market special, single-origin coffees if they can be pulled as espresso well.” De Kock states that “50% of our customers are repeat customers. They know what they want already, they don’t want to experiment much, but if the barista makes a lousy coffee they know that it’s not good. We work to give the baristas the right coffee, but our other focus is to train the barista to be enthusiastic about the product. You can train baristas until you’re blue in the face, but if they don’t want to master the tricks of the trade, then the battle is lost.”
The sourcing of coffee is paramount to any coffee retail business, with De Kock’s long history as a coffee trader, he no-doubt knows how to get the best deals. Buying coffee based only on price, however, is something De Kock does not care to do, “We participate in and support the Cup of Excellence and we are a member of Rainforest Alliance.” He informed, adding “I don’t believe in Fair Trade coffee because I think the only way we can ask customers for more money is to provide them with a better product. So we must first work with farmers who can and want to identify quality in order to take steps to improve. To that end, we work with farms in Brazil and we have a close relationship with them. We’d like to work more in Ethiopia but at the moment we work with Trabocca here in Amsterdam to secure our supply of Ethiopian coffee.”
New Kid On The Block
HMSHOST specializes in travel-oriented concessions and having secured a franchise agreement with Starbucks has recently opened its first Starbucks retail store in Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport with plans to open more locations soon. This “soft opening” for Starbucks in Holland announces their intentions, but also empowers their Dutch competitors. “I think Starbucks presence will drastically change our business in a positive way.” De Kock opined, “It will at once attract more attention to the specialty market and customers will be more interested and will eventually be able to distinguish between the different qualities of our products. There will be competition and benchmarks… and Starbucks will be the benchmark.”
Odds & Ends
The Coffee Company has provided a smoke-free environment in their shops, “We have stopped smoking, but we stand alone in that initiative. There is still smoking permitted in restaurants etc. The Government is planning a full ban in all public space by 2008 De Kock mentioned adding that “We also offer Decaf, but our sales are very minimal and it’s only requested by American tourists.”
“We procure our own coffee and have our own roast profiles but our coffee roasting is done by Kook en Boon,” De Kock stated. Adding, “They started out the same year as us and they have always focused on wholesale roasting. All roasting is done on a 25 Kilo Probat in Breda, Holland. In terms of freshness this doesn’t offer us an advantage over Starbucks as they already have a roastery in Amsterdam but as we all know, all their roasts are at a dark roast profile. We feel challenged that Starbucks is coming and look forward to competing with them.”
De Kock has traveled widely and has been a dedicated and credible promoter of the specialty coffee movement. It is hard to find anyone in the coffee trade who has not both made his acquaintance and who counts him as a friend. It is also difficult to imagine that The Coffee Company will not do well, given the vision, hard work and enthusiasm that he has brought to bear on all his endeavors in the coffee business for the past 25 years (with no slight intended toward his partner, either, who was not interviewed for this article). What’s more, The Coffee Company now has the advantage of Starbucks entering his market. They can be seen as competitors or category expanders, depending on whether you plan on benefiting from being compared to them, or suffering from it. De Kock, clearly, intends to prosper and his colleagues in the coffee trade are rooting for him.
Tea & Coffee - February, 2008
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