She had a vision. She had a goal. She had it all mapped out…with nowhere to go. But that didn’t stop Kim Thompson from establishing RAW, one of the most sought-after coffee companies in the U.A.E. Kim is the living, breathing and walking definition that timing, tenacity, dedication and patience can definitely take you places.
Let’s see what secrets of wisdom the maestro, Kim Thompson, has to share.
- You started your journey as bootleggers, bringing coffee beans from your favorite roasteries around the world to Dubai in suitcases. At what point did you decide to start RAW and why did you go for it?
The idea, the dream for RAW, was really formed when I was running the café at the Jebel Ali Sailing club and I was unable to find a company that could supply me fresh quality roasted coffee, there was no support, no equipment servicing or barista training. So, I realised there was a gap in the market, it was back in 2006 and the company was first born in 2007. The reason I pressed the go button was really all about timing – the sailing club closed and relocated when the Dubai Marina was being built and my three daughters were getting older, so I had more availability to really immerse myself and give it everything. I also felt brave enough to try and do it which I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t run the café first. On reflection, I had no idea what I was getting myself into and only the very basics about coffee as an industry.
- What have been your major milestones since your opening?
So, the first milestone has to be knowledge we acquired. We were the first Specialty roastery in the MENA region and now Internationally recognised as the market leaders – the early days were all about learning everything there was involved in sourcing, roasting and consistently serving an exceptional coffee experience. My business partner Matt Toogood and I, were the first in the Middle East to obtain our Coffee Diplomas through the SCA who are the governing body for the Specialty coffee world. We are now also certified as a premier training center for the SCA – for all things coffee.
We spent the first five years seriously focused on teaching ourselves everything there was to know about Specialty coffee, it was all about learning. We also recognised the importance of securing a very strong supply chain, so we travelled extensively and formed relationships with the countries, the farmers, and producers we wanted to purchase our coffee from. It was a steep learning curve but so valuable, as we relied completely on ourselves and all our own money. We learnt how to service the equipment, we taught ourselves how to treat the water we needed and every single little variable we learnt ourselves. That has been a great foundation to build from.
Then the second big milestone would be when we started focusing on how to run a successful business and when we were selected by Endeavor in San Francisco in 2016 as Endeavor Entrepreneurs. This is a network of business professionals where we now have an advisory board and access to some incredible minds. Interestingly as an SME, we all face the same challenges running our companies, no matter what our product or service is, so we meet our board quarterly to discuss strategies and tactics, and we have them on call to discuss issues or opportunities. It’s been an invaluable asset and while we have full creativity to plan our future knowing we have this gives us great support.
There have been many milestones since the early days, winning National and World Barista competitions, DXBSME top 100 awards. But for me now, nearly 15 years on – the major milestone is the pleasure of having some incredible talent within the company helping us to take RAW to the next level. We have just recruited our 72nd team member and we have an experienced and versatile senior leadership team – people who are better than Matt and I at different areas of specialty within the business. That’s a beautiful milestone to reach and allows us to concentrate on projects and growing the company (and also to share the stress!)
- You now also have other products and services under the RAW umbrella – can you tell us more about that and how did you evolve to offer those?
We started another company mid 2020 when we had “paused” our regular operations. We looked at what we could do better, and created new accounting systems, new inventory control processes, improved our online presence, ordering and logistics. We took over the café ourselves to take control over the food quality, implemented a contactless ordering and menu system – and during this time we realised we couldn’t find suppliers for non-coffee beverages that we wanted to include on our menu. We started RAW Beverage Trading – as once again we noticed another gap for high quality single origin drinking chocolates, real fruit pulps, smoothie ingredients, whole milk powders for milkshakes, beautiful Japanese Matcha’s, Chai lattes, Iced teas… so now we can offer a complete beverage solution to cafés and restaurants.
My business partner Matt and a project team have also developed a water treatment solution dedicated to cafes and restaurants to treat and deliver the mains water so that it is perfect for delivering great tasting coffee and keeping the coffee equipment healthy. We have called this RAWater and will soon be rolling out domestic units for villas and apartments.
Over the last year we also identified the need to find a product that was inclusionary for all, without investing in expensive equipment or having to have great barista skills, something convenient, fast, and accessible, whether at the gym, at the office or camping, and most importantly not compromising on flavor quality. ReadyRAW single serve brew pouches were launched with a range of premium Specialty Arabica single origins to appeal to all palettes, with sales going exceptionally well – we have just purchased an automated system to scale and also offer white label solutions.
- What does it mean to be the official coffee partner for the New Zealand Pavilion?
We are proudly a Dubai start up, a Dubai business and the first Specialty roastery for the region. But we are also proud Kiwi expats who have chosen to live and work in this beautiful part of the world. I have lived here for nearly 25 years and Matt for 14 years. Our children grew up and were educated here.
It was important to us to try to supply the New Zealand Pavilion with good coffee as it is such a big part of our culture down under. The café scene in NZ is vibrant and innovative, and the majority of Kiwi’s know their coffee, have favorite roasters, favorite origins, and many times a favorite barista. Like the leadership team behind the NZ pavilion who have gone to great lengths to source quality New Zealand ingredients, we want guests visiting the NZ Pavilion to have a genuine experience of the quality and vibe you would get if you were actually visiting the country itself.
- What are you most excited about for Expo 2020?
I’ve bought my season pass! I am super excited about the food, also the live performances and having time to slowly visit pavilions to learn about the key themes without rushing around as it is a huge village. We were involved in the 3 month Sustainability Terra event with our big coffee truck and were so impressed with the actual facilities, the structures, and the vision behind the Expo. I plan on taking my time and visiting often, having the luxury of slowly exploring and savoring the experience.
- The RAW pillars are local, ethical, and direct – these are buzz words that we hear a lot from coffee brands and shops. Why are these pillars so important in this industry?
I’m not a fan of trendy buzz words, these pillars to us are authentic and they are how we live and breathe, and actually part of our company’s core values – our DNA. To break it down – local, means the coffee is freshly roasted and as a consumer you get to enjoy the coffee at its peak freshness, and like any good quality food or beverage freshness imparts the flavors enormously. There is also the relevance to support an owner operated local business, who put their passion and their creativity into what they deliver.
We know if we do not support Direct Trade and Ethically sourced coffee with our origin partners, we will not be able to source and roast and build our business on the amazing quality of coffee that we have now. It would not be possible. But the relationship is symbiotic, as the farmers need strong direct communication with roasters like RAW, they need the connection to reach and penetrate the market to sell their crop and they need to be paid the proper value for what they grow and be paid on time. The people in the genuine Specialty coffee industry both at origin and here roasting and making your coffee are essential to our supply chain and they have to be invested, appreciated, and recognised. This is not an industry that can be automated.
- Is this brand promise necessarily true for all companies?
No! This is when the buzz words and marketing come into play. Many commodity companies and franchises have adopted the lingo of genuine Specialty Coffee players. There is no regulation stopping them from using our language, terminology or falsely advertising themselves as “Specialty” – unless they would be happy to open up their supply chain and show what they pay per kg for their coffee – and they would never do this. We call this imposter syndrome. Specialty coffee is a grade signifying coffee that scores higher than 80 points out of 100 – and as the score increases the value of the green coffee increases significantly.
- How can regular consumers know this is a real commitment and not just a marketing tool?
We are really looking forward to some new innovations in our Specialty Coffee industry where there will be more traceability and provenance. We know it is coming and we are excited about it, as this will be amazing for the farmers and growers at origin, and also good for roasters who are committed to regulate and give clarity, and finally for consumers to feel good about where they spend their valuable $$s. We know if we don’t support fair prices and pay the farmers what they deserve to be paid, we will only end up with a cheaper inferior product and there is nothing you can do to make a “Yaris behave like a Lexus”. You can’t. Consumers who care can support a local business / roaster who shares their genuine stories, who has traceable supply chains and genuine stories and images from their origin buying trips. We would encourage consumers to ask questions and do some research themselves. Ultimately they pay the same price per cup of coffee at many of the big corporates and more mainstream franchises as they do from a local Specialty roaster – but the cost of the actual coffee ingredients inside the cup vary so drastically.
- What’s the best way to enjoy a cup of coffee?
That is entirely up to the person drinking it, and there are so many options these days. There is no right or wrong way but there are factors to take into consideration which have to start with good quality ingredients. Different cultures have different ways of enjoying coffee, some grab and go, others sit for a long time and discuss politics, others it’s more of a routine, a ceremony. Don’t try ordering a latte after midday in Italy! A Freddo in Greece is popular and its literally espresso and ice blended together.
But here are our main suggestions for getting a really pleasurable enjoyable coffee experience:
- Buy little and often and freshly roasted beans
- Store the beans in an airtight container in a normal ambient environment
- Grind the coffee at the time of making it – this makes a huge difference to the flavors as coffee degrades quickly once ground
- Use good quality water
- Grind size is important – to suit the style of brewing your coffee
- Then the 3 t’s – time, temperature, and turbulence
- Here in Dxb we prefer using Al Marai milk, and we have Oat milk as the non dairy option
Then find a café or restaurant that feels right for you where you prefer the taste of their coffee, where the staff learn your name and you like the music they play and the ambiance. Where they anticipate your needs and know how you like your coffee, and you walk out feeling connected and caffeinated.
- Why is coffee so important to you?
I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I now feel a real sense of responsibility to everyone involved with me on this journey. I had no idea of the enormous challenges within the industry, the sheer human factors leaving these farmers (who are growing the most amazing quality coffee that we all want to buy), unable to even support their families or have a sustainable livelihood. It has become increasingly important to both Matt and I, to scale and grow our business without losing any of our ethical foundations and to take these farmers with us as we grow by increasing the volumes of green beans we purchase from them. I appreciate this is the same for many professions, when you have knowledge of the intricacies and details, and the lives involved, and the challenges of your industry. The amazing people we have here roasting and our baristas and waiters, do an incredible job and deliver consistently awesome coffee – but we can not do that if we don’t buy the really good quality beans from our farmers.
We feel like we are ambassadors; and we give these farmers the voice they need, to reach the end consumer and to help them understand what we are trying to do. We have become the human connection in the supply chain linking all the stakeholders and pulling all the variables together.
- For our readers who are looking for a good cup of coffee outside the Expo site, which places would you recommend for them to check out?
Come and visit us in our roastery. We have a great espresso bar and café, lots of parking and an authentic café operation with really good baristas who know their stuff. Alternatively, here are some of our commercial customers who do a good job too:
Dubai: Abu Dhabi:
L’eto Third Place
LOWE Karak Almqanes Cafe
La Casa Del Tango Sam’s Box
Intersect by Lexus
Al Ain: Ras Al Khaimah: Korfakkan:
Foxy Café La Loca Fen Cafe
- What does RAW’s future look like? Where does it go after Expo 2020?
RAW has big goals and ambitions. We grew 25% in the last fiscal year and are currently investing in our growth. Our team has doubled in the last 18 months as it was a good time to locally recruit some incredible talent. We have our eyes on some other GCC / MENA markets and just finished trademarking and licensing RAW Coffee Company in both KSA and Egypt. We have joint ventures we are working on with some commercial partners for both ReadyRAW, our cold brew coffee, and we are developing some stand alone brands to suit some exciting new venues here in the UAE.