Saskatoon’s innovative and socially-conscious coffee company, Road Coffee, made a unique and successful pivot during the spring 2020 COVID-19 shut down to focus on residential rather than wholesale customers.
“A lot of our wholesale clients paused their orders as their employees began working from home, which had a major impact on our business. We decided we needed to be creative, so we started focusing on our online residential sales,” said Road Coffee founder Alisha Esmail.
The company began work on strengthening its online presence and brand, and on pushing its online transactions.
“We actually expected not to be doing as well, but our online store really took off. We had a huge uptake in residential sales nationwide, which was much more than we had anticipated,” said Esmail.
Road Coffee’s ongoing success is important not just to Esmail and her employees but also to the numerous coffee growers which supply product to Road Coffee. In fact, the company is playing a critical role in the lives of dozens of coffee growers in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Columbia, Brazil, Peru and now Laos.
“This has hit them so much harder than it has hit us. We are trying to stay very connected to the farmers and are focused on continuing to grow sales to reduce the impact on them. They are struggling – if they can’t move their coffee it means they can’t feed their families, so it’s a very tough situation for them,” said Esmail.
Road Coffee, which opened its doors in Saskatoon four years ago, is the brain child of founder Alisha Esmail, who leveraged her international development background to create a company focused on improving the lives of coffee growers, while also providing Canadian coffee drinkers with great coffee.
Esmail’s background in international development allowed her to see first-hand the impact of “middlemen” on the price paid to coffee producers. She developed Road Coffee in part to help address this issue.
“I spent a lot of time on coffee farms getting to know the coffee farmers, and I often saw them being taken advantage of by unnecessary middlemen. When I would get back to the airport, the first thing I would do was pay five or six dollars for a coffee, and that disconnect started to really bother me,” she said.
Esmail has traveled extensively in the regions from which she sources her coffee. She purchases directly from producers, reducing the need for, and costs associated with, middlemen. This means that, with the support of Road Coffee, farmers are paid appropriately for their produce.
“We work with dozens of farmers and the benefits are different in each country. In Laos, for example, we work with a non-profit. The money from our coffee purchase goes toward developing water projects so thousands of people have access to clean water just because we’re buying that coffee,” said Esmail.
In Costa Rica the coffee purchases are helping to support the first Women Care Certified farm, which is focused on improving the lifestyle of women involved with cultivating, processing, trading and exporting coffee. In Columbia, Road Coffee purchases are supporting young coffee farmers and enabling them to both remain on the farms and bring innovation into the industry.
In 2019, Road Coffee also launched a micro loan program for coffee farmers.
“The micro loans enable us to come alongside farmers and offer them loans at much lower interest rates than they would pay otherwise. It’s a win for all of us because we are helping them to improve the quality of their product and the quality of their business, while also helping move them out of poverty,” said Esmail.
Esmail is currently working on expanding the micro loan program to help address the economic challenges many farmers are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,.
“These loans play such an important role in helping small coffee farmers to maintain their businesses and support their families. These loans are even more important now as these farmers struggle with a reduction in demand for their products,” she said.
Road Coffee offers three different types of micro loans, including equipment loans, pre-harvest loans and mid-harvest loans. Pre-harvest loans are typically used for costs associated with fertilizer, capital or employees, while mid-harvest loans are most often used for labour costs.
Although it’s very young, Road Coffee has not gone unnoticed. The company and its founder have caught the attention of the Saskatchewan business community. Since its inception in 2016, Road Coffee and Esmail have been awarded the NSBA (North Saskatoon Business Association) Young Promising Entrepreneur Award (2016), Seeds for Dreams -Winner (2017), Saskatchewan Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneur of the Year (2018), Saskatoon Achievement in Business Excellence Awards Finalist-New Business Ventures (2018), Women Entrepreneurs of Saskatchewan Innovation Award (2019), among others.
Esmail had predicted that 2020 would be another year of significant growth and development for Road Coffee as the company continued to expand its micro loan program and grow its base of coffee market nationally.
The global pandemic has pushed that prediction out a few years.
“We are seeing some of our wholesale clients coming back, but there has been a real change in the corporate atmosphere. A lot of our corporate clients aren’t planning to go back to their offices until the fall or even into the New Year, so we are looking at what had been our immediate plans becoming more long term,” she said.
While she now believes growth will be tempered by the current climate, she is confident in the company’s ability to bounce back and continue to grow and provide support to its coffee farmer suppliers.
“I think everything is going to be slower for the next six to twelve months as the world struggles with this issue, but coffee is something that is consumed every day, so our job is to find creative solutions to try and move that coffee today so our coffee farmer suppliers are able to weather this storm and are positioned for growth when the world returns to a more normal state,” said Esmail.