From garden shed operation to becoming a leading B2B specialty roaster in the Middle East, Orbis Coffee founder and CEO, Justin Clarke, speaks to World Coffee Portal about building his business from scratch and the importance of catering for the Middle East's distinct coffee palate
Justin Clarke (Middle) presenting training certificates to staff
Having left a high paid corporate job with Costa Coffee in 2006, Justin Clarke found himself standing alone in the middle of the desert. Amid the burning heat and dust, he looked toward Dubai’s cranes and skyscrapers going up in the distance and thought: “there has to be a specialty coffee market here.”
Fast forward to 2018, and Orbis Coffee, founded by Justin in 2007, is the one of the Middle East’s largest B2B specialty roasters, producing a ton of beans every day from their two heat-resilient Toper Roasters in Dubai and third licensed site in Muscat.
As with many good business ideas, Justin’s came from modest beginnings, curiosity and just a little tenacity. While working for Costa Coffee in his native UK, Justin bought a tiny 750g roaster and began experimenting in his Buckinghamshire garden shed.
Word soon spread about the southern England cottage industry, and after selling a few bags of his organic
Peruvian beans, Justin soon realised his interest in specialty coffee roasting could become more than just a hobby. But it wasn’t until he began working for Costa Coffee in Dubai that the idea of setting up his own roastery business dawned.
"The beans we use, the flavour profile and characteristics we’ve developed are very specific to the Middle East market, which has a very specific palate"
“Sure, there were the big main players – Illy, Lavazza, Costa and Starbucks, but in the heat and the madness of Dubai I realised there wasn’t a specialty market,” explains Justin.
“I went to a couple of hotel GMs and directors and asked: ‘What do you guys know about specialty coffee?’ Most of them said: ‘Nothing, what’s that?’”
Thus, his mission to bring specialty coffee to the Middle East began in earnest and Orbis Coffee was born. Today the business supplies hotels, restaurant groups, airports, artisan cafés and corporate clients across the region and has earned a reputation for reviving traditional flavour profiles often overlooked by the big chains. Orbis also supplies the UAE’s leading petrol station retailer, ADNOC, demonstrating that consumers are even seeking specialty coffee at convenience locations.
Serving the Middle East’s coffee traditions
Long before western brands began importing darker, Italian-style coffees, the UAE and its neighbouring countries already practiced distinct coffee traditions. In fact, Ethiopian or Yemeni coffees, big prizes for today’s specialty roasters, were the bread and butter of the region’s coffee consumption for generations.
Contrary to darker, more astringent European coffee profiles, the local palate is more naturally attuned to sweet, fuller-bodied coffees, with bitterness playing little part in the traditional flavour vocabulary. But as international chains arrived in the late 1980s and early 90s, dark European-style roasts, with their inherent bitterness and high caffeine content, became the de-facto brews in the Middle East.
However, the last decade has seen a gentle renaissance harking back to more traditional tastes in the region and echoing the taste profile of the global 3rd Wave coffee movement. With Dubai the focal point for the UAE’s specialty coffee market, Orbis has played a crucial role in shaping this revival and a key success of the brand has been making locals feel ownership over their coffee traditions.
“One of the reasons we are successful is that we are roasting coffee for this region. I’m not roasting coffee for a European market and exporting. Or vice versa, I’m not roasting in Australia and then exporting to the Middle East,” Justin explains.
“The beans we use, the flavour profile and characteristics we’ve developed are very specific to the Middle East market, which has a very specific palate.”
Indicative of how much specialty coffee has caught on in the UAE, Justin estimates that in 2018 locally roasted consumption exceeds imported. Orbis now supplies customers across Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain, with an operation in Muscat, Oman, roasting under license.
But with huge international brands such as Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks entrenched in the region, it may seem implausible for smaller, local offerings to gain significant foothold in the market. Not so, according to Justin, who says once locals rediscover sweeter, more traditional-style coffees as opposed to heavier Italian-style brands, many won’t return to European or US-style coffee.
“People want to sit down and have a soulful organic experience and you can see that even in Dubai. Local specialty brands can be several-times more successful in terms of coffee consumption than the branded coffee shop next door – that’s the key trend happening here.”
Building brand loyalty
But asked if there’s a one crucial thing that underpins Orbis’ success in the region, Justin offers a simple answer: “It has to be relationships.”
“We’re certainly not the cheapest by a long way, but we invest heavily in relationships by visiting customers on a regular basis.
“By having your feet on the ground, you understand the day-to-day problems that hotels, restaurants and airports are dealing with. If you can then offer a solution, which might be very simple, then that company won’t forget you in a hurry.”
It’s an approach that seems to be working. Over 40% of Orbis’ clients, which include Dubai Duty Free and Emirates Group, have been customers for seven years or more. But to get their offer right, Justin says they start with the basics.
“We control the green beans and believe that’s a key point. We remain the single point of sourcing, so we can ensure quality. We never buy through brokers, I always buy direct with individual farmers, cooperatives or growing associations.”
Cloud-based profiling, using software such as Cropster, is also enabling far greater quality control when roasting across multiple sites in the region, something that wasn’t possible even five years ago. This allows Orbis to monitor roasting activities in real-time and make adjustments across their operation as and when necessary.
"Local specialty brands can be several-times more successful in than the branded coffee shop next door – that’s the key trend happening here”
But another crucial advantage of roasting in the Middle East is bean freshness. Bureaucracy can often hold up imports to the region, leading to long waits at ports and borders. With shipping container temperatures sometimes topping 70 Celsius, coffee can quickly degrade in the scorching heat.
“With imported roasted coffee, oils turn rancid, the coffee gets bitter – it still shocks me when I see coffee in some hotels that’s over a year old and has clearly been stuck in very hot warehouse somewhere,” laments Justin.
“We still have some way to go with helping to educate hotel operators who still believe that customers prefer brand over quality. This is simply no longer the case.”
A new crop of Dubai-based roasters
Orbis isn’t the only roaster picking up the surge in demand for premium coffee in the UAE. Dubai-based roasters Coffee Planet, which also launched its first UK café in Cardiff in 2018
, Raw Coffee, Gold Box and Seven Fortunes have all set up shop in the city. But there’s plenty of room for new roasters in the region, according to Justin, who believes that new entrants can only be a good thing for the industry.
“My belief has always been that to get a good level of diversity in any market there should be more than two strong players. I believe there should be around 10 roasteries in Dubai to meet the current demand for specialty coffee. I do not want to be the only choice in Dubai, I think that’s unhealthy,” he says.
Despite the growth in specialty, Justin is realistic it could take another 10 years to get 3rd
wave coffee consumption in the UAE to 85% from the 50% he estimates today. But other countries in the region also show significant potential and could even overtake the UAE’s regional hub status.
With around 70 specialty coffee shops, and even a Starbucks Reserve packed into its capital’s central district, Kuwait represents a lucrative opportunity for the UAE’s burgeoning roasting community. But the country still lacks a green coffee roaster to call its own – a void that Orbis is keen to fill in the coming year.
“There’s been the most incredible 3rd
Wave coffee explosion in Kuwait,” enthuses Justin.
“They are some of the most travelled people on Earth. They love Europe, they love America and Australasia. It’s a market with huge opportunity.”
And as it undergoes economic and social reforms, Saudi Arabia, with its 30 million citizens – many of whom are well educated and eager to travel, is also primed for a coffee boom. Though the market is still in its infancy, the country has seen growth in appetite for boutique, artisan coffee roasteries. In fact, Justin estimates that within several years the Saudi market could become up to five times size of the UAE’s today, making it another key territory for Orbis.
“I think our job is done when we have a coffee roastery in every country in the Middle East,” he says.
“We’re not there yet by a long way – it could be 5-10 years – but certainly not longer than that.”
From what we’ve seen, Justin seems well on the way to reaching his goal. With specialty coffee gaining significant momentum in the Middle East, the future looks bright for Orbis, and a new generation of operators keen to establish a new era of coffee excellence in the region.
Editors' note: This article has been ammended from an earlier version that incorrectly stated Orbis Coffee is the largest specialty roaster in the Middle East.
Project Café Middle East 2019 is Allegra World Coffee Portal’s groundbreaking study on the Middle East’s emerging branded coffee shop market. Our research provides in-depth industry analysis of 12 regional markets, empowering coffee industry leaders to make informed and profitable business decisions.