Since joining Slayer as APAC Head of Sales in March 2018, Ross Quail has been tasked with supporting the brand’s presence in the region’s burgeoning specialty coffee markets. From Melbourne to Mumbai, he talks to World Coffee Portal about working in countries where tastes and trends are often worlds apart
Barista, roaster, coffee entrepreneur, long-time World Barista Champion judge and ASCA President – you might say Ross Quail knows a thing or two about making and selling good coffee.
And with its mission statement to lead the resurgence of espresso machine innovation, world-renowned espresso machine manufacturer, Slayer, certainly thinks they've found their man to build the brand's presence in Asia's up-and-coming specialty coffee markets.
Since joining the team as Head of Sales, Asia Pacific, in March 2018, Ross has been doing just that.
From his base in Melbourne, Ross acts as a conduit connecting the firm’s Asia Pacific partners with Slayer’s Seattle base. It’s a role that channels skills learned from more than 20 years working in almost every aspect of the coffee business, but what does it entail?
“My job is to connect with people, help them understand how our machines can benefit their business – we’re growing our capability to communicate.
“Before a new product enters the market there’s an R&D machine in the field that’s being road tested. We listen to people, we provoke and take time for thought and then we put those machines into action,” he explains.
It’s no easy task when the region you’re in charge of contains markets at very different stages in their coffee evolution, all with their own unique set of challenges. While India’s huge young population holds vast untapped potential, China’s speciality coffee consumption is already booming, as is Korea’s.
Japan too has produced some serious barista talent in recent years – but arguably all lie in the shadow of Melbourne’s status as a ‘Mecca’ for world coffee.
Melbourne: Coffee’s ground zero
From the flat white, tangy single origin espressos, championing barista excellence and influencing countless speciality concepts globally, Melbourne is crucial ground for what matters in world coffee. It’s therefore essential Slayer can innovate in a market where many will feel they’ve seen it all before.
“I think to some degree you have to work harder to prove yourself in the more mature markets,” Ross explains.
“It takes quite a while to get people to explore new aspects of coffee making.”
It’s part of the reason why Slayer’s patented flow rate technology can sometimes be a hard sell among Australia’s staunchly volumetric baristas. Ross has therefore taken up the challenge of educating his native market on different brewing methods and the products available to them.
“I think there’s a significant void in Australian understanding around Slayer. Many people associate us solely with espresso models that are not volumetric,” he explains.
But Ross is upbeat that if Slayer can achieve excellence in Australia, one of the most advanced coffee markets on the planet, then success in burgeoning Asian markets will follow. It’s a test of the brand he’s is determined to get right, and one that he says can only succeed by being open, transparent and honest.
“The first step in Melbourne is accepting the past, learn from those values, connect with people and show them how you’ve moved on. It’s about listening to our stakeholders and being a company and leader with strength, character and conviction.”
Appealing to Asian markets
It’s one thing to enter markets where the coffee conversation is already well advanced, but how do you approach countries with far less developed coffee cultures? Just as it can become harder to impress consumers in established markets, Asian countries are enjoying an explosion of innovation as they embrace specialty coffee.
“They’re willing to adopt, trust and try everything – which is really why you see the rise of Asian countries in the World of Coffee championships – the likes of Berg Wu and many other highly talented baristas – Miki Suzuki, Hidenori Izaki from Japan as well. All of these people are adopting and doing things faster than ever before.”
“We certainly see that as a wonderful opportunity for Slayer in those markets, so we’re approaching them with complete transparency. We will open our doors to any customers to help them ask questions and understand.”
Among those markets, Slayer is seeking to establish itself in burgeoning economic superpowers India and China – countries at very different stages in their coffee evolution. In particular, China’s coffee market is developing at a ferocious pace and providing a fertile test-bed for new innovation.
Markets like China give you a true understanding of the extent to which your innovation will be adopted
Indicative of the speed at which speciality coffee consumption is growing in the country, China is already abuzz with more than 3,000 Starbucks and 400 Costa Coffee stores. Home-grown offerings such as Luckin Coffee are also expanding rapidly
, with the Beijing-based brand opening more than 500 sites across 13 cities in just 6 months.
“They are hungry for knowledge. You see that in platforms such as Barista Hustle and other education resources that are providing Chinese language education. Markets like China give you a true understanding of the extent to which your innovation will be adopted.”
In India, a country traditionally more synonymous with tea, coffee production has increased in recent years and the presence of western coffee chains is growing. Ubiquitous domestic chain, Café Coffee Day claims to serve 1.8 billion cups of coffee annually from its 1,500+ stores.
With a market of 1.3 billion people, a staggering 50% of whom are under 25, the country represents a huge, yet enigmatic opportunity.
“That will be the next location for us – India is one of the next superpowers and extremely exciting. I think we will see lots of behaviour that will take coffee in different directions, all of those we can’t quite anticipate just yet!” Says Ross.
Communicating coffee values
Clear and transparent client communication is a core value of Slayer founder, Jason Prefontaine, and remains at the heart of Slayer’s philosophy. To this end, another crucial part of Ross’ role is expanding Slayer’s existing Seattle-based technical support team to create a dedicated Asia Pacific hub.
This will enable the firm to provide real-time feedback to their regional customers, but it’s something that requires dialogue at a grass-roots level.
“As a business, if you don’t have Mandarin, Chinese or Arabic speakers etc., then you’re not able to fully support some areas of the market – having a background with some modest Chinese has helped me enormously with relationships and communication,” he explains.
“We’re looking to grow that capability within our own company.” We’ve got fluent French and Arabic speakers for regional customers that require that level of support.”
Ross is realistic that Slayer’s high-end machines aren’t likely to become the go-to option for everyone, but he’s adamant the brand can command the premium market, not just in Asia Pacific, but globally. This is why Ross believes a clear brand identity supported by a strength of purpose and strong ethics is vital.
“We’re seeking to do that through best practice, innovation and investment in all of the people who take the time to invest in us and purchase equipment. Some of that will be brick by brick, it will be long arduous work.
“That is the brief and that is the philosophy – to truly build something of great merit.”