Interview: Jamie Elfman, Encounter Coffee Roasters, Dubai

After collaborating with Dubai’s Tom & Serg in 2013, Jamie Elfman returned to the city in 2017 as Encounter Coffee Roasters’ Head of Coffee. The coffee professional of 20 years speaks to World Coffee Portal about his role in quenching the UAE’s growing thirst for artisan coffee. By Tobias Pearce 

Originally parachuted into Dubai as Head Barista at Tom & Serg in 2013, Jamie Elfman played a crucial role in establishing what was widely regarded as Dubai’s first independent specialty coffee shop. After a hiatus in his native Melbourne, the specialty coffee veteran returned to the city in late 2017 as Head of Coffee at Encounter Coffee Roasters.

As well as serving its wholesale clients, the roastery supplies beans to its parent company, Bull & Roo’s, family of artisan F&B brands – Tom & Serg, Common Grounds, Muchachas, Rise & Dawn Bakehouse, The Sum of Us and Brunswick Sports Club.

In its first year of operation Encounter has become another important player in Dubai’s vibrant coffee shop scene. Building on the original Tom & Serg brief to plant the seed of Melbourne’s coffee culture in the UAE, for the past year Jamie has been responsible for the output of a 30-strong barista team as well as quality and training across the business. Located within The Sum of Us café in Dubai, the roastery is also open to customers for training sessions, tastings and anyone curious about the roasting process.

Like much of the world, it’s easy to detect a Melbourne flavour to the UAE’s specialty coffee shop scene – with avocado-laden brunches, flat whites and single origin coffees all hugely popular. In this regard, Tom & Serg, along with their fellow Bull & Roo brands, have been key influencers in introducing high quality, artisanal coffee to the mainstream in Dubai.

"The biggest change since 2013 is that I don’t have to explain why our coffee is 62 degrees and not served in a 12oz cup”

In fact, Jamie says roasteries and baristas across the UAE all look to Melbourne as a figurehead for the coffee industry. And just like their western counterparts, the UAE’s young consumers are far more interested in experience-led offerings than their parents. It’s this global trend, fuelled by the omnipotence of social media and Instagram, that has helped Dubai’s artisan F&B brands appeal to a new generation of coffee lovers.

Since his first stint in Dubai, Jamie says the specialty coffee shop industry has not only grown, but flourished. Today it’s not just expats driving the city’s growing thirst for artisanal coffee, those five years have seen also seen locals embrace specialty coffee as never before.

“The majority of cafes we supply are 99% local customers. It’s a huge market,” he says.

“But the biggest change since 2013 is that I don’t have to explain why our coffee is 62 degrees and not served in a 12oz cup. The hard work has been done, now it’s just a pure growth chase.”

As with all successful business ventures, expanding quality at scale has been a key achievement for the Bull & Roo brands, especially when it comes to coffee. Jamie says he puts baristas across the business through an extensive training programme that enables to them to understand the coffee making process rather than simply following a manual. It’s another way in which Bull & Roo’s artisan brands have managed to differentiate themselves from some of the region’s larger chains.

“When they’re texturing milk, they know what happens to the sugars and proteins at different temperatures. They’re given a lot more freedom and trust in what they’re doing, so they can do a better job – and they know that. If something goes wrong, they can fix it instantly,” he explains.

Grounds for complaints

But it’s not all been plain sailing. As one of Dubai’s first specialty coffee concepts, Jamie says he went to great lengths in 2013 to ensure Tom & Serg’s product was a flagship for the then fledgling industry. The first major hurdle he came up against was a cultural tendency to order bespoke or even non-existent menu items.

Demands for hotter or larger servings of coffee, as well as food items not listed on the menu had the potential to compromise both specialty’s emerging reputation along with Tom & Serg’s carefully curated coffee shop experience. ‘The customer is always right’ goes the age-old adage, but it’s a phrase Jamie turned on its head to avoid compromising specialty’s reputation in the UAE – and it didn’t always go down well with locals.

“It was a very hard first year. Some people were saying we were doing amazing things and some were saying we were the worst thing to happen to Dubai,” he reflects.

“We were telling people; ‘if it’s not on our menu, we aren’t making it’. We had to draw a line in the sand and not step over it for any reason. If we hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have taken as much flak, but by taking this approach we established that Dubai’s specialty coffee scene is unique.”

Growing coffee in the desert

Sticking to their guns seems to have paid off for Bull & Roo, which has gone from strength to strength in Dubai and now operates seven individually branded F&B sites. In 2016 the group was named SME Gulf Capital Small Business of the Year.

But with the Middle East enduring a harsher economic climate over the last 12 months, UAE consumers are beginning to feel the squeeze of falling oil prices and government spending cuts. But despite this, Jamie is confident that even with the plethora of coffee shops opening in Dubai the market still has plenty of room for growth - sentiment that is reflected by the majority of industry leaders in the UAE, according to Allegra research.

“I think there’s still more demand than there is supply. There are still more people asking to open more shops and the more independents that open, the better educated the public become.”

And, can Dubai’s increasing number of specialty concepts co-exist with the big chains – or even each other?

“I think the growth for commercial coffee is much slower compared with the specialty industry. Every week there’s specialty café opening. It’s two separate industries and I don’t think the specialty chains are competing against each other really.”

“The chains will always play a part because it’s a transient culture, but specialty coffee is well established – people are proud of Dubai’s coffee culture.”

Indeed, in 2018 Dubai is setting the pulse for the Middle East’s coffee shop innovation. And with the city’s speciality coffee scene going from strength to strength, it’s not hard to imagine Dubai developing its own distinct artisan culture in the near future and becoming the benchmark for a regional coffee revolution.


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. 


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