Inside the independent coffee shops finding success globally

Scaling a specialty coffee business locally requires grit, determination and an uncompromising vision, but what compels successful independent coffee operators to take on the colossal task of expanding abroad? World Coffee Portal spoke with the founders of Germany’s The Barn, the UK’s WatchHouse, India’s Roastery Coffee House and Czech Republic-based The Miners to find out why they took their businesses global

The Barn at The Hyundai Daegu store, Seoul | Photo credit: The Barn

Queues are forming around the block, the rave reviews are flowing and your café is the darling of Instagram’s finest. Success can quickly transform a local independent coffee shop into a multi-site operator with aspirations to seek new audiences even further afield.

Scaling from one to two or even three stores is challenging enough, but what motivates successful and influential independents to expand abroad?

New horizons

With eight sites in Prague and a further seven in development across the Czech Republic, specialty coffee shop group The Miners saw an opportunity to expand beyond the relatively small specialty coffee market at home and opened its first international store in Barcelona in December 2022.

“We have many sites for quite a small city, so we needed to look for a larger market. We liked Spain because there are no big chains saturating the market. It’s a growing market where we can open up to 60 locations – which is a contrast with a small country like the Czech Republic,” says CEO Egor Kolpakov.

Alongside Spain, The Miners has stores under construction in Poland and is seeking to launch in Slovakia and Austria soon.

For other operators, acclaim wins admirers from further afield. In 2015, Kuwait-based Pinnacle Group partnered with Toby’s Estate to bring the highly influential Sydney-based specialty coffee roaster to the Middle East, with the first store of the franchise agreement opening in Kuwait City, in 2016.

“We wanted to import the best and strongest brands to the Middle East. We were drawn to the idea of introducing Middle Eastern coffee enthusiasts to Toby’s Estate’s diverse and meticulously curated coffees,” Tareq Alshaikh, co-founder and CEO, Pinnacle Group, told 5THWAVE in December 2023.

Today, the partnership has delivered more than 20 Toby’s Estate outlets across Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

For Berlin-based The Barn, going international was always the plan. “We have been international from the start. When I founded The Barn there was no specialty coffee at the level that I wanted in Germany – all reference points for quality were from outside markets,” says founder Ralf Rüller.

Launched in 2010, the specialty coffee roaster has gone against the grain of Germany’s traditionally food and value-focused coffee shop market to open 11 boutique cafés, a state-of-the-art roastery and bakery in the German capital – alongside a global wholesale network.

“New York is the ultimate test for any brand aspiring to greatness”
Roland Horne, Founder and CEO, WatchHouse

The Barn’s Ralf Rüller outside The Old Roastery in Berlin | Photo credit: The Barn

An international-first mindset led Rüller to take The Barn’s café model overseas for the first time in October 2021 with a store in Dubai, UAE – a city where the business already enjoyed significant brand affinity. “We decided to go where people saw value in our coffee,” Rüller adds.

The Barn opened its second international site in Mallorca, Spain, in July 2022, which it manages from Berlin. However, the German specialty coffee roaster has found success even further afield in South Korea. Building on an existing partnership with coffee distributor LiFE, The Barn opened its first site in Seongsu, Seoul, in November 2022 and currently operates five cafés and a roastery in the east Asian country.

Just as The Barn has found success in Seoul’s highly competitive specialty coffee shop market, nearly 7,000 miles away London-based WatchHouse is breaking new ground in New York.

Launching in 2014 with a 25 square-metre store in South Bermondsey, London, WatchHouse has become a torchbearer for the UK capital’s flourishing specialty coffee scene, with 17 distinctive ‘houses’ across the city alongside a site in Bath, Somerset.

Following a recent £7.9m ($10m) investment round, WatchHouse unveiled an ambitious goal to operate more than 500 outlets globally by 2033 and in April 2024 opened its first international location on New York’s bustling 5th Avenue.

WatchHouse Founder Roland Horne (left) and the brand’s New York store (right) | Photo credit: WatchHouse

“New York is the ultimate test for any brand aspiring to greatness. The city’s diverse, dynamic and discerning consumer base sets the standard for excellence in the global marketplace. As the saying goes, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere,” says WatchHouse founder, Roland Horne.

WatchHouse began publicly preparing for its US debut in September 2022 with a crowdfunding campaign. Horne says that the last 18 months have not been without challenges as the brand navigates New York’s fast-paced and highly competitive hospitality market.

“The timing is crucial as we aim to capitalise on current market trends and consumer preferences, ensuring WatchHouse remains at the forefront of the specialty coffee industry,” he adds.

For Nishant Sinha, Founder of India’s Roastery Coffee House, biding time has also been crucial. The Hyderabad-based specialty coffee roaster has opened seven outlets across India since launching in 2017, with its characteristic alfresco terraces now seen in Kolkata, Jaipur, Lucknow and Noida.

“Roastery Coffee House is six years old, and we now have the resources and confidence to cater to global audiences,” Sinha explains.

Roastery Coffee House laid the groundwork for its international debut with a three-day coffee pop-up in Helsinki in December 2023 before opening its first permanent site in the Finnish capital in March 2024.

“We sold 250 bags of Indian single estate specialty coffee from the pop-up store which gave us lots of confidence,” Sinha says.

Attracted by Finland’s high per capita coffee consumption and the country’s “appreciation for simplicity”, Sinha also plans to open a roastery in Helsinki to support further European growth.

“We decided to go where people saw value in our coffee”
Ralf Rüller, Founder, The Barn

“We are seeking to open 30 new stores across 10 new cities within the next five years. We want to become a truly global brand,” Sinha says.

While fellow Indian specialty coffee roasters Blue Tokai and Subko both have e-commerce customers in Europe, Roastery Coffee House became the first Indian coffee chain in recent years to establish a physical presence on the continent.

“India is the sixth largest coffee producer in the world. Our long-term mission at Roastery Coffee House is to put Indian coffee on the world map with its unique flavour profile and sustainability story,” Sinha says.

Keeping the vision

Japan’s % Arabica, France’s Café Kitsuné and the UK’s EL&N have all become truly international in recent years. Each operates more international stores than domestic and has paved the way for other specialty operators to follow.

However, while each has maintained its founding vision, they have also turned to franchising, investors and introduced corporate leadership structures to achieve international scale – all of which can distort or dilute a founding vision.

For founders, achieving significant growth can also mean stepping back from the business they have nurtured. Nestlé-backed Blue Bottle Coffee, JAB-backed Intelligentsia Coffee and more recently Creaegis-backed Third Wave Coffee all brought in CEOs to take the businesses to the next level.

So, how can independent coffee shop owners maintain their vision when third parties and investors are thrown into the mix?

“We now have the resources and confidence to cater to global audiences”
Nishant Sinha, Founder, Roastery Coffee House

Nishant Sinha, Founder, Roastery Coffee House | Photo credit: Roastery Coffee House

For Ralf Rüller it all comes down to trust. “We only work with people who understand the brand and then we build a trusting relationship to safeguard it,” he says.

WatchHouse’s Roland Horne sent key members of his UK team to New York to ensure that the brand’s meticulous attention to detail was preserved and its culture successfully translated to the Big Apple.

“Upholding the same standards of quality, passion- and premium experiences that define WatchHouse is key to the success of the New York House,” he says.

As for the wider business, Horne is certain that New York will offer “unparalleled opportunities for growth and innovation” and become a launchpad for further international expansion.

Alongside establishing a strong presence in New York, WatchHouse says careful market analysis will guide its next international excursion. Horne identifies China, Japan and South Korea as markets of interest, with the Middle East and Brazil also catching his attention.

“Where we can stay relevant, and continue to evolve, we will go,” Horne surmises.

With the global popularity of specialty coffee showing no sign of slowing, a growing number of founder-owned independents are striking out abroad. This dynamic is a testament to the maturity of the specialty and boutique hospitality segment and demonstrates that going global is no longer the preserve of branded coffee chains or investor-backed businesses.

With these owner-operated businesses and many more like them broadening their horizons overseas, specialty coffee looks set for a new chapter of internationalisation and cultural cross-pollination – and the global coffee industry looks all the richer for it. 

This article was first published in Issue 19 of 5THWAVE magazine.

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