Kahwa Coffee poised to expand
ST. PETERSBURG -
Raphael Perrier got a taste for fine, locally roasted coffee as a teen visiting the lone café in his hometown of Chambery, France.
Cafés Folliet has since grown into a national brand in France after establishing a local reputation for quality – a path Raphael and his wife, Sarah, seem to be following with the growth of Kahwa Coffee Roasting.
The couple just moved their headquarters to a North St. Petersburg warehouse at 3244 44th Ave. N. with twice the space of their original location at Eight Avenue South.
They started roasting about 260 pounds of coffee beans a week in 2005 and opened their first café in 2008 on a mostly empty street corner on the edge of downtown at Fifth Avenue and Second Street North.
Now they roast 4,000 pounds a week, and they're doubling their production in the coming months as they add a second coffee roaster to their new space and expanding their national distribution.
They're also training an in-house management team to help them open 10 new cafes in the next 12 to 15 months on top of the five they already run in St. Petersburg and Tampa.
The Perriers say the foundation of their expansion plans is maintaining local credibility as the Tampa Bay area's signature coffee company.
“As long as we're not everywhere in Tampa Bay, then there's no point going anywhere else,” said Raphael Perrier. “You have to have your market base, that you're known here and you're the best.
“Once you have that, then you can expand, and that's the next step for us now.”
Kahwa's success starts with the coffee beans.
They come from Brazil, Mexico, Indian, Ethiopia and are preblended before roasting to achieve a balance of flavor. The Perriers strive to ensure no one recoils in shock when they take a sip of Kahwa espresso, which can easily be roasted to the point of pungency.
“You try to mix it for body and acidity,” Raphael Perrier said.
“It's like making a wine nowadays. The best wines in the world are blends.”
The second step was giving the right people a taste.
The Perriers took their espresso machine to fundraisers across the Tampa Bay area, met restaurateurs; eventually, their coffee made it onto a world-famous chef's menu, Paul Bocuse's restaurant at the Epcot French Pavilion in Walt Disney World.
Many well-regarded Tampa Bay area restaurants started placing orders, too.
Steve Westphal serves Kahwa at his high-end St. Petersburg restaurants, such as Parkshore Grill and 400 Beach in downtown St. Petersburg.
“The flavor of the coffee is hands-down far better than anything we've been able to source,” he said.
“We wanted quality first. We were just fortunate to find it locally here in our own backyard.”
Now, most of Kahwa's business comes from businesses calling them, prompting the company to ramp up production.
Kahwa coffee can be found in dozens of restaurants in the local market and as far away as Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, where Sarah met Raphael while patronizing the café where he worked.
When the couple moved back to Sarah's hometown of St. Petersburg in the mid-2000s, local coffee options were nearly nill.
They first got a following at their Second Street café from Old Northeast residents nearby and then opened two more St. Petersburg locations and two in downtown Tampa.
The couple is now looking to expand their café network to the beach, South Tampa, Westchase, north Pinellas County and possibly even Sarasota.
Their new management team will come from existing locations and be tasked with training new baristas to treat their beverage-making with the same care.
“That's the big key for us: You don't want people to come in, expect something and then get a bad drink,” Sarah Perrier said. “They're never going to come back.”
While the team will ensure identical coffee at each new location, baristas will continue wearing their street clothes at work, and each café is meant to reflect its own neighborhood.
If all goes well in the next few years, Kahwa cafes may start popping in Orlando and across the country, Raphael Perrier said.
Other Tampa Bay brands, such as Outback Steakhouse and Hooters, have seen this level of success in franchising nationwide.
Kahwa, which puts great emphasis on its local roots, wouldn't necessarily lose its identity if it continues to grow outside the region. Its recognizable yellow-and-brown coffee cups are clearly labeled with “St. Petersburg, FL.”
“Local doesn't equal small. Local just means indigenous and independent and grown from here, homegrown,” said Olga Bof, director of Keep Saint Petersburg Local, a network of local businesses that includes Kahwa.
The Perriers still make it a point to bring coffee to community events and fundraisers around the area.
Sustaining that relationship may be a major reason locals choose to meet up at Kahwa cafes rather than Starbucks.
As for the Perriers, a married couple who has built a successful business with two young daughters at home, there's something else that sustains them.
“The key is having fun. And go home and be home,” said Raphael Perrier.