IN COFFEE , WE TRUST
Was determined Thailand got to savour the perfect brew because it was time to wake up and smell the real stuff. He speaks to Michael Moore about his journey.
Coffee, long a secondary drink in Thailand, has taken the country by storm. The arrival of coffee bars, baristas and espresso machines serving expensive imported coffee has been accompanied by rapid growth in the local Thai coffee industry. At the forefront of this expansion has been Sukkasem ‘Kai’ Khamthavee, a late blooming entrepreneur from a family of farmers. The managing director of The Coffee Bean Roasting Co., Ltd. His success story is a fascinating mirror on the changing face of life in Thailand.
Like many of Bangkok’s residents, Kai abandoned rural life to study in the big city. After receiving a diploma, he worked for a shipping company in Bangkok for five years.
In 1986, he got the opportunity to go to the United States to work and he took it. It proved to be a moved that changed his life in ways that he never suspected.
He ended up in scenic Monterey, California as a server at an Italian restaurant situated on the town’s famous fisherman’s wharf, an idyllic location often depicted in John Steinbeck novels.
“My English was very bad,” he say, “but I learned as I worked.
Like all Italian restaurants, they served coffee and I was taught to brew it as part of my job. I became a barista for a period of time and it made a big impression on me. I started to enjoy drinking coffee myself and soon found that I was developing a passion for it.
I decided that if I liked coffee so much other Thais might be the same. Slowly the idea of starting a coffee related business when I returned to Thailand began to form in my mind.”
Eventually, Kai left the Italian restaurant and moved to San Francisco – where he enjoyed a cup of coffee each morning at his local Starbucks – and worked as a car salesman at a well known car dealer near the international airport. “ I was a good salesman,” he says with a smile. “ Several months, I was the leading salesman at the company.After four years of selling cars and saving money, I returned to Thailand in 1994.”
“Since working in the Italian restaurant.” He continues. “I had this dream of opening a business in Thailand connected with coffee like it was served abroad, but I didn’t go into business right away because I felt I didn’t have the necessary experience.”
Kai worked for a Japanese company as a sales manager. Once he decided that he knew enough about the Thai business environment, he opened a small coffee shop in Seacon Square. His coffee shop was unique in that it had a coffee roaster in the shop. One of his customers, a CEO at a local company, suggested Kai start roasting and selling his coffee under his own brand name to others. This led him to establish the Coffee Bean Roasting Company in 1997.
“It was very difficult during the first five years,” he continues, “and economic times were hard in Thailand”.
The coffee shop slowly faded away and, together with a partner, I began roasting coffee out of a small warehouse on Rama9 Road using a couple of small roasters from Japan. There were times when I had a hard time paying employees and had no money left for myself. But somehow I persisted and we managed not to go bankrupt.”
“When we started the business, Thais didn’t know much about roasted and ground coffee and usually drank 3-in-1 or instant coffee. But there was a small group, mostly made up of people who had travelled abroad, who consumed freshly ground coffee, and it was this small group that initially kept us in business.