Coffee, Tea or Bo’s

No one can pass up on a success story. In our continuing quest for Proud Pinoy Entrepreneurs in this column and in our TV show, we found the saga of Bo’s Coffee most interesting and its founder, Steve Benitez, even more so.

Steve Benitez, known as the father of Bo’s Coffee, started the chain way back in 1996. But even before that, he was already the quintessential entrepreneur.

Coffee shops in the Philippines back then were of a different breed, so unlike the coffee shops in Europe and the US. Coffee was not considered an experience, so to speak, and it was a plain beverage which was more often than not an accompaniment to a more significant order of pastries or sandwiches, or even pasta.

Steve did not want to be lost in the fold, so even before he opened his first coffee shop, he studied the business for two years, attended several conferences and expos, and travelled a lot to immerse himself in the coffee culture.

No one believed in his concept, which is to focus on the coffee experience, but he relied on his guts and went ahead with the project. Two months before the shop opened, his two business partners backed out on the project, leaving him to cope alone. Actually, his studies indicated that it wasn’t a viable venture, but he stubbornly relied on his guts and felt he was ready to take on the challenge.

He remembers well a lady customer who felt that P15 was too much to pay for a cup of coffee at Bo’s Coffee. Back then, restaurants just gave it away after a pricey meal and people were more familiar with instant coffee. He gave the coffee for free and the next day the lady came back for his coffee, ready to pay P15 for it.

The first three months were disastrous, with daily sales amounting to just P300 up to a maximum of less than P1,000. It wasn’t even enough to pay the monthly rent of P10,000, and how about the salaries, etc? As a business proposition, it was a losing one, but to Steve, this venture was not just a business, it was his way of executing the passion he had for coffee. He was giving away free coffee and it was on the sixth month that his sales picked up and steadily increased. On the eight month, he opened his second kiosk, and the rest, as they say, is history.

What makes Bo’s Coffee click? He adopted the same concept in the US and in Europe where there is a coffee culture to speak of. He wanted to share the coffee shop experience with the budding coffee community here at home, but tweaked it a little to be more acceptable to the local market. He recreated the European scene of having coffee shops on the sidewalks, having about six small tables in the middle of a mall hallway where it is cool and people can enjoy a steaming cup of good coffee.

The coffee experience that Steve wanted to cultivate here also meant elevating the coffee experience by introducing coffee that uses espresso as a base. This was unheard of, and people somehow got intimidated by it. Years back, not too many folks ordered cappuccino or latte. The lady he talked about earlier was one such customer, but she came back the next day and that was one of his greatest fulfilments in the early days of Bo’s Coffee. It simply meant the market needed to be educated on the coffee experience.

Steve says that the biggest thing that makes them different from other coffee shops is that they are a homegrown coffee company as against the foreign brands that dominate the local coffee scene. Bo’s Coffee is the biggest-homegrown coffee chain, and that is the feather on his cap.

Serving Philippine coffee and showcasing it serves him well to fulfil his dream of bringing Philippine coffee to the global stage. In the late 1800s, says Steve, the Philippines was the biggest coffee grower in the world. We sadly lost that position over time, maybe because of lack of investments and government support to the coffee farmers. Before Steve can bring Bo to the global stage, he knew he had to make it popular here at home first and ensure enough supply to bring the brand abroad. We only supply 30 percent of the local demand, so even if we increase awareness, we still cannot supply the demand. He does his big share by procuring Philippine coffee directly from local coffee farmers and is initiating an industry-wide campaign. This involves all the coffee stakeholders and a partnership with the government. The Philippine Coffee Council’s objective is to increase the yield of coffee farmers and ultimately increase their income. They source their coffee from different parts of the country, depending on the variety of coffee. Robusta, for instance, is sourced from the lowlands of Cavite, Batangas, and Mindanao. The higher quality Arabica, which Bo’s Coffee uses, is sourced from the highlands of Benguet, Sagada, Mountain Province, Mt. Apo in Davao, and Mt. Katinglad in Bukidnon.

He also works with other social entrepreneurs to take the coffee experience in Bo’s Coffee by using Philippine materials such as fabrics in their upholstery and uniforms. One supplier, social entrepreneur Anya, was grateful to have Bo’s Coffee as her biggest client so she could scale up her social enterprise using woven Philippine fabrics. It was also a Eureka moment for Steve because he realized that what he has is a powerful platform that could change lives.

They are now seeking more social entrepreneurs to engage with and incorporate their products into the coffee lifestyle and integrate them into their system. He created a social procurement platform for them which they can just plug into and they can have quick market access. He cites Bayani Brew, Tsaa Laya, Rags2Riches, and Theo and Philo among the social enterprises he has engaged with. They monitor the progress in their communities (tea farming, weaving, etc.) to make sure their impact is felt by the communities. They also give support by way of equipment and education.

Now, Bo’s Coffee has over a hundred stores and counting, and is set to open 20 more this year. He also opened a store in Qatar with a commitment to open five more stores in five years, or three stores in two years. He hopes to have a presence in five countries and have 200 stores by 2020.

His advice? Focus and stay disciplined.

Mabuhay!!! Be proud to be a Filipino.

(Philippine Star News)

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