Beverly Malbranche is the founder and CEO of Caribbrew, a coffee company that specializes in Arabica beans sourced from farmers in Haiti. The Newark, N.J., business aims to bridge the gap between the Caribbean’s centuries-old coffee traditions and its consumers in the United States.
As a Black business owner, Malbranche is working to close the racial representation gap in the coffee industry.
Malbranche grew up in Haiti and came to the U.S. in 2009 to study business administration. She knew early on she wanted to start a business selling a product of Haiti to U.S. consumers. While pondering this, she fell in love with the flavors and aromas of Haitian coffee, courtesy of her uncle, who, also based in the U.S., visited Haiti each summer and brought back coffee to share with friends and family. He “kept on asking where to buy this coffee,” Malbranche says. “I realized there was a demand and no one was meeting it well. That’s when I decided that coffee was it!”
Seeing a market for Haitian coffee here in the States, Malbranche co-founded Caribbrew in 2016, and officially launched the brand in 2018. She says she realized that starting a coffee business could also create sustainable jobs for coffee farmers, roasters, and packagers in Haiti.
Caribbrew sells whole-bean and ground coffee, coffee filter bags (perfect for making cold brew), as well as other coffee products and gifts, including skincare products. Malbranche says she included skincare with the goal of creating more demand for Haitian coffee, so that she could in turn buy more from farmers. “It’s been a great way to diversify and reach even non-coffee drinkers,” she says.
Despite the disruption to business during the pandemic, Malbranche says that Caribbrew doubled its revenue last year (in the period May to December, compared to the same period in 2019). She says the main spike was in June. “We are thankful for the support shown to Black-owned small businesses last year,” she says.
In the following interview, Malbranche discusses her motivations for launching Caribbrew, the challenges she has faced building the brand, and what makes running the business so rewarding.
1. What makes coffee from Haiti special?
Haiti’s mountainous landscape makes it perfect to grow Arabica coffee beans. We grow coffee at high elevation, under shade, and without pesticides.
Haiti used to be a major coffee-producing nation in the 1900s. Declining social and political conditions, such as dictatorial regimes and trade embargo, and competition from neighboring Latin American countries, caused [Haitian] coffee exports to drop considerably. By selling our crops, especially our coffee, we were able to pay France their unjust indemnity, for them to recognize us diplomatically as an independent nation back in 1825, 21 years after our independence in 1804. Coffee is definitely rooted in our history. I want people to know Haiti’s coffee as impeccable, sustainable, and empowering.
2. What is the goal of Caribbrew, and how are you achieving it?
Caribbrew’s goal is to create opportunities for everyone in our supply chain and share Haiti’s coffee with the world. In doing so, we will make a difference and reclaim our position in the world as a major coffee exporter. We create opportunities for Haitian coffee farmers and young people in Haiti who roast and package our coffee. Here in the United States, we hire locals from Newark, N.J., where we ship every order. Last year we imported about 17,000 pounds of coffee. We’re still a small company, but with growing demand. Our goal is to get Haitian coffee back on the world map.
3. What does your role as founder and CEO entail day to day?
My role includes going over our daily goals with the leadership team before I [go] to our warehouse. I make sure that they align with our weekly, monthly, and even yearly goals. Then around 10 a.m. when I get to our warehouse, I oversee the fulfillment of our orders. I follow up with wholesale clients, trying to close more accounts for the business. I coordinate our marketing efforts, such as social media posts, discounts, and promotions, and implement and oversee our workforce when it comes to inventory management, vendor relations, etc. … As a small business owner, I do wear many hats, but the most important job to me is to continuously grow the company.
4. How do you work with farmers to source your coffee beans?
We work with an association of coffee farmers called cooperatives. The cooperatives stabilize the coffee price on the market, support individual farmers in securing funds to take care of their farms, lend equipment, and even help with transporting coffee from farm to processing centers. By buying from the cooperatives, we contribute to the establishment of a fair market price for Haitian coffee, where the premium is used to benefit the farmers as a whole. We also create more demand, giving the farmers incentives to continue planting coffee trees and grow quality beans. We pay over the market price per pound.
The vast majority of Haiti’s coffee beans are produced by small farmers, not large-scale farms. Each farmer usually has a few hectares and works with local cooperatives and a few coffee mills.
5. What kind of challenges has Caribbrew faced in the last 6 to 9 months due to Covid-19?
[Before Covid-19], our brand awareness strategies relied heavily on participating at fairs, events, and trade shows. For example, in 2019, we participated at the New York Coffee Festival with over 10,000 attendees. All fairs, trade shows where we meet potential buyers, were canceled in 2020. Moreover, many of our wholesale partners, such as restaurants and coffee shops, had to close or operate on a limited basis. As a result, some of them [stopped] ordering from us and others order in much smaller quantities.
Our wholesale side of the business reduced, but thankfully we relied on our e-commerce strategies to grow our business. Our retail customer base grew rapidly as customers were consuming coffee from home. We were able to double our revenue despite the pandemic.
6. What is the future of the coffee industry, and how can business owners and coffee drinkers make it a more inclusive industry?
The coffee industry is growing, and the customer is becoming more knowledgeable and wants more transparency. Making [the coffee industry] more inclusive means buying from small-scale farmers who usually do not have access to the global market; working with cooperatives to ensure that the premiums are invested in the local coffee ecosystem. Moreover, it means supporting smaller roasters, although sometimes their prices might not be as competitive as larger companies. Overall, it means supporting underrepresented groups at all levels in the sector. When the coffee sector is more inclusive, customers benefit from a large variety of coffee from all over the world, and of course better quality.
7. What is next for Caribbrew in 2021 and beyond?
Our goal this year, besides focusing on our direct-to-consumer strategies, is to gain at least one retail partner with nationwide distribution.
8. How does it feel to be helping to revive Haiti’s coffee industry?
I feel very fortunate to be able to contribute to such a cause. Although there is so much more to be done, every step matters.