St. Petersburg’s coffee dynasty is brewing its next chapter
Before you enter the roasting headquarters of Kahwa Coffee, in St. Petersburg, your nose will know you’re there before you do, in the most delightful way.
Brewing since 2006, Kahwa Coffee has a fairy tale of a story. What started as one shop has grown into a heavy hitter in the brewing community.
Perhaps a story that could only happen in a “shop local” community such as St. Petersburg.
Kahwa now has 15 locations, with plans to open four more, sells its packaged coffee beans in Publix, is a part of Publix’s in-store coffee bar model, has more than 800 wholesale customers, including Epcot at Walt Disney World Resorts, a candle line with a partnership though Tampa’s 7th Avenue Apothecary, and has helped raise hundreds of thousands for local charities.
With revenue of $10 million in 2019, Raphael and Sarah Perrier, founders and owners of the coffee roaster, have no plans on slowing down their dream to become Florida’s top coffee-roaster brand.
“Now we’re switching the whole game because 3 Daughters Brewing is going to start canning for us,” Raphael says. “We’re going to start having fun now, because it’s all right in our backyard.”
The Perrier’s agree: Stories such as theirs are made possible by the locally focused St. Pete business community.
“I think St. Pete really supports its local businesses,” Sarah says. “They are able to grow to the point where they can expand. It’s something I think St. Pete is really proud of. Tampa Bay, in general, seems really proud to support local businesses.”
Raphael says the community is what drew him and Sarah to relocate from Philadelphia.
“St. Petersburg is really ahead of their time, compared to a lot of other areas,” Raphael says. “Now it’s a big thing everywhere: local, local, local. It’s something I love personally, it’s one of the reasons we moved here … people are just really nice here.”
Kahwa’s wholesale business has caught up with its impressive retail business. It’s about a 60-percent retail and 40-percent wholesale revenue model, Raphael says.
To facilitate some of its growth ambition, it announced a call to investors last year to the tune of $6.5 million. Now, because of its own success on the books, that number has shrunk to about $4.5 million.
“One of the keys for us to do it right is to bring in the right people. To understand what our brand is, understand where the company is going, understand who we are, understand where the financials are right now and then feel comfortable,” Raphael says. “ We’re looking for investors who trust us.”
But they’re in no hurry. They want the right investors—ones that appreciate the brand and trust the Perriers to continue what they’ve found works for their business.
One of those people is Evan Longoria, of Tampa Bay Rays fame.
“One of the reasons that we haven’t finished [the capital raise] yet is because we don’t really need to. That’s a difference for us, compared to a lot of companies,” Raphael says.
Sarah adds that the benefit they can get from such investors helps to fill the gaps of their own knowledge.
“We don’t come from that corporate background. So, getting to that next step is a little bit more structure,” Sarah says.
A big win for Kahwa was being approached by Lakeland-based Publix, another product of the Tampa Bay area, to become a test café in their new stores.
Publix was interested in incorporating a local chain and Tampa Beverage Solutions, Kahwa’s long-time distributor, led the grocer directly to Kahwa.
“The whole idea came up with our distributor,” Raphael says. “It was kind of a test program. They wanted to get a feel for how people were going to react. We tested with about 25 shops.”
While the test program was going on,there wasn’t a lot of Kahwa branding. Now the company is negotiating with the grocer to include Kahwa’s branding materials in the cafes.
“They love the local brand, they love the coffee,” Raphael says.
All of this is leading to Kahwa having to expand. This year, it moved into a newer, larger facility off U.S. Highway 19 near Pinellas Park.
“We were in a place that was a third of the size last year,” Sarah says.
“The thing I think we did right, we waited to be recognized before going to Publix. A lot of people want to go into Publix, but they don’t sell anything. You have to have brand recognition. We are ready for the growth,” Raphael says. “I mean that’s the idea behind the capital raise. That’s the idea behind everything that we’re doing.”
WHERE IT ALL STARTED
Sarah and Raphael met in Philadelphia and have been married for 15 years. They have two children, ages 8 and 13.
Sarah moved from New Brunswick, Canada, to St. Petersburg with her family when she was five years old. She attended the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School, studying ballet and modern dance.
Her father and her uncle were involved in development projects in St. Petersburg, including the original Dali Museum, the Vinoy Place Condos and renovations at the St. Petersburg Pier.
She eventually went to The University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, and continued a career of dance and dance education through her early professional life, even performing in the Koresh Dance Co., touring the United States.
Raphael is from Lyons, France, and came to continue studies in the United States when he was 21 years old. He graduated from Temple University in Philadelphia.
It was in a coffee shop in Philadelphia where he met Sarah. Raphael was a barista for a coffee company and moved into wholesale. Eventually the couple came to Tampa Bay and started their own venture.
“I was working in a coffee shop and it was moving into the wholesale business. They needed someone to run the shop. And I said, ‘sure’ … that’s where it all started,” Raphael says.
“We ended up working really well together, which I was honestly a little worried about before we started because he has a really big personality,” Sarah says. “I wasn’t sure how it was going to go but it actually has worked out really well because we really trust each other.
“The work-life balance is always kind of tricky because you’re always together,” Sarah says. “Luckily, we don’t do the same things in the business.
The Perriers are grateful for the local support they receive. When there’s a chain coffee shop on every corner it can be daunting to compete, but they say their customers go out of their way to support Kahwa.
Considering that, Kahwa makes efforts to give back to the community, “because it’s the right thing to do,” Raphael says.
Kahwa regularly donates to more than 150 charities a year—supporting local theaters and kids organizations, and even creating a special Evan Longoria blend that raised more than $25,000 for the charities he supports.
The Perriers are also committed to sending a message about sustainability and the environment through their business practices. Kahwa was one of the first companies to join the “No Straws St. Pete” campaign with the goal of getting consumers to say “no straw” when ordering drinks. It is now offering paper straws and selling reusable glass straws, for which Sarah’s mom stiches up fabric carrying cases that also are sold in the cafes.
In addition, all the company’s cold beverage cups are made from corn and are 100 percent compostable. The couple is also looking into solar energy to power their coffee roasters and cafes.
The Perriers are hands-on and involved with day-to-day business, but they do take time out for themselves.
They own a home in France and spend a month there every year. They love to travel to New York City at least a few times a year, as well as the Turks and Caicos islands and the south of France.
“He’s a really good cook. I’m not a good cook, but I like to eat. So we eat and drink wine,” Sarah says.
Some would say sipping on wine in the south of France sounds like a fitting reward for establishing the next big-time coffee roaster.
“We’re not stopping until we are the premier coffee roaster in Florida,” Raphael says. ♦