Reggae and Roasting: How did Marley Coffee begin?

Marley Coffee is making waves for its commitment to quality and willingness to diversify. Lucy Ingham learns about the brand and the reggae legend’s legacy from Rohan Marley and CEO Brent Toevs


Issue 8

In a few short years Marley Coffee has gone from a fledgling company to a major player in the premium, organic coffee market, and now boasts a product selection that covers everything from whole bean and pre-ground bags through to single serve and pod coffees.

The company's heritage has no doubt played a role. Founded by Rohan Marley, son of reggae legend Bob Marley, the brand is steeped in references to the late Marley's music.

But the connection to reggae runs far deeper than just product names and packaging design, affecting everything from product planning to bean selection.

We speak to Marley Coffee chairman and founder Rohan Marley and CEO Brent Toevs to find out why reggae and coffee are proving to be such a winning combination.

Lucy Ingham: Why did you decide to start Marley Coffee?

Rohan Marley: Marley Coffee started just from an embryo state - it only was just a thought, you know? That came about when I stumbled across a farm in Jamaica, and after purchasing the land I kind of discovered that there was coffee on the property.

The community was known for coffee and this is the instant we started the actual concept of the company. I came off the property and there was people there looking for jobs, and when I started to post a few questions to the community as to what's in this property, what's on this land, what's the community known for, they told me the community is known for growing coffee.

My first response was "coffee like oil?" and they told me yes, and I told them "I guess we're in the coffee business". But that was just a theory at that moment in 1999. And then several years went on, and while I was actually developing the farm, getting to a point where we could become organically certified, learning about how to grow coffee, how to get the best cup of coffee, it took us a good - I'd say - 11 years and we finally got rolling in - what year did we get rolling, Brent?

Brent Toevs: In 2009 the business kicked off and certainly for the first year it was, I don't want to say an experiment, but Rohan was producing the coffees and we took those coffees to high ends shops mostly in Southern California.

We really wanted to find out, is there an acceptance for a premium organic brand like Marley Coffee. You can focus on sustainability when you have your own farm and with sustainability the proof is in the pudding with farming practices etc.

Ro sold the first bag, Ro went out and talked to these people and it was accepted, and I came on about two and a half years ago and had it taken from this one product, whole bean, that people were really, really liking and turned into a company that had many, many different products for many, many channels to be successful.

I asked Ro, "Ro, what do you want this company to be?" I've been in coffee pretty much all my business life so there's many different ways to have a coffee business. And he said, "Well, I want anybody in the world who wants to drink my coffee where coffee's available, I want it to be available." And I was like "So let's start working towards that", so that's what we did.

RM: But Brent, come on if you've been around the world and you can hear my father's music in every corner of the world, I have to smash that. I have to live up to that.

BT: It's very true. Another thing Ro told me when I was asking him why the coffee business and he told me exactly what he just said and he gave me the story and he told me that I have to go to Jamaica, because if I go to Jamaica I'll get it. I'll want to come and work for him. We have a video that was produced before I got there and there's people in the video on the farm and you go to the farm and those are the people in the video who are working on the farm.

I talked to them about the impact that Marley Coffee had in that community with really just being a concept, I was like "Wow, if we could turn this into a worldwide company, we can affect so many people's lives." But as Ro just alluded to, his father influenced millions of people's lives around the world through his music and Ro told me that he wanted to do the same with coffee. It was a big coal but I was hooked, I was like "yeah I gotta be part of this".

LI: What makes Marley and coffee a good match together as a product?

BT: You think about the music that touched so many people's lives, coffee is the second largest traded commodity in the world but also it's a product that influences people's lives. You think of the whole social impact of coffee. Coffee houses were a place that people came together to think and come up with ideas, so we wanted to recreate that.

It's all about sustainability; organic, Rainforest Alliance. We have a product that is a premium product, so it's the high end of the price spectrum, but as we've marketed this and we've gone into buyers and we've done demos and we've had coffee tastings. Not only is our coffee highly rated for all the folks we've done our tastings with, the proof is that buyers want to put our coffees on their shelves, consumers want to drink our coffee, it makes them feel good.

So if you can take all of those qualities of a good coffee business - there's so many good ones, think of what Starbucks has done - and tie those into a sustainable, premium coffee company that really shows people how we are affecting lives, it's just a winning combination.

LI: What kind of messages do you want to get across in terms of presenting Marley Coffee?

RM: Well as far as our company goes, our whole thing about Marley Coffee and what that will establish is about doing good. It's something that not only will make yourself feel good but it's going to do something to make someone else feel good.

Our marketing is all like you see what's one our bag, One Love, have a Mystic Morning. It's really like words and sounds and colours to really enlighten your life. So we tried to employ that within our marketing plan, just the way we treat our people in the office, it should represent who we are as a family, as a people, things that we desire to be like and why it is that we all came to work together on this Marley movement.

Because the movement starts with a legacy, it started from my father, started from majesty where he got his inspiration so we as a company now, we can then embody that and really project that through our bags, through how we roast our coffee, through how we operate in our office space in Denver, Colorado, and seeing the faces in Denver smiling to know that Marley Coffee is in Denver, I think that's just natural, organic marketing.

We don't have a big marketing budget in our company, we're a small company, we put our money towards making our products better, getting on the streets. We don't really market our products because we don't have to money and it's been because of just having quality products, word of mouth, people on the Twitter, on the Facebook, everywhere, saying how much they love Marley Coffee. And that's been the most of our marketing that we have had; having a good product, doing it with our hearts, doing it with a purpose and just projecting that good feeling through our work environment and through the people we touch every day.

BT: I've implored our people to become coffee experts. If you think about what Ro did for organic farming in Jamaica, he really made that a movement for that type of sustainable farming in Jamaica.

We're doing the same thing with all of our coffees, and I tell our people and our sales people "we want to become the experts, so when you go in and you talk to a buyer or when a customer walks in the door, you educate them on coffee. You educate them on sustainability. You make them go back and want to do research on coffee, what country that coffee came from and how it impacts those people's lives".

So you're not only going to feel good, but you're going to have an educated consumer. Because if you have an educated consumer and we're the ones that do that for them it's going to come back.

So it's a longer process; anyone can write a fancy jingle or come up with some slogan. We're in this for the long run, we want to be the experts and if we can translate that out I think in the long run that's going to do us fantastically.

We're launching some Rainforest Alliance certified coffees at Expo West and part of that is we're not going to do this just so we can put the frog on the bag, I want all of our folks to know what Rainforest Alliance is, the work that they do, and how they impact people. And that then again will translate over to consumers.

RM: Absolutely, and just to add to that. I've been to many restaurants and I've never heard a restaurateur or waiter ask "do you know where you where your coffee came from?" And that's my first question when I have a cup of coffee because coffee has more notes to the palette that any wine you can think of. Everyone needs to know where their coffee came from because every region has a different taste profile and we need to pay that respect for coffee.

LI: What makes Jamaica so good as a place to grow coffee?

BT: You go to Jamaica and its Bob Marley and its Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee. And the reason for that is because number its the most expensive coffee in the world as far as a point of origin coffee and the main reason for that is there's just such limited supply. There's less than two million pounds of coffee produced out of Jamaica each year. In fact this year there's going to be less - superstorm Sandy really did some damage to the crops.

It's one of those few places in the world where you have perfect elevation with the mountains, the perfect temperature, the perfect cloud cover up in the mountains that you have just such a hardy, uniform coffee bean that produces a very, very distinct yet flavourful cup of coffee. It's a beautiful thing so we're proud to be really proponents of that coffee, that's the coffee that we promote.

Now because there's such a small amount we obviously have other coffees but we really are pushing Jamaica Blue and in fact we have the first authorised Jamaica Blue Mountain blend that we're launching at Expo West [Smile Jamaica] and one of the reasons is that we just do not have enough coffee to fulfil all the orders that we have in the pipeline with our current Jamaica Blue Mountain coffees.

RM: And another important reason is we also created the Smile Jamaica. Not only is Jamaica the most beautiful place to grow coffee, and also as a quantity perspective, but it's very expensive for the average shopper each day, it's truly a speciality product. So what Ziggy [Marley, Rohan's brother] asked us to do is create something that everyone can have a little experience of Jamaica, a little experience of Bob and just a full experience of what Jamaican coffee is all about. So we created Smile Jamaica so we can open up the channels and not only sell them to the guys who like really high quality, but still give a little blend so we can open up our distribution to more people, you know? Get a little bit of Bob in every bag, a little bit of a taste of Jamaica in every bag, so Ziggy asked us to do that.

LI: You also source beans from Ethiopia - why did you pick that country in particular?

RM: In 2007 I decided to go to Ethiopia to reside because at the time I was having difficulties with ... myself trying to get my farm in Jamaica going and starting and being able to distribute coffee so I had to take a break and go to Ethiopia to kind of learn about life, to learn about myself.

Being in Ethiopia I discovered that Ethiopia is not only the birthplace of civilisation, the birthplace of Rastafari, it's also the birthplace of coffee. And while I was there, you know, back in the days the term arabiaca really came from a theory that when the Yemenites were trading coffee, people from Europe would come to trade, to buy products, they would buy the coffee beans and take them back to Europe, so they gave the name arabiaca, but the true name for the coffee was ethiopica.

So while I was in Ethiopia I met a gentlemen and he started to explain this to me. And I realised that I need to be the one to represent that movement because, you know, Rastafari is from Ethiopia, Haile Selassie is Ethiopian, the king of all kings is Ethiopian, and I really wanted to be a leader and really express that coffee, its origin is in Ethiopia.

We started our coffee company with the Ethiopian coffee Yirgacheffee and the name for that cup, we call it One Love and that's why we chose that because Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee.

It's a story to everything we do - we don't just do things! We don't just get up and say, "oh, it's coffee today", no, no, no, no - there's a purpose behind why we started the coffee business, all about sustainability, you know?

BT: You're probably getting that we're pretty passionate about coffee. Actually we're passionate about a lot of things, but we're in the coffee business so, you know what? What Ro said is so true. Every single product, every single initiative that we have going, it is rooted in a story. And I hate to say the story because it's a reality.

We always go back to the roots and develop it from there. We have all these ideas and we put them up on whiteboards and we don't say well what's going to sell the best?

We're like, well lets go back to the roots and how do we take that and turn it into that product that hopefully will sell well and will translate across. We don't have a big board room and consumer research, we're really trying to translate from that story or that reality to what will translate out.

LI: You mentioned sustainability and social impact on Jamaica - what kind of an impact has Marley Coffee had on the area?

RM: Well, a lot of impact because not only do we help to provide a lot of jobs but I've introduced my brother Ziggy to the community that are farmers, and he has solely brought doctors down, he's helped to build up a school, given money for the education. We ourselves have donated money to help further the kids' education in the community.

We're helping to give a community of 50 ladies out of Trench Town, out of Jubilee Gardens, out of those areas jobs to help sort the beans. Just creating more jobs, creating more opportunity. We're a very young company - we haven't really seen our dent because, what are we, only 2 and a half years old, three years old.

BT: We've only been selling for a little over a year and if you go to Jamaica and you visit our farm and you talk to the people who are working on the farm you see how the farm has turned from a beautiful piece of land to a sustainable coffee farm that has now been set up to keep reproducing for now decades, ensuring that there will be a beautiful crop for decades to come. And if you go to our partner farms and the processing centre down in Kingston and the hundreds of people working there and when they see that we're out there promoting their coffee, our coffee to North America, they really appreciate that.

They're so thankful, you give them confidence that they're doing something that's making an impact also, it's wonderful. We took people over in July and the comment that came back was that we do not pay enough money for a cup of coffee because they saw all the work and all the people that take to do it and it moves them, so we have to translate that.

LI: Your range includes single serve and pod products - which products do you think have the most potential to grow?

BT: Running the business side, my job now is to take that vision and the passion and translate it into, what's coming, what are the products that are going to move. And if you look at the coffee business, the fastest growing part of coffee is the single serve business. In North America that's dominated by the Keurig system and then really throughout the rest of the world, it's the espresso-based systems such as Nespresso.

Our goal for North America was to get into that Keurig space, and we did that, and we launched our four Marley Coffee Real Cups, including the first 100% Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee Talkin' Blues. And those have been really our bestsellers and we're going to add another five of those at Expo West. In the espresso-based cartridge system, we are going to be getting into that category.

Coffee is a worldwide commodity but its served differently and drank differently in different parts of the world so as we start getting penetration and start getting access to different parts of the world, we can't go in there and say "well this is how you have to drink coffee", everybody drinks coffee a certain way so we will adapt to that with the Marley Coffee brand and we'll take our coffee and we'll put it into whatever the format is that is popular in that region.

LI: How do you plan to grow Marley Coffee over the next few years?

BT: We certainly have a lot of initiatives there. We've talked about brick and mortar stores - that's something that's going to begin this year and that's something that's going to really help the brand from not only a brand perspective but again it brings a whole other facet to Marley Coffee in that we will be a destination point in the different communities where we establish those locations.

In Denver we're rolling out our bike cafes, those are basically a cafe on wheels that's a fully operational cafe that we can take anywhere. And as we scale that up we want to introduce that to different parts of the world, especially countries where there may not be the money to build a full-fledged cafe, well you can have a bike cafe for very, very low cost.

Right now we have some nice partners in different parts of the world, and we certainly want to key on that. And in North America we'll continue to grow in that retail grocery space, but we have a hospitality initiative, we want to get into hotels and also restaurants.

RM: I went to our corporate office over the weekend and I'm just so excited as to what Brent and the whole entire team has done in Denver as far as establishing my coffee's home in Denver and I just wanted to thank the people of Denver for really opening up their arms and inviting us into that community. Because we feel really loved in Denver and we've been growing tremendously.

We've served coffee inside the Denver Broncos stadium, we're now serving coffee in other stadiums as well, and we're just thankful that we're part of this new movement in Denver. Big respect to the people of Denver, Colorado.

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