Starting a new business is daunting enough without the challenges of a global pandemic. Sisters Lisa and Melissa Gerben quietly launched RAKO Coffee Roasters in December of 2019, with a wholesale focus at first and big plans for spring pop-ups, a retail line and eventually brick-and-mortar cafés in the summer of 2020.
“Of course it didn’t happen that way,” Lisa says.
When restaurants and offices closed, their wholesale accounts were significantly impacted. Their pop-ups were put on hold, but their retail line was ready and waiting.
“In March when everything shut down, Melissa and I both noticed that we were just looking for stuff to do at home,” Lisa says. “We jumped on the baking and the pickling bandwagon and then we thought, ‘Why not launch our coffee online?’”
Their retail line currently includes eight sustainably sourced single origin coffees.
“One thing we really prioritized when creating this line is to offer coffees that appeal to every palate, while also tasting distinctly different from one another,” Lisa says. “We have your classic chocolate-y, caramel-y coffees, and then we have some more off-the-wall ones with peach and lemon zest flavor notes.”
Each coffee has a descriptive taste profile to let you know what you can expect from it.
“Coffee actually has tasting notes the same way wine does,” Melissa says “Coffee has over 800 compounds, which is actually a lot more than exist in wine.”
The Gerbens decided to take the leap to sell these coffees online in April, but they wanted to do so in a way that would allow as many customers as possible to access their coffee, and to get the most out of the products, even without a professionally trained barista to do the brewing.
Two keys to success were free shipping and home brew guides. All DMV orders ship free, and each order arrives with a detailed laminated brew guide that explains how to grind and brew your coffee, depending on what type of brewing apparatus you have.
There are also advanced brew guides available online, which provide specific ratios and timings tailored to each individual coffee.
“It basically comes down to the acids and sugars that are in each particular coffee,” Melissa explains. This is based on factors like how long the beans are roasted, the altitude where the beans are grown and more.
“All of these things factor in to how it’s going to taste when it’s brewed, and so a slightly different water temperature may draw a different acid from the bean,” she adds. “And the grind size, if you grind it at a slightly different setting, that may also draw different flavors. It’s basically an experiment that you do over and over and you change one factor each time and you finally end up with what tastes best for the coffee.”
The launch of the retail line has led to an outpouring of support from customers.
“We were so blown away and pleasantly surprised,” Lisa says. “The sales are incredible and we’re so grateful to everyone, but also just this feeling of connectivity with the community has been really incredible as well.”
With the early success of RAKO, Lisa and Melissa have turned a lifelong dream into a reality.
“When we were in high school, we went on a family trip to Guatemala and had the opportunity to tour some coffee farms, and that was just such a formative experience,” Lisa says. “That’s actually where something clicked and I wanted to be a coffee importer. It wasn’t that linear in my life, of course, but I would say that it really started with that trip for both of us.”
With this early inspiration in mind, the sisters built their company on a commitment to giving back to and empowering communities, both locally and globally. Globally, it’s about sourcing.
“We think that the best way to help communities is through economic empowerment,” Lisa says. “Most of our coffees in our current lineup are directly imported from coffee farmers which we have long standing relationships with that predate RAKO, from my international trade background… By importing these coffees directly from the source, it allows them to retain more of the money for the coffees that they’ve grown.”
Plus, the shop proudly supports and makes donations to the International Women’s Coffee Alliance chapter.
Locally, 10 percent of each sale benefits Erik Bruner-Yang’s Power of 10 initiative, supporting independent restaurants by re-employing staff, sustaining business operations and providing food to those in need.
“We saw this just immediate impact on restaurants, and have tons of friends in the food and beverage industry that were just overnight out of a job through no fault of their own,” Lisa says.
They have also put the planet at the center of their brand, by choosing sustainable farmers to work with, roasting with state-of-the-art, energy-efficient equipment and participating in a recycling program with TerraCycle. RAKO provides a prepaid envelope with each order, so customers can send back their empty coffee bags and they will be recycled into park benches.
As their following grows, Lisa and Melissa are actively looking for pop-up spaces and are tentatively planning their next moves. “If it’s safe to do so, we’re targeting this summer for our first pop-up,” Lisa says. “We would love for that to turn into a permanent location.”
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