Coffee Business Pleasure and Pain in Maputo
Just over five years into the business, and Tim Hobgood, one of the two Yanks who own and run the only coffee shop/roastery in town, Café Sol, says, “For the last few months we’re just about breaking even in the café serving part of the business.“ Situated at the entry point to Sommerschield II on the terrace of a mini-commercial block surrounded by towering residences, Café Sol offers several aromatic blends of fine African-grown and Mozambican-roasted coffees to accompany those American deli favorites – bagels, giant chocolate chip cookies, quiches and a variety of sandwiches and salads, to a steady stream of international taste customers.
“Yet business is off,” notes Tim, pointing down the road to the heavy equipment passing on the construction site of the widening of avenida Julius Nyerere, “By thirty to fifty percent, and it won’t get better until the job, now running behind schedule, is completed.” Tim will await that day before he ventures to put up a new sign on the avenue to attract potential new patrons.
Café Sol sources its mainstay from Malawi, and roasts the beans on the premises – thereby adding value and earning the moniker, “Made in Mozambique,” that goes on all the vacuum-packed plasticized-foil bags for sale – a great take-away to bring to friends in RSA, Europe and the states. Partner Kevin Kehus had to take a course in coffee roasting in Sandpoint, Idaho in the USA, where a first class roasting machine was made, purchased and then shipped to Maputo and installed for about $30.000. While Malawian Specialty grade Arabica coffee is the main coffee offered, Café Sol also holds a selection of other African coffees. These include beans from Rwanda, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and an African Robusta which is sometimes added to special orders, and adds a more European-preferred flavor. Now available are pure Ethiopian Arabica coffees – smooth regular or de-caffeinated – at the top end of the selections. Four tons of coffee beans are transacted in Maputo monthly, and Café Sol’s parent company, Companhia do Café de Maputo, claims fully a quarter of all that business.
Several years back, Tim and Kevin scoured the bairros in search of the right location for their investment. They contemplated setting up in Ponta Vermelha, and on the Marginal past Southern Sun, but finally settled on Sun Square – with a distant view of the bay past the Irish Embassy. After opening the doors in May 2007, the two partners were joined in November by Bob Maxfield. It’s been a roller coaster ride ever since – mostly up. But investment and operating costs can run high in Maputo, and the recent spike upwards in rents hasn’t helped. Couple those expenses with what Tim terms “ingredient exposure” – his ongoing effort to keep the pantry filled with items of rising costs that suit the wildly varying tastes of his amicable, but sometimes unpredictable, clientele, and you can begin to appreciate the challenges of investment in the service sector in the City of Acacias.
Asked what he’d do differently if he was starting up today, Tim advises the would-be new investor to take the time to get to know best the taste of the targeted customers. Interestingly enough, though Café Sol appeals to ‘the North American and Northern European coffee taste,’ it is not quite what is sought by most European coffee aficionados, especially the Portuguese. In opting for the mix of beans and the manner of roasting that has become Café Sol’s trademark, it has greatly minimized its potential for penetration of the Portuguese palate, and thereby challenged sales and profits. “It would probably make more sense – and cents – if Café Sol limited itself to the import-roast-packaging and gross market sales, rented a warehouse and closed the restaurant,” mused Tim, all the while assuring a startled coffee sipping patron sitting near-by, that the current owners do not now contemplate such a hasty move.
So what’s in it for tomorrow? Tim proudly points to the near-by rack of bright black and gold packaged Café Sol products, and ticks off a few of the market opportunities of which they have been able to take advantage. Café Sol products are currently for sale at supermarkets across Maputo, and will be soon into SPAR outlets in Nelspruit. The first shipment has been made to Swaziland and will be distributed from Mbabane. One catering service that handles foodstuffs for some of the mining operations in Tete is a buyer and happy user, after giving up on the proverbial Nescafe instant, and Café Sol is working with them to package ground coffee in 100 gram packets that go right into the filter machine, without need for measurement. Are Pemba and Cabo Delgado next? The greatest marking obstacle to overcome in dealing with large companies is to convince them to purchase ‘real’ coffee over the cheap instant chicory concoction we all know so well.
You can escape the city’s ‘coffee wars’ of primarily Portuguese brands marketed by Delta, Buondi and Bicafe that have ‘taken over’ most of the sidewalk coffee shops by offering their owners a range of monogrammed cups and saucers, ash trays and napkin holders, illuminated signs and especially espresso-making machines. Instead, if you’re looking for a hot – or iced -- cup of Café Sol’s own, and can’t get to their shop in Sommerschield II, Tim recommends you stop in Soul Gourmet, near the Frelimo offices past Sommerschield Clinic, or at Just Café, near the military hospital and around the corner from United Nations’ offices. Very soon the Sundown Residential Guest House restaurant – in the same area -- will be open to the public, also serving Café Sol blends. You’ll savor the real thing. This editor’s first choice is a tall mug of Ebony, black, with no sugar, but just about any cup will get him – and you -- going, morning, noon, or night. Viva!
Club of Mozambique
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.