Pim Rinkes

Around seven years ago, when I was 14 years old, I drank my first cup of coffee at the famous Dutch coffee chain CoffeeCompany on Beethovenstraat. I was amazed by all the choices that were written on the bright coloured boards. After a lot of doubt, I chose the ‘Bambino’, a super sweet coffee with a lot of hot chocolate and whipped cream and a little bit of coffee. As the years past by, my orders at CC changed a bit, from bambinos to lattes, from lattes to cappuccinos, from cappuccinos to flat whites, from flat whites to cortados and from cortados to filter coffee. The last three steps were partly due to the fact I became part of the barista team of CC, but also because of the changing image of the company. The sweet coffees disappeared from the menu, and the cortados and filter coffees were recommended. This was part of the rebranding process around two years ago. During this process, CC opened its own coffee distillery and also a sort of coffee laboratory at Oosterdok, where the baristas are all coffee geniuses and coffee is served at the table.

When CC opened its doors in 1996, they were the first in Holland with this concept. Serving specialty coffee, and at that moment, mainly in to-go cups. By now a lot has changed, you can find a coffee bar on almost every street corner in Amsterdam. To know more about the evolution of the company and their battle against the continuously increasing competition, I interviewed Jasper Uhlenbusch, who started in 1998 as a barista, and is now the brand director and green coffee buyer of CC.

 

Evolution of the company

Coffeecompany first opened its doors in 1996, how would you roughly sketch the evolution of CC from 1996 till now?
Actually, you can divide the existence of CC into three different phases. The first one was from 1996 until 2006. The goal was to open one store each year. It began with some small shops in the centre of Amsterdam, like CC Leidsestraat and CC Kalverstraat. After a couple of years we found out we were far better off in neighbourhoods. The second phase began in 2006, in that year a new big investor was in the picture and the dreams of CC became just as big. The new goal was fifty shops in five years. Because of the speed of opening new shops, some mistakes were made.

What kind of mistakes?
In one go, stores were opened in Groningen, Leiden, Delft and Tilburg. At first you could do everything by bike, now you needed a whole day to visit each CC located across whole Holland. There was also a question if this concept would work in all parts of Holland. The shop in Tilburg for example, closed quite fast. A location with continuous activity is really needed to run a coffee bar.

The last phase of CC was from 2011 till now. In that year, CC became property of Douwe Egberts. For a lot of people, this was an end of an era. The two founders of the CC left, one of them transferred to Douwe Egberts.

From the outside you can’t see DE and CC are one company now. What actually changed?
Luckily, all the important aspects for me at the CC stayed the same. We are actually sort of a stand-alone company with a shareholder. For me it was honestly quite challenging to work with a company like Douwe Egberts. Originally, I was against the ideas of DE.

“I saw DE as something we rebelled against all these years”

Because you always saw DE as a competitor?
No, not as a competitor, I saw DE as something we rebelled against all these years. The CC idea was to get people enthusiastic about all the variety in the coffee world, from different origins to all recipes, hence the Rainbow menu. At that time this was aimed directly agains the Dutch coffee culture that was stuck in red bricks in the supermarket.

 

General marketing plan

Every company has it’s own marketing plan. How concrete is your plan and how far do you look ahead?
Well, we definitely don’t have a very clear plan, haha. The most important aspect of the CC is that we are located at the nicest places in Amsterdam. As a coffee bar, you want to be part of the busy city life. The difficult aspect is, trends are moving very fast in those neighbourhoods. So if you look from a marketing-technical perspective, you could better locate your new shops in suburbs, where the concept is still very hip, instead of competing with the most trendy places in the centre of Amsterdam.

“We really want to see CC as a person”

But it looks like you are still more focused on rivalling the hip places in Amsterdam than opening new shops in the suburbs. At some places you are selling healthy soft drinks, dates and oatmeal, those are very trendy products, right?
Yes, we are definitely busy with the development of trends, but we try to compare it with our own adjustment to trends. If we notice that people are more conscious in their eating habits we have to adapt to it in the same way an average person will adapt to trends. Therefore, we really want to see CC as a person. That’s also the reason why we barely have action banners in our shops. It’s not how you create a nice ambience between the clients and employees, definitely not in the long term.

What about your demographic segmentation? Do you want one specific segment in your shops, or do you want your earliest clients growing older with you?
Almost all CC’s (apart from CC Damstraat, where most of the customers are tourists), are designed to encourage people to come back three times a week for around five years.

What do you think about the future of the coffee industry? How much of it is it just hype?
When we started in the 90s, people were drinking Senseo and automatic machine coffee at work or at home. So when we introduced the specialty coffee, like the lattes, cappuccinos, flat whites and frozens, people experienced it as a treat. But now the lowest rank of coffee is disappearing, and the specialty coffee is now the ‘normal’ standard.

“In the field of the quality of beans, we are surely comparable with small coffee distilleries”

But why would people still get their coffee at CC when they have really good coffee at home or at their office?
Because we are still further ahead in quality than, for example, Nespresso. The flavours we capture in our single origin espressos, the freshness and fruitiness, are never ever reproducible in a Nespresso cup. It is very difficult to keep this quality on such a big scale the way Nespresso is producing. In Amsterdam we are maybe seen as a really large chain, but in the field of the quality of beans, we are surely comparable with small coffee distilleries.

Are you saying you don’t want to expand anymore to keep the good quality?
At the moment, I don’t necessarily want more shops. Our ambition is to expand the sales of coffee beans, for at home or at small offices.

What is your opinion about the small independent coffee bars? They are really booming right now, can you compete against a shop like Scandinavian Embassy?
No, we can’t compare ourselves with these kind of shops. Although they really inspire us, in most of our shops it’s not doable for us to give a half an hour explanation about the smells and tastes of the coffee.

“People associated us with cosiness, nice baristas, and accessiblity”

Have you ever examined some research about the image of CC?
Yes, we actually did that before the rebranding. People associated us with cosiness, nice baristas, and accessiblity. That’s really our advantage over the independent coffee bars. When you go to an independent coffee bar, a lot of people find it a bit awkward to have a conversation with the owner or they feel they should dress in a certain way. At CC, you could walk in wearing your pajamas pants with your phone in your hand, and it’s ok. Location and personality were high-rated.

A weird thing to find out was that most people had no clue that we travel around the whole world to compile our own blends and choose our own single-origin coffees. Also this year at the Amsterdam Coffee Festival, a lot of people were amazed we were selling our own beans. So, there is still a lot to gain in the sales of our coffee beans.

 

Rebranding process

“DE also supported our ambition to make people enthusiastic about specialty coffee”

So, a while ago, CC had a large rebranding. When was the moment you realised a rebranding was really needed?
When I came back to CC in 2006, I already wanted to change the logo. But support to strengthen the brand only came when DE entered the picture. After a lot of diversions and misunderstandings, we decided that not only the logo would change, but that the design of the coffee bean bags, the website, and the short movie (story of CC in three minutes) would also be part of the project. DE also supported our ambition to make people enthusiastic about specialty coffee. A lot of work goes into producing great tasting coffee, and the parts of the world they grow are quite rare in the world. Eight euro’s might sound expensive for 250 grams of beans, but if you can have people taste it and tell the story, we might be able to help change people’s perspectives on the value of a bag of great coffee beans. The category as a whole would profit, also the amount of coffee DE would sell in the supermarket would increase.

Do you think the purpose of the rebranding was to give a boost to the hipness of CC?
Well, we didn’t try to replicate the hip vintage design of most independent coffee bars (I don’t even think enough vintage furniture exists for all our shops, haha). But indeed we attempted to make it more modern, but in our own style. I think the most important aspect of our possible ‘hipness’ is what the people who work for us transfer.

Was it a conscious choice to open a totally different store like Oosterdok, both in terms of concept and looks?
For a long time we had a large wish list with stuff we were working on, but was not apparent for outsiders. We really wanted to open a store where we could indulge this wish list. It was too difficult to accomplish this at once, in all of our stores. So we opened a special store where we could show and transfer our knowledge about coffee to customers to the max.

“The certain tardiness at CC Oosterdok is not meant for every location”

But do you intend that every shop will look like CC Oosterdok eventually?
No, not every shop has space and demand for, for example, a brewbar (space where the filter coffees are made). Also the certain tardiness at CC Oosterdok is not meant for every location. The strength of a shop like the Ferdinand Bol is its speed, because of all the to go orders.

Do you think what you had in mind has been accomplished after the rebranding?
Yes, I think so. But now, I think, it is important to turn CC into a more coherent whole. It would be better if the people who aren’t at the forefront of the process feel involved and engage in the interesting world of coffee. This could be pretty hard, because most of the employees of CC are students, and see their job as barista just as a side run.

 

Please, have a look at the beautiful website of CoffeeCompany, and watch the 3 minute film on the story of the coffee brand. http://coffeecompany.nl/