February 2003 - Steve Aronson
I’m a firm believer that your mistakes are your best learning opportunities. Our Wal-Mart experience is one of those.
Café Britt started in 1986 as a company known only to Costa Ricans and Costa Rica residents.
One of our regular customers bought coffee to sell in the restaurants she owned in San José and Manuel Antonio Beach.
As fate would have it, she fell in love with a sport fisherman. He whisked her off to Florida to start a charter fishing business. But what kind of coffee do you think they served on their boats?
One day one of her fisherman guests commented that it was the best coffee he’d ever tasted. He said he worked with Wal-Mart and wanted to know where he could buy Café Britt.
She called me that same day from the boat. She told me she was bringing him down for a visit. Within six months we were in 150 Sam’s Club stores all over the U.S.
We developed a special 2-pound bag and shipped out entire pallets. We sold well in some markets, where customers had a taste for gourmet coffee, but not so well in the more price conscious inner city and rural stores.
We proposed selling only to about one-third of Sam’s Club stores. But while we were haggling, a corporate giant saw the success we were having. Their 200 man office in Bentonville Arkansas went over the buyers head to the big bosses and ... "Sorry, but..."
Just like that, we lost 30 percent of our sales.
Ouch! You might say. And we did say that. But the whole Wal-Mart episode made us realize something important.
I didn’t create Café Britt for mass markets in which faceless middlemen make the decisions and consumers take what they’re given.
Café Britt is a people-to-people company. That’s our strength. We’re the only "middleman" customers need to get to the final product. That is why we say "from the plantation to the cup."
With this in mind, we regrouped. We opened stores at Costa Rica’s International Airport in 2001. We increased our Web presence and stepped up mail-order marketing.
We set up a call center at our main office in Costa Rica. Our customers can call us toll free to order products, ask questions and chat about Costa Rica. Even more important, we’ve showed our customers that we’re here for them. We care. We welcome feedback and welcome them at our plantation roastery when they visit Costa Rica.
We discovered that this direct, person-to-person contact defines us as a coffee company. Café Britt is a special product, and you, our customers, are special people.