What’s in an Empty Cup?
Qatar’s very own speciality café is now open for business, and its owners recount both their passion for caffeine, and the nightmarish process of setting up a business here.
Imagine tasting something so good, that you decide to start a business out of it. Mohammed Al-Mulla and Adam Farhat did just that.
When the two friends were first introduced to a special coffee in Dubai two years ago, they were completely blown away by its taste. Unlike the coffee from the regular chains, this was of a speciality café. “The coffee was from another world,” recounts Mohammed.
This dose of caffeine triggered their interest not just in starting a café, but also in coffee and its culture. “We started researching more about ‘speciality coffee’ versus the regular coffee. I started getting equipment at my house so that we could learn how to prepare our own coffee, and soon the hobby got a bit obsessive, the house started looking like a café. This became a passion.”
And so Empty Cup café was born, a small kiosk located on the first floor of the City Center mall.
What’s in a name
The name ‘Empty Cup’ has a philosophical reference. Your mind should be like an empty cup if you want to learn more.
“The concept of the café is new, it’s part of a third wave of coffee. We see coffee as an experience that people can learn about. We want people to open their minds when they come to us,” explains Mohammed.
The ‘third wave of coffee’, he explains, “is a culture of coffee connoisseurship. It’s almost like fast food versus gourmet food. A gourmet chef would experiment with several ingredients to create a certain flavour, he focuses on making the dish visually appealing. Also, the ambience of the restaurant is important to give customers a special feeling. The is what happens in speciality cafes too.”
A bigger company can absorb the expense, but for a small independent newcomer to the business world, every riyal matters, and you want me to spend that much and wonder if my store will open or no.
There are several aspects that make a coffee special, Adam adds. Where the coffee beans are sourced from, how they are processed, how they are roasted. “Another aspect is the barista training. How the coffee is prepared. There are these little details that affects how a bean would taste finally.”
But how much of this third wave concept does a regular coffee customer understand? “About 80% of our customers know about this culture, or else nobody would pass by Starbucks or Caribou and come to our kiosk,” says Mohammed.
In fact, their first ever interaction with customers, even before opening the café, was at the MIA Park bazaar, where they regularly participated, until the organisers stopped accommodating food stalls. “We met a lot of our customers at the bazaar who were surprised to taste speciality coffee in Qatar, and were eager for us to open a café,” he says.
Expats exposed to this culture outside of Qatar know about it. It’s the other half of the population that hasn’t been introduced, for which education is crucial if their business has to gain momentum.
“We need more local food markets,” they say. “Unfortunately they closed the food section at the MIA Park Bazaar But even having that once a month isn’t enough. Why not have it every week during winter? If you are talking about supporting entrepreneurs, that’s the best thing you can do,” says Mohammed.
Not an ideal environment for entrepreneurs
“There are so many organisations that try to support entrepreneurs with business plan competitions and feasibility studies, but I would like to know the actual figure of how many of these entrepreneurs actually started businesses.
“Instead give them a platform to market their stuff, and then you can advice them on how to improve their customer service, product services, finances, etc.,” suggests Mohammed.
“This way an entrepreneur is learning, building his confidence, and even testing his product before launching it in the market.”
The process of registering is not that complicated, what makes it complicated is when you don’t get a clear answer.
As entrepreneurs, Mohammed and Adam had to struggle for over six months to register the company. “The process of registering is not that complicated, what makes it complicated is when you don’t get a clear answer.
“Nobody gives you a clear answer at the Ministry of Business and Trade. Even something as simple as having an information desk is missing. You have to approach an officer who is already working with 10 people on his head. He’s so busy; he doesn’t want to answer you. Moreover, he doesn’t have the answers to all your questions, because he is not in charge of everything.”
Hurdles and hiccups
Some of the policies to start a business are not even feasible they point out. For instance, you cannot obtain a trade license till you have obtained a location. That means you cannot start hiring staff until you find a location.
“Then there’s the Baladiya inspection for which your shop has to be ready. What if something is not in accordance with their regulations? I am already paying rent, so I would now have to delay my shop opening to renovate it again, which would cost money. A bigger company can absorb the expense, but for a small independent newcomer to the business world, every riyal matters, and you want me to spend that much and wonder if my store will open or no.”
The concept of the café is new, it’s part of a third wave of coffee. We see coffee as an experience that people can learn about.
To this Adam adds, “The staff needs to have health certificates too. This is possible only after they have their residence permits, which could take a week or six weeks. They are not allowed to work till they have one. We had to pay salaries for a month while the employees were at home. To hire staff locally, employees would need a NOC to change employers.”
Adam continues: “The coordination of all these unknowns means that when you start to rent a space for a business, you need to put in your budget the rent for one year. It’s paying rent for nothing.”
It doesn’t help even if you are a local
Mohammed, a Qatari, says “The support out there even for local entrepreneurs is non-existent.”
“You have organisations like Enterprise Qatar that offer good services, but not for our level of a start up. Their services are more like business studies, consultation, accounting services, etc. These don’t really help you with turning an idea into a live operating business.”
Financial support is another issue. “There is no organisation in Qatar that offers support without a personal guarantee. Qatar Development Bank has financial plans mainly for industrial products, or large-scale products.
“People that invest in start-ups have in mind that this could fail. A bank is not willing to take this risk. A bank wants to invest in something that it believes is going to succeed,” says Mohammed.
“That’s why many people run their business underground. You open an Instagram account, and let people know about your business,” adds Adam.
The Empty Cup café saw the light of the day after six months of anticipation and anxiety. And that’s just the first step, they say. The next step is to launch a full-fledged specialty café. “When we have our own location, we will set up our own roaster, that’s the idea. People would come in, choose their beans and have them roasted right here, that they can take home.”
Empty Cup is open from 10am-10pm; Fridays after the noon prayers.
Prices start from QR12.
[Photo courtesy: Empty Cup cafe]